Decades from now, when some clever doctoral candidate writes his or, more likely, her dissertation about the history of women in sports, the 2010 Indianapolis 500 may be cited as a watershed moment.
The scene was Pole Day, a week before the race. Shortly after a disappointing qualifying effort, Danica Patrick complained about her ill-handling car during an interview broadcast over the trackside P.A. system. Patrick is racing's It Girl, the most recognized face and best-known body in IndyCar racing, thanks to her exposure in Sports Illustrated's swimsuit issue. Yet the crowd responded by booing her lustily, with all the bitterness of a jilted lover.
But that wasn't the watershed moment. No, that came a few minutes later when a twenty-one-year-old Swiss rookie by the name of Simona De Silvestro outqualified Patrick for the fifth time in six IndyCar races this season despite making her run in the heat of the afternoon-the most diabolical conditions she'd ever experienced at racing's most daunting circuit-and taking to the track immediately after the previous driver had crashed during his run.
"Think about the mental toughness that requires," her race engineer Michael Cannon says. "We'd drawn a terrible qualifying position. It was hot. Another car had just splattered against the wall. And we're telling her to go flat into turn 1-230.5 mph before turning in. Well, off she went." And qualified solidly at 224.228 mph. "She's bloody good," Cannon says in the team's garage in Gasoline Alley, two days before the Indy 500. "I'd be very surprised if she doesn't win championships."
De Silvestro is the anti-Danica, bubbly rather than sultry, a tomboy rather than a sex kitten, less sizzle, more steak. Janet Guthrie was the first woman to race at Indy, back in 1977, and Lyn Saint James carried the feminist torch during the '80s and '90s. In 2002, Sarah Fisher became the first woman to qualify on the pole for an IndyCar race. Then, two years ago, Patrick scored the first, and so far only, IndyCar win for a female driver. Now, De Silvestro-the winningest female driver in Formula Atlantic history-is poised to achieve the biggest first of all: she could become the first female racer (outside of drag racing) whose gender doesn't matter.
This isn't to say that De Silvestro is androgynous. Although it's often noted that her ears aren't pierced, she seems like a perfectly typical young woman who smiles a lot, laughs easily and often, and can be girlishly silly. She shrieks when she spots a spider, and she's seen the chick flick Twilight seven times. But what sets her apart from those who came before her is that she's not a woman racer who happens to be seriously quick. She's a seriously quick racer who happens to be a woman.