This is Diana Nyad for KCRW, and this is The Score.
It's been 31 years since the first woman driver started the most famous of all car races, the Indianapolis 500. It was an historic and also poetic moment. I remember it well. Memorial Day weekend, 1977. The starter's usual "Gentlemen, start your engines" was changed for Janet Guthrie, who sat behind her wheel in the line-up in the grid. "In the company of the first lady to race the Indianapolis 500, gentlemen, start your engines!" Guthrie had three Indy starts, in the end, and wound up with a ninth-place as her best finish at the Brickyard. You would think with the 31 years of women's progress since then that women would be old news at Indy. Women are wrestling and boxing and playing professional football. But in the pits of Indy racing, women are still earning their stripes.
In Janet Guthrie's day, no women were allowed in either the pits or the garages. Women sports writers had to interview drivers through a fence, until a writer for Women's World Magazine, Mari McClosky, won a class-action law suit and gained entry to the grounds to do her work.
Actually, you can stretch back much further than Guthrie's day, back to 1963, to track the first woman to speed around the Brickyard. It was that year, 45 years ago, that Paula Murphy ran test laps at the Speedway. Ms. Murphy inspired particularly rude remarks from the male drivers on the track in 1963.
The drivers of the late '70's were none too open, nor kind, to Guthrie, either. Johnny Rutherford, A.J. Foyt and other leading men of the day insisted Guthrie was ultra-conservative behind the wheel and carefully avoided swooping up near the walls on the turns, afraid to run the car to its potential. They were convinced that she got her rides by virtue of her gender alone. Even Guthrie's accomplishment of Daytona's Rookie of the Year didn't bring her verbal props from her male competitors.
Lynn St. James was the next woman to earn her place at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. But even after seven times racing the Indy oval, even after winning Rookie honors there her first time out, St. James was still called a “safe and conservative” driver by the boys of perhaps the ultimate boys' sport.
After St. James came Sarah Fisher and last year a Venezuelan named Milka Duno became the fifth woman to start the Indy 500. But Danica Patrick, confidence brimming behind her accomplishment on April 20 in Japan of becoming the first-ever woman to win an Indy race, threatens to achieve much more than attract sponsors. Patrick is talking boldly about this Indy being hers. It's her time to slurp the traditional bottle of milk in the winner's circle. But until she does in fact beat all the boys at Indy, Patrick finds herself in that typical Catch-22 position of a woman trying to break through in a man's world. When a guy berates his pit crew from the microphone in the car or later in the pit area, he's considered a tough task-master, an admirable perfectionist. When Patrick gets tough with her crew, the rumor jokes swirl through the garages: It's that time of month and Patrick's emotions are running out of control. When male drivers decline fans' requests for autographs or photos, they're focused. They know what it takes to win and are lauded for not letting themselves be distracted as they prepare. When Patrick waves off fans, she's a prima dona.
I've heard people say that Patrick winning the Indy 500 would be the biggest moment in women's sports since Billie Jean King beat Bobby Riggs. That's insane. Billie Jean's moment was not a sports feat. It was a moment of social progress that furthered all of womankind. Now if Danica Patrick wins the Indianapolis 500, that will be the biggest moment in the history of women's sports…point blank. And it will be a moment that will go a long way to hushing the sexism that has roared so loudly for so long around the good ol' boys' world of racing.
This is Diana Nyad for KCRW, and that's The Score.
US driver Danica Patrick holds the winner's trophy after finishing first in the Indy Japan 300 at the Twin Ring Motegi race course on April 20, 2008. Patrick became the first female winner in Indy Car history, taking the Indy Japan 300 race in her 50th start in the series, covering 200 laps at the 1.52-mile course in one hour, 51 minutes 02.6739. Photo: AFP/AFP/Getty Images