Fri, May 23, 2003 - Page 23 News List

Sarah Fisher prepares to race in Indianapolis 500


A woman makes her way into the field and faces scorn from some, cheers from others. About the only thing everyone agrees upon is she has virtually no chance to beat the guys.

It's the story of the week in golf.

It's just another day at the track in auto racing.

While Annika Sorenstam is making big news by playing against the men at the Colonial in Texas, Sarah Fisher is quietly going through her routine at Indianapolis.

On Sunday, the 22-year-old Indy Racing League star will make her fourth start in the Indianapolis 500. The only female driver in the 33-car field, Fisher's accomplishment is nothing new. Janet Guthrie broke the gender barrier at the Brickyard 26 years ago. Lyn St. James started the Indy 500 seven times in the 1990s.

"I don't think it's a landmark issue for us anymore," St. James said.

Unlike golf, women and racing have coexisted fairly peacefully for decades.

The commotion Sorenstam is creating this week was Guthrie's burden when she debuted at Indy in 1977. Much as Sorenstam is at the top of her game right now, back then, Guthrie was a well-established driver on the sports-car circuits.

Not that success made things any easier for either woman.

While Sorenstam is enduring the somewhat testy spotlight that comes with playing in a men's league, a quarter-century ago, Guthrie walked into a track that didn't even allow women in the garage until 1971. Like Sorenstam, Guthrie dealt with skeptics and critics.

This week, Sorenstam was at the center of a debate that Vijay Singh defined when he said Sorenstam "doesn't belong out here." The great debate of 1977 was whether speedway president Tony Hulman would start the race with the traditional call of, "Gentlemen, start your engines." He relented, instead announcing, "Those in the company of the first woman driver in the Indianapolis 500, start your engines."

"I was surprised by the commotion," said Guthrie, whose best finish in three races here was ninth, in 1978. "Some of it I could laugh at, some of it made me mad. But the gratification came when the guys got used to driving against me and realized that I did the same things as they did."

For a number of reasons, it's a feeling Sorenstam will almost surely never get.

While this is a diversion for Sorenstam -- she can go back to dominating the LPGA Tour after this week -- Fisher competes against men for a living. And while Sorenstam, who's listed at 500-1 to win this week, doesn't need to beat the guys to be successful, Fisher, a 75-1 longshot, eventually does.

"It's all about winning championships, winning races," Fisher said. "Everything else stems from that. You have to be competitive. If you're in there just because you're a girl and you can get in a race car and run circles, that's not cool."

While Fisher competes in what St. James calls a gender neutral sport because "the car doesn't know if you're a man or a woman," Sorenstam will compete on a men's course, played under conditions set up to challenge the best men in the world.

While Sorenstam has never had to beat men to be make it in golf, Fisher has been racing against boys since she was 5.

"That's normal. That's life. That's all I know," she said.

Because of that, Fisher has only a vague sense that what she does might speak for her entire gender as much as it does for herself.

Sorenstam feels the same way.

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