IndyCar levels playing field

Helio Castroneves was rubbing his eyes on pit road, having just accepted responsibility for helping wreck five cars on the first turn of the Izod IndyCar season. An English camera crew sidled up for a private question, red light blinking, microphone lowered.

"There's more and more girls coming into this sport. What do you say about their level?"

Castroneves didn't see that one coming, but second-year driver Simona de Silvestro had just produced a rousing career-best fourth-place finish.

Stunned but quick to recover, the former "Dancing with the Stars" champion and native of a country overflowing with machismo cha-cha'd right through to the other side with complete diplomacy.

"Certainly, this is an equal sport," the three-time winner of the Indianapolis 500 said. "They may have ponytails. They might use makeup. But when they put the helmet on, it's the same as any guy out there."

Castroneves knows that for a fact, having been schooled back home in December -- along with countrymen Tony Kanaan and Formula One driver Rubens Barrichello -- in an all-star go-kart race won by fellow Brazilian and second-year IndyCar driver Ana Beatriz.

"I won and all kinds of people were there, and Helio -- I don't feel the Brazilian drivers get angry anymore, but they were like, 'Oh, my god, people are going to make fun of me all day,'" Beatriz laughed.

That's a lingering cultural issue, one that might have to be addressed even more in the future. Motorsports in general, and open-wheel racing in particular, provide one of the only true equal venues for competition between men and women, with identical rules, identical equipment and an identical possibility of success dependent on talent and commitment to craft. IndyCar attempts to exploit its gender-neutral platform.

"As we make general presentations on what we do and how we go about it, we often say, 'In tennis you play fewer sets, and in basketball you have a little smaller ball, and in golf you tee off a little shorter, and there's no disrespect to any of those, but with us it's the same track, same speed, same equipment,'" said IndyCar commercial division president Terry Angstadt. "Indy is one of the very few [sports] where it's absolutely gender-neutral. And the response from our female race car drivers, I love it, it's usually 'We're race car drivers.'"

They're race car drivers on equal terms with men. The race car, said IndyCar senior technical director Les Mactaggart, provides no implicit advantage to women and may actually be more difficult to drive than a stock car because its lacks power steering.

"There's no technical aspect of this series that makes it any easier for a woman to compete," he said. "I'm completely at a loss on this one. Maybe we have more female drivers because we're especially nice people."

The fastest female in the 100 meters [sprint] can't get there quite as fast as the fastest guy, however good she is. In a race car, it's kind of like when you're riding a horse, where men and women compete very equally. It's more down to your skill set and your talent and what you're able to do than sheer physical brute force. You have to train and be strong enough and be ready for it, but your talent and skill set can get you an awful long way in a race car.
Pippa Mann, one of a record-tying four females to start the Indianapolis 500 this year

IndyCar allowed the use of variable steering racks in 2008 to ease the effort needed to turn the wheel at higher loads, but few drivers and no females use it, Mactaggart said, because of a dislike for the "different sensation" it produced.

Body weight applied to a sliding scale determines how much ballast each car carries to meet the minimum of 1,565 pounds, meaning the diminutive frame of the 5-foot-nothing, 100ish-pound Danica Patrick is equalized with her peers.

So success in IndyCar is determined by preparation and talent.

"The fastest female in the 100 meters [sprint] can't get there quite as fast as the fastest guy, however good she is," said Pippa Mann, a race-winner in the second-tier Indy Lights series and one of a record-tying four females to start the Indianapolis 500 this year. "In a race car, it's kind of like when you're riding a horse, where men and women compete very equally. It's more down to your skill set and your talent and what you're able to do than sheer physical brute force. You have to train and be strong enough and be ready for it, but your talent and skill set can get you an awful long way in a race car."

So far, they've gotten women further in open-wheel cars. Four women currently compete full-time in IndyCar, while Janet Guthrie came closest to a full-time Sprint Cup campaign with 19 starts in 1977. Patrick became the first woman to win a major open-wheel race at Motegi, Japan, in 2008, and also has the highest finish for a female in top-three series NASCAR history, fourth at Las Vegas on March 5 in a Nationwide race. She has not yet made a Sprint Cup start, although she is undertaking her second partial Nationwide series season and is considering a full-time switch for 2012.

"IndyCars are very much performance cars," she said. "They do what you ask when you ask. [Stock cars] are a little bit bigger," although more difficult to both set up and control.

"I think IndyCars are the most perfect race car you can drive," said Lyn St. James, who in 1992 became the second woman to start the Indianapolis 500. "You tell that car what to do by your movements and it does it, so you better be spot on. When you brake, when you turn, when you do things -- if the car is set up right, it does everything you tell it to do."

Though racers' understanding of, and attention to, their physical fitness has increased dramatically, open-wheel drivers tend to require more rigorous conditioning than their stock car counterparts. IndyCar drivers must be strong, but also small enough to fit into a confining cockpit. If women can match men in the baseline level of upper-body strength and endurance required, they can compete on equal terms.

Former driver Sarah Fisher said she learned the difference first-hand in 2005 when she undertook a brief NASCAR junket in the developmental K&N West Series.

"I came back to race IndyCars in 2006 and I had to hire a trainer to get back in shape," she said. "IndyCars don't have power steering, unlike those cars, they are a lot lighter and they are a lot more nimble, but throwing them around those corners on a road course like Simona does, you can look at her and tell she has upper-body strength. As far as being easier? Absolutely not. If anything, they might be a little bit more demanding."

IndyCar may provide an equal platform for competition, said driver Oriol Servia, a mechanical engineer, but it is not an equal endeavor for a woman.

"I don't think it's equal at all," said Servia, who will start third in the Indianapolis 500. "IndyCar is physical, way more than NASCAR. No power steering, G forces are high; you need to work out the neck. A woman has it a lot tougher.

"I'll tell you why there are so many women in IndyCar: Danica Patrick, 2005. If a woman goes in NASCAR and is successful, there will be five women on the grid in five years."

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