When the green flag drops on the 89th edition of the Indianapolis 500 Sunday, one of the most intriguing contenders will be a young rookie with impressive driving skills, powerful financial backing, and head-turning marketing flair.
Oh, she's also a woman.
Meet Danica Patrick, one of several female race-car drivers shifting gears on gender in the motorsports world. A generation ago, pioneers such as Janet Guthrie and Lyn St. James proved women could win an occasional slot in big-time races. Now, Ms. Patrick and a handful of female drivers are threatening to beat their male competitors.
Among the contenders:
• Katherine Legge, a British driver in her 20s, won a race last month in the feeder Toyota Atlantic Series. (Series alums include defending Indy 500 champ Buddy Rice.)
• Sprint-car driver Erin Crocker seems poised to make a splash in the nation's most popular racing circuit, NASCAR. Ms. Crocker, also in her 20s, drives for stock-car team owner Ray Evernham, the former crew chief and mentor to four-time season champion Jeff Gordon. Later this summer, Mr. Evernham plans on running Crocker in several Busch series events, one rung below the top-tier Nextel Cup series dominated by stars such as Gordon and Dale Earnhardt Jr.
To date, only drag racer Shirley Muldowney has been a consistent winner among female drivers. Ms. Muldowney won 18 National Hot Rod Association races during a lengthy driving career, capped by induction into the International Motor Sports Hall of Fame in 2004.
The Indy 500 is Patrick's chance to shine. A first-year driver in the Indy Racing League, she started on the front row in an IRL event earlier this year and finished fourth. On Sunday, she'll start from the inside of the second row, having posted the fourth-fastest qualifying time.
"She impressed right from the beginning of the season," says former Indy 500 winner and legendary driver Mario Andretti. "Her ability is not to be taken lightly - it wouldn't surprise me one bit if she won [the Indy 500]."
"She's excellent," says Ms. St. James, now retired and running a school for prospective drivers. Patrick is one of St. James's past students. "Danica is the real deal in the race car."
Patrick drives for the powerhouse team owned by former Indy 500 winner Bobby Rahal and talk-show host David Letterman. Having well-heeled backers bodes well for both Patrick and Crocker, experts say.
"I don't know that many women in the past were able to line up with good equipment and good teams," Crocker says. "Now you've got Danica with Rahal and me with Evernham. That's a big change and a big advantage."
Former IRL driver Sarah Fisher, 24, also aims to find a home in stock-car racing. Ms. Fisher showed flashes of promise during an earlier IRL stint - she became the first woman to win a pole in the series in 2002 - but struggled to finish races. In addition, sponsorship money proved scarce. Now Fisher is eyeing a run in NASCAR, beginning with races in a regional feeder league for stock-car drivers. One of her backers is Richard Childress, owner of several Nextel Cup entries.
NASCAR's surging popularity and its recent quest to develop Hispanic, African-American, and female drivers is spurring interest, St. James and others say. Marketing executives, for example, love the idea of successful female drivers because it would help broaden the array of companies supporting stock-car racing.
For example: "baby-care products," says Roger VanDerSnick, NASCAR's head of brand and consumer marketing. "Think how big that category is - and we really don't have any of it."
True enough, experts say, but only if women can win on the track. "Most of the women in race cars [in earlier years] have been gimmicky," says Zak Brown, chief executive at Just Marketing, an Indianapolis-based sports consulting company. "The key to getting [sponsors] is the real deal [on the track]."