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INDIANAPOLIS - The gender gap was closed at the Indianapolis 500 more than three decades ago, but no woman has ever won the biggest event in open-wheel racing.
Danica Patrick is one of three female drivers who will make a run at shattering that final barrier Sunday in the 93rd Indy 500. If that happens, have the chocolate milk ready.
When Louis Meyer won the 1936 Indy 500 and celebrated in Victory Lane by guzzling buttermilk from a glass bottle, a tradition was born.
The winner here gets to choose their preferred blend, and Patrick has indicated she would be the first in the long history of Indianapolis Motor Speedway to request chocolate.
"The traditions here are deep-rooted and important, and as a driver you want to be a part of as many of those as you can," Patrick said. "I don't think it's any secret that I would like to be the one drinking the milk at the end of the day."
This is the third straight year that the Indy 500 field holds a record three female drivers. Sarah Fisher and Milka Duno join Patrick in carrying the banner for women racers in the open-wheel ranks. Patrick, who qualified 10th in the 33-car field, would appear to have the best chance to win the race and add an Indy 500 victory to her growing list of accomplishments.
The Roscoe, Ill., native made her first start in the IndyCar Series in 2005 and has 13 top-five finishes, 38 top-tens, three poles and one victory in 67 career events. In April, 2008, she won the IndyCar Twin Ring Motegi race in Japan, making her the first female to win a major closed-course event. She was rookie of the year in IndyCar in 2005, the same year she started fourth and finished fourth in the Indy 500 - the highest starting and finishing positions for a woman driver. Patrick led 19 laps in that race, becoming the first woman to lead at the Indianapolis 500.
"She can definitely win this thing - she has a legitimate shot at it," said Michael Andretti, co-owner of Andretti-Green Racing which has had Patrick on its team for the past two seasons.
"Danica has her priorities lined up, and she has been outstanding this season," Andretti said. "She's been different and much better at dealing with all of the pressures she faces, on and off the track. She's learned a lot, and her approach is just different."
The scrutiny that accompanies Patrick's every move is part of her unofficial role as the most recognizable and most popular driver in the series. There have been two appearances in the Sports Illustrated swimsuit edition, the spicy GoDaddy.com television commercials, and a recent deal that makes Patrick part of the celebrity "Milk Mustache" advertising campaign.
Patrick, who has had a few of her on-track outbursts captured on video and given a long internet shelf life, said she is throttling back on the emotions this year and hopes that adjustment will allow her to focus more on what it takes to find continued success in the ranks of the racing elite.
"I think I'm doing a better job of containing my temper and learning how to take more of what happens in stride," she said. "I've received advice from a lot of people whose opinions I respect. Now I hope I can use all of that to my benefit, and it certainly would be nice to find a way to win here."
Fisher, a native of Commercial Point, Ohio, just south of Columbus, is part of the Indy 500 field for the eighth time - a record number for a woman. She broke additional new ground last year by forming her own team and becoming the first female owner/driver in the IndyCar Series.
She was the first woman to earn a pole position in the series, and the fastest woman to qualify for the Indy 500 when she posted a 229.439 miles per hour four-lap average in 2002. In 71 career IndyCar Series races, Fisher has three top-five finishes and nine top-tens.
Fisher, whose racing team has received solid financial backing from Dollar General Stores this season, said starting her own team with her husband and crew chief Andy O'Gara was a risky venture.
"A lot of people put their lives on the line to start a business, and we are no exception," she said. "It was something we first dreamed about, then talked about a lot, and then finally we took the plunge. It changes your perspective on everything - you worry about the big picture and every little detail involved with it."
A win at Indy would give the fledgling effort a huge boost, but Fisher hopes to sustain the team over the long haul and use it as a model for young women considering business ventures.
"To compete and to win is certainly the bottom line in racing, but we want to do things right and build this team," Fisher said. "I want to succeed, and I want the girls and the young women out there to see us as kind of a showcase. There's a lot of pressure, but I feel like we're in a good place going into this race."
Duno, a native of Venezuela, is in her third year in the IndyCar Series and today is running in her third Indy 500. She made her first start at Kansas in 2007, and in 19 career IndyCar races, she has yet to make a top 10. Early in 2007, Duno finished second in the 24 Hours At Daytona - the highest finish ever by a female driver in the 45-year history of the race. She again made history in May of that year by becoming the first Latina to qualify and race in the Indianapolis 500.
"I've learned a lot here each year, so it adds to your confidence," Duno said after qualifying 30th in the field. "This race is so tough, so demanding. I'm proud that we have three women in the field again. Indianapolis is so fast, and everybody here is a very good driver. You have to have a good car and a good plan, but it is still a pretty tough place to win."
Janet Guthrie was the first woman to compete at Indy, qualifying for the 1977-78-79 races. She had a best finish of ninth in 1978. Lynn St. James raced in seven Indy 500s between 1992 and 2000, with an 11th place in 1992 as her best.
Fisher has finished in the top 20 just once, 18th in 2007.
Duno was 19th last year, her second at Indy.
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