The spring before he died, Indianapolis Motor Speedway owner Tony Hulman got the Indy 500 started in a new way. “In company with the first lady to qualify at Indianapolis,” Hulman announced, “Gentlemen, Start Your Engines!”
The break with tradition at the opening of the 1977 event reflected the participation of pioneer Janet Guthrie, who had made Indy 500 history with her qualifying lap speed. Technically, Hulman could have gotten away with his usual invocation—since the “gentlemen” starting the engines were the drivers’ mechanics—were it not for Guthrie’s friend Kay Bignotti, a certified mechanic, who made a point of starting Guthrie’s car for the historic event. Guthrie came to the sport after professional stints as a pilot, aerospace engineer and sports car road racer. She raced at Indy three times with her best finish in 1978 in ninth place.
Since Guthrie crashed the Brickyard’s gender line, female drivers have not exactly raced in. Four women have passed the Indy 500 driving test in the meantime, and only three of those have started the race. Lyn St. James holds the record for most laps completed at Indy, having started in seven races from 1992-97 and in 2000. That year, she shared the oval with another woman, Sarah Fisher, who started each subsequent year through 2004. Danica Patrick, who raced in the 2005 and 2006 events, finished fourth overall in 2005, distinguishing herself that year as the first woman to have led the pack at two separate points in the race.
The rarity of female participation in the Indy 500, and racing in general, has been attributed to the sport’s entrenched sexism. Before 1971, even Tony Hulman’s daughter was barred from checking in on the pit crew servicing the race car she owned. These days Mari Hulman George announces the start of the race.
Although some effort goes into recruiting and developing female drivers, such as a program started by Lyn St. James, many point to the industry’s reluctance to give women the financial backing they need to succeed in the sport. Danica Patrick, by contrast, has enjoyed the top-rung support of the Rahal-Letterman team. Patrick’s acceptance into the inner circles of racing, however, bears consideration in light of the extent to which she been marketed as a sex symbol.