May 26 (Reuters) - Two female trailblazers of the Indianapolis 500 are not alarmed by the dwindling number of women drivers at the famed Brickyard, saying the talent and opportunity are still there.
Britain’s Pippa Mann is the lone woman competing in Sunday’s 100th running of the Indy 500, down from a record four in each of 2010, 2011 and 2013, but former drivers Lyn St. James and Sarah Fisher say it is just a matter of timing.
St. James, who followed 1977 pioneer Janet Guthrie as the second woman to drive in the fabled event in 1992, and Fisher, who at age 19 became the third in 2000, still see the iconic race as a beacon to race drivers.
Six more women have followed them.
“It’s clearly the most well known, significant, historically important, longstanding motor race in the world,” St. James, 69, told Reuters. “You aspire to it.”
St. James noted that this year other top female drivers have other commitments or are racing other circuits such as NASCAR’s Danica Patrick, who has the top Indy 500 finish among female drivers with a third place in 2009.
“What I love about the girls that are competing, that followed, whether it be Danica, Simona (de Silvestro) and all the others is that it isn’t such a big deal anymore and that was what our goal was,” said St. James.
“That we could just be a racer and show up.”
St. James and Fisher, in their own ways, have encouraged and inspired those that followed.
“After ‘92 and ‘93 I was overwhelmed by the amount of fan mail that I got. Much of that fan mail was not just wanting an autograph, but wanting advice,” said St. James.
“It was not just about me. I realized this is a responsibility if I can help others achieve success in racing or in their lives, this was a responsibility for the gift that I was given.”
St. James established the Women in the Winner’s Circle Foundation in 1994 dedicated to professional development for young women in racing.
“Danica came into my program when she was 14, Sarah Fisher came into my program when she was 15,” St. James said.
Fisher has been an inspiration with her own career arc.
After becoming the youngest woman to qualify for the race and first female IndyCar podium finisher, Fisher became the circuit’s first female owner and its youngest boss in 2008.
“I was a car owner, successfully running only off of sponsorship and prize money for four years starting in 2008 and we were really proud of that,” Fisher, 35, told Reuters.
She later formed an IndyCar team partnership but when that broke apart, Fisher changed gears and with her husband last month opened the massive Speedway Indoor Karting near the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
“It’s an opportunity for parents to bring their kids in and experience racing behind the wheel and see if they actually do want to do it or not,” she said, adding she was eager to help committee youngsters take the next step in the journey.
A journey St. James said remained special. “It is still a sport that women and men compete on an equal level. There are very few of them,” she said.
St. James singled out a pair of drivers to watch for in Ayla Agren of Norway, 22, and 15-year-old prospect Courtney Crone.
“The chances are there for success. The sport wants it, I know. I talk to the leaders. I know they all would be very excited to see women successful in their type of racing,” St. James said.
”It’s a win, win, win. It’s a win for the drivers, it’s a win for the league and the series and it’s a win for the fans. We don’t need any special pass. We’ve got to get the right ingredients, the right timing and the right people.
“I feel it in my bones. I certainly hope I’ll still be able to watch the first woman to win the Indy 500 and see women win more.” (Editing by ......)