Drivers, start your engines! This Sunday will see the return of one of the jewels in motorsport’s Triple Crown, the 105th running of the Indianapolis 500.
The Brickyard has seen heroes come and go, but none more so than the female pioneers who have taken on the challenging Indianapolis Motor Speedway and left their mark, not only on IndyCar, but on motorsport history.
Introducing the nine female drivers who have qualified for the ‘Greatest Spectacle in Racing'.
Janet Guthrie, United States
History was made in 1977 when Janet Guthrie became the first woman to qualify and race in the Indy 500. Qualifying in 25th place, engine troubles meant that she could only manage to finish in 29th.
Interestingly, Speedway’s management did not want to change the race’s traditional start command “Gentlemen, start your engines” when she made her debut. However, after pressure from Janet and her team, they eventually relented and changed it to “In company with the first lady to qualify at Indianapolis, gentlemen, start your engines!”
Thankfully, that phrase hasn’t been used since.
However, her best was yet to come. The following year, she started from 15th and crossed the line in ninth place. What makes her achievement even more remarkable was that she drove with a fractured wrist, which she injured in a charity tennis match two days earlier. Janet’s final Indy 500 appearance would come in 1979, where a piston issue forced her to retire after three laps.
Lyn St. James, United States
The first female recipient of the Indianapolis 500 Rookie of the Year award, Lyn St. James put herself firmly in the history books from the moment she arrived at the Brickyard. The American driver started from 27th place and fought her way through to finish 11th, the only rookie to complete the race. She is currently the oldest person to have received the Indianapolis 500 Rookie of the Year accolade, having made her debut aged 45.
This was her best finish of all her nine entries, qualifying for six more races from 1993 to 1997 and in 2000. Her best qualifying result was in 1994, where she lined up sixth on the grid.
After her retirement, she has continued to be an advocate and icon for women in sport, establishing the Women in the Winner’s Circle in 1994 and has created a scholarship fund to help female racing drivers in a variety of series.
Sarah Fisher, United States
The youngest female driver to have started the Indy 500, Sarah Fisher made her mark on the Indianapolis Motor Speedway in 2000, when she made her debut at only 19-years-old. Sarah holds the record for most career starts having started every Indy 500 race she has entered, with nine appearances between 2000 and 2010. Her best qualifying position came in 2002, lining up ninth on the grid.
In 2008, she founded Sarah Fisher Racing and was only able to compete in the Indy 500 that year after receiving fan funding. The following year she recorded her highest-ever finish, crossing the line in 17th place and was awarded the Scott Brayton Trophy, which was awarded to the driver who best exemplified the attitude, spirit and competitive drive of Scott Brayton, who passed away during a practice session for the 1996 Indy 500.
Following further successes as a team owner, she later went on to become IndyCar’s official pace car driver from 2016 to 2020.
Danica Patrick, United States
The Queen of the Brickyard, Danica Patrick became a star of the Indy 500 scene from her debut in 2005. Qualifying in fourth, the best starting position of any female driver so far, she led 19 laps before finishing fourth, in a more-than-worthy Rookie of the Year performance.
Danica started eight Indy 500s between 2005 and 2018, scoring six-top-10 finishes in the process. However, history was made in 2009 when she finished third, the first time a female driver had stood on the podium at the iconic race and to date, the best-ever finish at the event by a female driver.
Despite her retirement after the 2018 Indy 500, she will make her return to the Speedway on Sunday behind the wheel of the pace car to get the race underway, alongside serving as an analyst for NBC’s coverage of the event.
Milka Duno, Venezuela
Milka Duno followed an unusual path to the Indy 500 scene. After achieving four Masters’ degrees and working as a naval engineer, the Venezuelan made her racing debut aged 24. In 2007, she became one of only two rookies to qualify for the Indy 500 that year, which was the first race with three women on the 33-car grid.
The following year she qualified once more and crossed the line in 19th place, the highest finishing female driver ahead of Danica Patrick and Sarah Fisher, and her career-best performance at the Brickyard. She went on to enter the 2009 and 2010 editions but failed to qualify for the latter.
Simona de Silvestro, Switzerland
The only female driver on the grid for the 2021 Indy 500, Simona de Silvestro’s impressive performance should come as no surprise as she’s already made her mark on the Brickyard. Her debut came in 2010, a record-breaking year where four female drivers lined up on the 33-car grid for the first time.
Qualifying P22 and battling her way through to P14 on her debut, her best finish so far, she rightfully received the Rookie of the Year award. Her determination continued to shine through in 2012, where despite suffering a major crash and receiving second-degree burns on her right hand during practice, the newly nicknamed ‘Iron Maiden’ still managed to qualify in P24.
This Sunday will see Simona make history once more in her sixth Indy 500 appearance, lining up for the all-female Paretta Autosport.
Ana Beatriz Figueiredo, Brazil
Another face of the record-breaking four women line-up in 2010 was Ana Beatriz Figueiredo. The Brazilian driver finished in P21 on her debut, and she went on to qualify for three more Indy 500’s between 2011 and 2013.
Her best qualifying performance came in 2012, where she lined up P15 on the grid. Yet, her best race performance was yet to come. In her final appearance in 2013, she fought her way to finish in P15, a career-best finish at the Brickyard and a remarkable achievement after starting from P29.
Pippa Mann, United Kingdom
Pippa Mann’s debut at the Indy 500 proved to racing on the limits in more ways than one. She became the first British woman to start the race in 2011, after qualifying in P32. Nevertheless, Pippa put on an exceptional drive, finishing in P20. What made her results even more impressive was that she experienced a mechanical problem with her on-board water supply and continued to race despite suffering from severe dehydration.
She later qualified for six more races at the Brickyard between 2013 and 2019, recording her career-best finish of P16 in 2019. Sadly, a lack of sponsorship due to the pandemic left her unable to compete in the 2020 edition, ending the 20-year streak of female drivers on the grid.
One of her most notable outings came in 2014, when she teamed up with Dale Coyne Racing and with Susan G.Komen, a breast cancer awareness charity. As a feature of the partnership, she adopted the iconic pink car and fans were able to donate for every lap Pippa completed around the Speedway.
Katherine Legge, United Kingdom
The final driver (so far) to make her debut at the Brickyard was Britain’s Katherine Legge. She made two appearances in 2013 and 2013 and her career-best result came in her rookie outing, finishing P22 for Dragon Racing.
She was scheduled to race in the 100th Indy 500 in 2016, working with IndyCar’s first all-female team, Grace Autosport and had the backing of the FIA Women in Motorsport Commission. Amongst their lineup was team manager Beth Paretta, who now owns Paretta Autosport, which will be on track this Sunday. Sadly, they were forced to pull out of the event due to a decrease in the number of entries leading to a shortage of race cars available.
Learn more about the Indianaopolis 500 here.
All images are credited to the racing drivers mentioned.