LAGUNA WOODS, May 3, 2005 - Just in time for this weekend's observance of Mother's Day, two women racers have managed to plunk themselves high on the motorsports radar screen and not just because they are engaging young ladies with good looks and pleasing demeanors.
Katherine Legge made the first impact, literally when she accomplished what no other female of the species has managed to do: Legge won the season opening Toyota Atlantic Championship race on the streets of Long Beach April 10th by banging and intimidating her way to the front of the (19-car, 15-rookie) field from seventh grid position.
Her accomplishment marked the first ever victory by a woman in a major open wheel sanctioned racing contest. Period.
It was a mighty fine display of racing aptitude, one that pleased her new mentor and sponsor Kevin Kalkhoven, co-owner of the Champ Car World Series (including Toyota Atlantic) as well as PKV Racing.
Legge's victory marked the first for PKV in its two years of operation; Kalkhoven had been a bit unsure of whether he did the right thing hiring Legge, who pursued the financier during his fall visit to UK-based Cosworth Ltd., the engine-design and construction emporium he purchased with co-conspirator Gerald Forsythe.
"Do you think she's got the goods?" he asked prior to Legge's delivery of the winner's trophy. Many drivers hound Kalkhoven but obviously, Katherine made an impact. She wanted desperately to race in America, Legge admitted. "There are so many more opportunities here."
Katherine took advantage of one of those opportunities last November when she came to the US to take in a six-woman shootout for a potential ride with Kathryn Nunn's Menards Infiniti Pro Series team.
Legge wasn't invited but she spent her own funds, earned as a driving instructor at the Silverstone road racing circuit, home to the British Grand Prix and moseyed over to Texas Motor Speedway.
Legge's appearance impressed everyone from series technical coordinator Butch Meyer, Kathryn Nunn, her squad of engineers and Lyn St. James, who had put the shootout together. Her instincts first time on an oval stood apart from her six peers.
Unfortunately, Nunn wasn't able to get funding for a woman to drive her race cars and had to fold shop and go golfing with husband Morris. Legge was left in the unkind cold of a British winter.
Kalkhoven agreed to fund the first six races of the Toyota Atlantic season and placed Legge with Polestar Racing, chosen for this endeavor by series manager Vicki O'Connor. She believed Polestar, with owners Jim and Pam Griffith would be the best fit for the ambitious Brit.
Like a perfect puzzle, Legge and Polestar arrived in Long Beach with visions of victory for her and her quick teammate, French Canadian rookie Antoine Bessette. Both are talented; one obviously has more moxie than the other.
Legge's pass of Brazilian Fernando Rees in Turn One at Long Beach was a classic and vaulted her to third place at mid-race. Once Katherine knew her car was undamaged by sidepod to tire contact, she followed Rocky Moran Jr. when the second-generation racer took advantage of a Bessette bobble to take the lead.
Katherine later swooped past Moran for the point and never looked back as the Californian was forced to drop out due to wheel bearing failure. She hammered the checkered flags and immediately, upon exiting the car called her "mum" in the UK to let her know.
Legge's success had many in the Long Beach media center saying "Danica Who?" as they made derisive comments about the Toyota Atlantic graduate now racing in the Indy Racing League's IndyCar Series.
After all, Patrick hadn't won an Atlantic race in her two-year stay - she was third in the hard-fought standings last season - and had not beat the boys.
Danica ("Who?") Patrick changed those opinions in one sweet afternoon in Tochigi Prefecture, Japan. Now racing with the "big boys" in Indy cars, Patrick has adjusted like a brand new mother with her deft hands behind the wheel of her "baby", a Panoz/Honda/Firestone challenger.
In practice for the League's third race at Twin Ring Motegi, Patrick never exited the top ten and, when qualifying came along she upped the ante. The 12th driver to run two timed laps, Danica Patrick emerged at the top of the standings, pleasing Rahal Letterman Racing team co-owner Bobby Rahal immensely.
She eventually would start outside the front row when two-time IRL champ Sam Hornish Jr. lapped the oval 0.0311 seconds quicker than Patrick.
Rahal has had to field questions from everyone in the racing community since he decided to bring Patrick up, first from the Barber Dodge Pro Series and now from Toyota Atlantics. Her lack of victories in lower formulae hastened the crow calls but Rahal thought Danica would mature nicely.
During Saturday's 200-lap race on Twin Ring's intimidating 1.5-mile egg-shaped oval, Danica Patrick led 32 laps and finished fourth behind repeat winner/point leader Dan Wheldon, veteran Scott Sharp and her teammate Buddy Rice.
Patrick's success should be cheered, just as Legge's victory in Long Beach rates a pile of huzzahs. Once Danica gains her own first-place trophies - and it could happen sooner than later - perhaps all the talk about her being a woman will die down.
Lyn St. James waited years for the furor to dissipate about her being a woman in a man's business. She's still waiting.
No amount of success in sports and open wheel racing cars gave St. James the props she deserves; sponsorship was always a battle for her and continues to be difficult for many of the women competing in racing today.
St. James has been the catalyst behind tests and other programs aimed toward increasing the number of excellent racers who just happen to be women. Her promotional events held under the former CART series banner came and went with lip service; the same occurred last November in Texas.
When the Indianapolis Motor Speedway opens its doors for the annual Greatest Spectacle in Racing, the Indianapolis 500 Mile Race this coming Sunday, May 8th, many people will be there to celebrate Mother's Day.
May I suggest a toast for two potential mothers with death grips that will break your hand if you let them? Both are destined for potential greatness in their chosen fields. Why are we more concerned that they are women and not that they are simply superb racers?