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IndyCar land of opportunity for women racers

By Steve Keating

INDIANAPOLIS (Reuters) - IndyCar is the land of opportunity for the world's top women race car drivers who will try to turn Sunday's 100th Indianapolis 500 into Ladies Day at the famed Brickyard.

While women drivers rarely compete at European racetracks, they are a regular fixture on North America's top open wheel circuit battling wheel-to-wheel against the men.

Four women from four different countries, American Danica Patrick, Swiss Simona de Silvestro, Britain Pippa Mann and Brazilian Ana Beatriz will take the command on Sunday to start their engines while Sarah Fisher will watch from the pits as a team owner.

Girl power is nothing new for IndyCar, Janet Guthrie having long ago shattered the glass ceiling when she became the first woman to qualify for an Indy 500 in 1977.

It was IndyCar pioneers such as Guthrie and Fisher, who opened Mann's eyes to the possibility of a racing career in North America and doors that were closed to her in Europe.

Patrick is one of North America's most recognizable athletes and an IndyCar winner, but no woman has ever scored a point in Formula One.

Italian Leila Lombardi was the last woman to appear in an F1 race in 1976 and few women since have been given an opportunity to earn a seat.

"I never raced for a team that was unprofessional but there were occasions when you would go test with people," recalled Mann.

"There was a team boss who looked at me when I showed up and told me, 'the first thing you can do is take those things out of your ears, you can go and clean your face, you can put on some shoes where I don't see your painted toenails and then you can come back and talk to me'.

"After the test he told me I had done a really good job but he told me he wasn't sure about having a girl on his team.

"There is still some of that back in Europe and that is why we tend to come over here. It is so great to be treated just as another professional, another racing car driver."

After competing on various European series, Mann jumped to the Indy Lights, IndyCar's top development league, winning a race and grabbing three pole positions, including one at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

The step up to IndyCar has proven a big one for 27-year-old Londoner, who has struggled to find the necessary sponsorship to race full-time on the circuit.

"The big deal for me is being a one-off rookie entry, first ever race, with one day experience in the car was to just make the show," said Mann, who will make her IndyCar debut on the series' biggest stage. "That was always the really big thing for us was to see if we could get this car in and we did.

"I'm the first British female to do this, it's a story the media back in the UK have really picked up and run with."

A fiery crash during practice that left De Silvestro with badly burned hands nearly ended the Swiss driver's bid for a spot in the Indy Centennial.

But in a gutsy and gritty display, De Silvestro climbed into a backup car a few days later and fought through the pain and doubt to secure a spot Sunday's race, winning the respect of her fellow drivers.

"I think it was very brave," said twice Indy 500 winner Dario Franchitti. "She was very brave to get back into the car and did a very good job of qualifying.

"I think she did a very good job driving through the pain. Very impressive."

Since blazing onto IndyCar scene in 2005, Patrick has been the undisputed Queen of the Brickyard.

No woman has ever won the 500 but Patrick has come the closest with a third place finish in 2009 and remains the only woman to lead a lap at the Indy.

While the 100th Indy would provide a memorable breakthrough, Mann is not sure if the world will watch a woman put her car on Victory Lane this year but is confident it will happen one day.

"That is going to be absolutely fantastic when that happens," smiled Mann. "I don't know if it is going to be this year.

"We've got some great talent, Danica if she decides to stay around, Ana has done a fantastic job, Simona, WOW what a performance from her in qualifying and I'm going to put myself in there as well as a future possibility.

"It will happen one day."

(Editing by Julian Linden; To query or comment on this story email sportsfeedback@thomsonreuters.com)