Gender race in Indianapolis 500

THE US's most famous motor race, the Indianapolis 500, was 60 years old before women were allowed in pit lane. Now they drive in the event, work on the vehicles, even own them.

One day, they might greet the chequered flag in one of them.

Up until 1971 the only women allowed near the cars were scantily clad promotional models or celebrities.

Four women are lining up for the start of the race: American Danica Patrick, Swiss Simona de Silvestro, Ana Beatriz of Brazil and Britain's Pippa Mann.

Most of the attention will be on Patrick. She has become one of the most popular athletes in North American sport and the biggest star in Indycar racing.

Patrick became an overnight sensation when she came close to winning the 2005 Indy 500, taking the lead 11 laps from the finish. The estimated 250,000 spectators collectively roared at the sight of the youngster in command - she was 23 - as it became apparent she might steal the winner's trophy as she had their hearts.

Six years later, Patrick still hasn't won the 500 but she has come agonisingly close. She finished third in the 2009 race and has finished in the top 10 in five of her six tries.

While the biggest race on the US calendar has escaped her grasp, she has already cemented her place in the history books by becoming the first woman to win an Indycar race, in 2008 at the Motegi oval in Japan.

After the 2005 breakthrough, she became the first Indy driver to grace the cover of Sports Illustrated in almost two decades.

Since then she has appeared in the magazine's famous swimsuit issue as well as countless mainstream publications - Patrick even appeared in a film clip for rapper Jay-Z.

But an appearance in victory lane on Monday (Sunday in the US) is the one she wants the most.

''I think back to 2005 and it was right there to win,'' she said this month. ''But I didn't really have enough experience at that point. If I knew then what I know now, yeah, I think I could have won it.''

Englishman Dan Wheldon took the win from Patrick with a pass seven laps from the finish line. Patrick drifted back in those waning laps and finished fourth, at the time the best Indy finish for a woman. Her 2009 performance now stands as the best.

It has been 35 years since Janet Guthrie arrived at Indy as a competitor. The versatile driver didn't earn a starting spot in the 33-car field in 1976 but the sport's greatest driver, A.J. Foyt, allowed her to take laps in one of his team's back-up cars.

Guthrie made the race the next year, starting 26th. Her maiden race lasted only 27 laps before a mechanical failure but the point had been made: women were good enough to drive at Indy.

Guthrie, who also was the first woman to earn a spot in NASCAR's Daytona 500, competed in two more 500s, finishing ninth in 1978. It would take 23 years after Guthrie's last Indy for another woman to drive in the race.

In 1992, sportscar racer Lyn St James made it, finishing 11th to win the rookie of the year award. Her other shining moment came in 1994, when she qualified sixth, which was better than world champions Nigel Mansell (eighth), Emerson Fittipaldi (ninth) and Nelson Piquet (13th).

The third woman to make the race, Sarah Fisher, arrived in 2000 but it was St James who made the difference, coaching youngsters such as Patrick and others.

Since Patrick in 2005, women in the 500 have almost become a non-story because of their abundance and success. Fisher, who is not in this year's field, has driven in eight 500s and this is Patrick's seventh.

In 2007, sportscar driver Milka Duno, Patrick and Fisher all lined up, giving the 500 three women for the first time.

Last year's race epitomised how far women have come in the sport as two more joined the fray, bringing the total to five in one event. De Silvestro and Beatriz made the race along with Patrick and Fisher, both of the US. Duno, a Venezuelan, fell just short of making the field.

Duno isn't part of this month's competitor list either but Mann is, which means there are still four.

De Silvestro is considered one of the series' rising stars, though she's better on road courses and street circuits than the ovals. During practice she suffered a spectacular, fiery crash that left her with burns to her back and hands but drove through the pain to qualify fastest among the women, 24th overall.

''After the crash, I was like, 'I don't need this. This is too crazy. It's way too dangerous,''' she said. ''You know, after a while you're back to being a race-car driver and thinking, 'Nah, I can do this.' And you suck it up.''

While she's not racing this year, Fisher is part of the latest trend in women's involvement.

She is the primary owner of Sarah Fisher Racing, which fields the car of Ed Carpenter.

Their No. 67 machine is only an outside chance to win but it will start an impressive eighth after showing good speed during practice and qualifying sessions.

That gives her a shot at her own slice of history.

''You'd have to think some day it's going to happen,'' says Fisher, who has stepped out of the car this month to have a baby. ''The way I figure it, why not us?''

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