- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 22, 2008

When Danica Patrick became the first woman to win a major auto race Sunday, she did so without any gimmicks.

Her opponents were not past their prime. Her equipment was identical to everyone else’s. Unlike many other groundbreaking, woman-over-man victories, this one was won fair and square, no questions asked.

Historic, definitely. Great for Patrick and IndyCar, obviously. But is Patrick’s victory a cultural milestone in the vein of Billie Jean King’s celebrated win over Bobby Riggs 35 years ago?

Lyn St. James, who in the 1990s raced often as the lone woman driver, thinks so.

“It’s a watershed moment,” St. James said. “For a woman to have a victory against men is a big moment for society. And it makes a statement about what can be accomplished when men and women work together as a team.”

Appearing in the 50th race of her career, Patrick on Sunday won the Indy Racing League’s Japan 300 by outpacing a field otherwise made up of men, passing two-time Indianapolis 500 champion Helio Castroneves with two laps to go.

The victory put to rest the question that dogged Patrick — will she ever win one? — and validated the crush of attention she has received since joining IRL in 2005.

“She didn’t win this by accident — she took it,” said Marjorie Snyder, chief planning and program officer for the Women’s Sports Foundation.

Since breaking through as a rookie four years ago, Patrick often has drawn comparisons to Janet Guthrie, the first woman to compete against men in a major auto race.

The groundbreaking win has drawn comparisons to King’s victory over Riggs in a tennis exhibition in 1973. Some, including St. James, said Patrick’s victory was even more memorable because she beat male opponents at their best. (Riggs was 55 years old — well past his prime — when he lost to King.)

Shirley Muldowney won three NHRA Top Fuel drag racing championships from 1977 to 1982. She was inducted into the Motorsports Hall of Fame of America in 1990.

Jockey Julie Krone, who won the Belmont Stakes aboard Colonial Affair in 1993, is believed to be the only other female athlete outside motorsports to win a major sporting event historically dominated by men on an even playing field.

None of this was lost on Patrick, who spoke of a combination of excitement and relief after securing her first win.

“I think that I’m definitely just part of a wave of women that are doing different things, great things outside of the normal world,” Patrick said. “I think it’s just showing that we’re capable of anything. And vice-versa: There’s so much more gender crossover now than there ever has been. So I really just believe that I’m part of a really big picture.”

Indeed, auto racing alone is populated with female drivers looking to break through in the sport’s developmental leagues. Nineteen-year-old Swiss driver Simona De Silvestro won Sunday’s Atlantics Championship in Long Beach, Calif., and other female drivers have had success in IRL’s developmental Firestone Indy Lights Series.

But scholars of women in society said continued success might be needed from Patrick before men and women are placed on truly equal footing in the sport. For the most part, women drivers are offered fewer resources and chances, making Patrick the exception, not the norm.

“She is truly now, without question, an icon and a pioneer,” said Mary Jo Kane, director of the Tucker Center for Research on Girls and Women in Sport at the University of Minnesota. “The question now is will she become a legend?”

At the very least, Patrick’s win will provide IRL with a surge of good news at a good time.

Fan interest already was higher than in past years because the IRL and rival Champ Car Series agreed to merge at the beginning of the season, unifying American open-wheel racing for the first time in 30 years. Further, her win comes just a month away from the Indianapolis 500, the IRL’s most historic and prestigious race.

“This is a really great way for so many parties — for myself, the sponsors, the league, everybody — to also be able to capitalize on this to really do great things during the month of May,” Patrick said.

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