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Indy opportunity

Danica Patrick, Sarah Fisher and Milka Duno are mentioned together, but each seeks an individual ...

By BRANT JAMES
Published May 27, 2007


INDIANAPOLIS

They've become used to a certain level of sexism. A look, a comment or a lack thereof, but more likely an unreturned voice mail from a company or a patron that had once sponsored a male race car driver.

That all comes with the track position.

Today, Milka Duno, Sarah Fisher and Danica Patrick make up the first three-woman contingent in 91 years of the Indianapolis 500. Yet they struggle to assert the importance of their individual journeys. Their gender doesn't link them any more than Helio Castroneves and Tony Kanaan because both are from Brazil.

Fisher and Duno chat, but neither speaks with Patrick.

"If we're wanting to be recognized as drivers, why would we stand alone and have you take a picture or write a story of us being girl drivers?" Patrick asked. "We need to stand with other drivers, with good drivers, and that will bring the respect level of women up, not if we stand there as girls."

Two years after Patrick generated so much publicity in a stellar May, the IRL's top competitors again address the situation, threefold. Although some bristle at the attention disparity, most see the value in it.

"What you have to remember is (series president) Brian Barnhart is not going to put anybody in the series he doesn't think is capable, " said Dan Wheldon, whose 2005 Indy 500 victory tour dovetailed with Patrick's after she finished fourth. "... I still feel inexperienced next to Dario (Franchitti) and Tony (Kanaan). Those guys are clever. They know what's going on. (Duno's) experience just in comparison to mine is nothing. So, it's difficult.

"Do I think she will be a contender? Absolutely not. But by the same token, she's good for the series."

Duno, a 35-year-old Venezuelan, didn't begin racing until she enrolled in a driver school in 1999.

Fisher, 26, grew up in Ohio racing go-karts and sprint cars and became one of the Indy Racing League's most popular drivers ever. She still holds the league record for results among women, finishing second at Homestead in 2001 and winning a pole.

Patrick, 25, grew up in Illinois racing karts but left home at 16 for the often chauvinist and xenophobic environment of the British minor-league series. She has three career IRL poles and a career-best finish of fourth, four times. She's the only woman to have led the Indy 500.

Three stories, three sets of expectations and goals.

The one commonality is Indianapolis Motor Speedway. That makes them members of a club of 33 - the starting field at Indy - not three.

"I clearly know I'm a girl. I'm comfortable there, " Patrick said. "(But) I don't think of myself as being a girl driver or setting girl records."

Fisher dropped out of the series after 2004 when her Kelley Racing team began to dissolve, and she accepted a long-standing invitation from NASCAR team owner Richard Childress to race stock cars. But she labored in obscurity on the West Coast, struggled with sponsorship and went to work for a marketing firm until a chance meeting with IRL team owner Dennis Reinbold.

Her story illustrates how far NASCAR trails the rest of motorsports in terms of driver diversity.

"It's not because the cars are any easier to drive, it's none of that, " Fisher said. "The stock cars take different techniques, but I think more of the girls have been doing open-wheel racing as kids growing up doing go-karts. NASCAR people don't necessarily look at the World Karting Association for their next group of drivers."

Duno said the Indianapolis 500 became her goal when she attended her first in 1999, before she became a professional driver.

The first woman to win a major North American sports-car event is supremely confident and increasingly irritated by the implication that her dearth of experience - today is her second oval race - makes her at best a concern, at worst dangerous in 220 mph IndyCars.

"I think that I am here because I looked for opportunity. It's not because another was there or not, " she said. "It's not because (Patrick) was here and now I am here. No. I am here because I did (a) good rookie test. I am here because I did good racing in Kansas. ... I am here because I am Milka Duno and how hard I work, not because another was here before."

But not entirely true in the broader historic sense.

Janet Guthrie, the most successful female sports-car racer in history, just wanted to win and "if other women benefited from it, so be it, " when she arrived at Indianapolis for the first time in 1977. But she knew better. She had to be "three times as polite as anyone else, " she said.

"I know when I had my shot at it, if I had made a mistake that involved someone else, there probably wouldn't be a woman at Indianapolis to this day, " said Guthrie, whose best finish in three tries was ninth in 1978. "I really had to be very, very careful, and it was a matter of great concern."

Duno has taken that tack so far. She was worst on the speed chart on Carb Day, 6 mph slower than the next-best car, playing it "safe, " her team said.

Guthrie speaks of "when" a woman wins a major open-wheel race, not if. And even then, she said, the story line won't go away.

"As long as they're in the minority, it'll still be a story, I'm sure, like Jackie Robinson was a story all his life, " she said. "All of us simply want to be considered drivers."

And all of them want to do it on their own.