On this day in 2005, 23-year-old Danica Patrick becomes the first female driver to take the lead in the storied Indianapolis 500.
Having previously distinguished herself in the Toyota Atlantic series, Patrick had qualified fourth–another best for a woman–for the 89th Indianapolis 500, only her fifth Indy Racing League event. (Toyota Atlantic served as a feeder system for the Champ Car Series, Indy’s rival open-wheel racing circuit. Open-wheel cars are sophisticated vehicles built specifically for racing, with small, open cockpits and wheels located outside the car’s main body.) Patrick entered the Indy 500 in a car co-owned by Bobby Rahal, winner of the Indy 500 in 1986, and David Letterman, the late-night talk show host. After a pit stop on the 79th lap of the 200-lap, 500-mile race, Patrick stalled her engine, falling from 4th to 16th place. She spent the next 70 laps climbing back into the top 10, then took the lead with 10 laps left in front of 300,000 screaming fans at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
When her team took a gamble that she could make it to the end without an additional pit stop, Patrick was forced to conserve fuel. With six laps left, British driver Dan Wheldon passed her. With his first Indy 500 win, Wheldon became the first Briton to claim victory at the event since Graham Hill in 1966. Patrick, meanwhile, finished in fourth place, behind Vitor Meira and Bryan Herta. Her stellar performance earned her Rookie of the Year honors and a place in the history books alongside Janet Guthrie, who exactly 28 years before–on May 29, 1977–had become the first woman to drive in the Indy 500. Three women before Patrick had driven in a combined 15 Indy 500 events; Guthrie was the previous top finisher, coming in ninth place in 1978.
Three years after Patrick’s star-making turn at the Indy 500, she became the first woman to win an Indy Racing League event, defeating the two-time Indy 500 winner Helio Castroneves by nearly six seconds in the Indy Japan 300. Having left her previous team a year earlier, Patrick had joined the team owned by Michael Andretti, son of the legendary driver Mario Andretti and a former racer himself. In a statement honoring Patrick’s victory, fellow Indy driver Sarah Fisher linked the accomplishment with that of Guthrie and other trailblazing women: “Today marks the celebration for all of us who have chipped away at the barriers that many women have faced in fields that are dominated by men. To finally have a female win an open-wheel race is simply a progression of what Janet Guthrie started.”