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This is Diana Nyad for KCRW, and this is The Score.
I don't like motor sports. NASCAR, stock cars, Formula 1, open-wheeled, closed-wheel, off road, drag racing, motocross. I don't even like the driving games at video arcades. I don't even like the Soap Box Derby. My eyes glaze over at the sight of machines following each other like little futuristic E.M. Esher drawings. I'm not convinced, during the actual racing, that there are human beings involved. The great Indy champion Johnny Rutherford told me once that a thousand guys could win the Indy 500 if they had the equipment, the "ride" as they say, that the winner has. Well, I'm not too impressed with a sport where the world champion could be so readily replaced with a thousand other guys. It's like Olympic show jumping, then. The horse should get the gold medal and sing the national anthem; and in racing, the car should get the standing ovation.
So I'm not a fan. But I'm going to carve out part of my Memorial Day weekend to watch the Indianapolis 500 because, starting in the 4th position will be a slight, 5' 1", 105-pound, fearless driver named Danica Patrick. Only three women have ever raced at the famous Brickyard before. Janet Guthrie was the pioneer, back in 1977, '78, and '79. Janet was a certifiable genius. Her background was astrophysics but she was a bit ahead of her time and wasn't accepted into NASA's scientist-astronaut program. She was the technical captain of her Indy team. Janet could dismantle the engine down to the nuts and bolts, talk design and torque and traction with the best of the boys. She drove the two-person Baja 1000 off-road race one year with another maverick woman driver named Mary McGee. They broke down in the middle of the night. Mary knew they were finished. Janet told Mary to hold the flashlight over the engine. Three hours later, with virtually nothing more than a couple of swatches of scotch tape and some chewed bubble gum in her tool box, Janet had that motor humming. Some of the Indy insiders of her day criticized Janet for playing the race too safe, for not having the gumption to swing out within centimeters of that first wall. Janet will tell you that the machismo was so thick at the Brickyard that she never had the benefit of top-notch equipment.
Then there was racing legend Lyn St. James who made seven Indy starts, but her first was at the age of 45 so Lynn was past her prime by the time she was accepted at the Brickyard. Then talented 19 year-old Sarah Fisher came along but Indy sponsorship wasn't easy for Sarah so she went back to her first love, stock cars.
That brings us to 2005. The year of Danica Patrick. This is the first time a buzz about a woman winning the race is swarming around Indianapolis. Danica dropped out of high school to cut her teeth on the English circuit, which racers refer to as a "street fight". Past Indy champion Bobby Rahal took notice of Danica in English races, was impressed with what he saw, and signed her to his team. Rahal provides Danica's "ride" this Sunday at Indy. Just like jockey Julie Krone, the only woman to win a thoroughbred Triple Crown race (1993's Belmont Stakes) ... just like Missy Giove, the kamakaze world champion downhill mountain bike racer who wears road kill around her neck and has broken every bone in her body ... Danica Patrick is a female in an overwhelmingly male-dominated sport who is unafraid, highly skilled, and sincerely respected by her male peers.
Oh, there was one motor sport moment that moved me so much I felt goose bumps all over my skin. That was Memorial Day Sunday back in 1977, when Janet Guthrie took her historic place in the Brickyard starting line-up. The announcer, instead of calling his usual "Gentlemen, start your engines", called out--with perfect fanfare--"Gentlemen, and the first lady to ever race the Indianapolis 500, start your engines!"
Let's see if Danica Patrick is the first woman this Memorial Day Sunday to take the checkered flag at the Brickyard.
This is Diana Nyad for KCRW, and that's The Score.
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