For the last 20 years, at least one woman has competed in the Indianapolis 500. Whether it was Lyn St. James, Danica Patrick or Pippa Mann, one of the biggest motor sports events in the world always had a woman competing at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
But that streak ends Sunday with the 104th Indy 500 when, for the first time since the 1999 race, the field will consist entirely of men.
“The fact that it’s a story that there isn’t one is more surprising,” Patrick said Wednesday during a media teleconference previewing NBC’s race coverage. “Because the story always used to be that there is one, that there is a female in the race. I think the story is actually that there’s a story there isn’t one.”
Mann has often been the lone woman in the 33-car field, and the 37-year-old British driver has made seven Indy 500 starts in her career: 2011, 2013 to 2017 and 2019. Her best finish was last year when she came in 16th, but this time around, she wasn’t able to secure a ride.
“There was one week where it all the sudden lit up, and it was going, going, going,” Mann told IndyStar earlier this month. “For a moment there, I really thought it was going to happen – my first-ever corporate sponsor.
“I was close enough that I was starting to allow myself to hope again, which I never do, because I’ve been around this sport long enough that I know that’s the surest pathway to disappointment – to allow yourself to hope.”
Even when Mann failed to qualify for the 2018 race, Patrick — who, as an IndyCar rookie in 2005, became the first woman to lead Indy 500 laps and was close to winning it — kept the streak of women in the Indy 500 going when she returned to IndyCar for one last race before retiring from on-track competition.
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In addition to Patrick, Mann and James — whose final Indy 500 start was in 2000 — the other women who have competed in “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing” since the turn of the century are Sarah Fisher (2000-2004, 2007-2010), Milka Duno (2007-2009), Ana Beatriz (2010-2013), Simona de Silvestro (2010-2013, 2015) and Katherine Legge (2012-2013). Janet Guthrie was the first woman to compete in the Indy 500, and she made three starts from 1977 to 1979.
Instead of interpreting the all-male 2020 Indy 500 as a step backward, Patrick — who’s best finish was third in 2009 and still a record for women — said she’d rather look at the larger picture and overall trend of women competing in the race.
“It’s much more normal, obviously, to have females in the race, plural or singular,” said Patrick, who will contribute to NBC Sports’ race broadcast for the second straight year.
“So I think that we’re taking score too soon. We need to look at the macro of it and look at the last — instead of looking at this year compared to last year or the last 10, let’s look at the arc of it over the last 50 years.
“And then you’ll see that, my goodness, just because there’s one that doesn’t go so well, it’s like just because 2020’s not going too well doesn’t mean this whole decade is garbage, right? So we need to look at the bigger version to understand it’s far, far more normal now to have females in the race, and the fact that there is a story about there not being one is a story.”
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