If you're a fan of racing, or have watched an entire SportsCenter during May 2005 or 2006, you heard one name when it came to the Indy Racing League: Danica Patrick.
In her rookie season Danica set the racing world on fire, running fastest during the practice sessions building up to the '05 Indy 500. She started fourth, led with 10 laps to go, and finished fourth - the best effort by a woman at the Brickyard. She was all over the media from magazine covers to The Late Show, being David Letterman is her boss as half of Rahal-Letterman Racing, and IRL's sagging ratings soared (which really isn't saying much). Danica has been in the news again recently, after announcing that she will move to Andretti-Green Racing for 2007. To date Danica's best finish is fourth, four times.
So "Danica Mania" swept the nation. I signed up. Hey, she's got looks, and can drive the wheels off a race car. But there's one thing she has yet to do at the top level: Win.
A few years ago another female was making some waves in the IRL, but her most consistent quality was the ability to destroy race cars. Sarah Fisher then tried to make the transition to NASCAR in the lower-end divisions out west, but to no avail. A couple of weeks ago she was back in an Indy Car, and though absent from this past weekend at Infineon, should race out the season. Two women, one racetrack, hmmmm. Sounds like a topic for another discussion.
But I digress.
There's another couple of names currently on the racing scene who are showing some skill. One is Erin Crocker, who is running for Ray Evernham, and was supposedly the catalyst for his departure from the #19 Nextel Cup car. It didn't matter than he wasn't competitive this year. No, had to be the girl. Erin has run pretty well in the ARCA series, which is sort of a junior-league for NASCAR. She has two second-place finishes this year, and has run several races in the Craftsman Truck Series and a couple in a Busch car.
Erin is in a development program that may land her in Cup one day, and I'd like to see that. A successful female driver could do nothing but bring new fans to the series, a la the aforementioned Danica.
Then there's Katherine Legge, a young Briton who won three races in the (Toyota) Atlantic Series (Champ Car's minor league) last year. She was the first woman to win a major open-wheel race in the United States (in case you're keeping score, Danica's best finish was 2nd at the Formula Ford Festival in England, which is where Bobby Rahal recruited her from) Katherine did well enough to be promoted into Champ Car for this season and her best finish is sixth at the Milwaukee Mile.
Janet Guthrie ran in NASCAR's Winston Cup Series from 1976 to 1980, with five top-ten finishes in 33 career starts. She attempted to qualify for the Indy 500 five times from 1976-1980, making the race three times, with her best finish being ninth in 1978. There are a number of other women who have strapped on a race car, but for the most part their names have been or soon will be forgotten (sorry, Shauna Robinson, but when you have a diaper rash cream as your sponsor, and no wins, I have to draw the line.)
So, where have women racers found success? In a straight line on the quarter-mile. If you've watch reality TV you may have seen Ashley Force, John Force's daughter, who's already winning races and making a name for herself in top alcohol dragster.
But Ashley is a yet-to-be; a newbie compared to our next candidate.
Shirley Muldowney raced dragsters for 30 years, attaining the name of "First Lady of Racing." Shirley won, and won a lot. With 35 career wins and four championships, Muldowney is ranked number five on the NHRA's Top 50 Drivers. But even this level of success has been eclipsed by another, and unless you watch ESPN 2 late on Sunday nights, you probably haven't heard of her.
Her name is Angelle Sampey (formerly Savoie but apparently she's single-again... for those interested): Three-time Pro Stock Bike Champion, 40 career wins, has the highest winning total for any woman racer in history, and is a member of the US Army Racing Team. Angelle has been kicking ass and taking names on bikes for the last decade, and just turning 36, has plenty of racing ahead of her.
There's a lot going on in the various series with diversity programs, and women are showing great promise. But for all you hear about Danica and others in more high-profile racing, keep in mind the five-foot former nurse who straps on a high-horsepower bike to fulfil her need for speed.
Angelle Sampey is the best woman racer you've never heard of.