By Steve Keating
INDIANAPOLIS (Reuters) - The Indianapolis 500 was once the land of opportunity for women racers but for the second time in three years their will be no female drivers on the starting grid at the Brickyard when the green flag is dropped on Sunday.
Pioneers such as Janet Guthrie, who became the first woman to start an Indy 500 in 1977, have left their mark on motorsport but progress recently has been more slow motion than fast track when it comes to the "Greatest Spectacle in Racing".
In 2010 and 2011, with four women sprinkled across the 33 car fields, IndyCar appeared to be on the road to diversity that other sports were just coming to grips with.
Danica Patrick, the first and only woman to win an IndyCar race, had become the sport's most recognisable and marketable name, a crossover star with appeal beyond the race track.
But that progress has stalled. The 2020 Indy 500 was the first without at least one woman in the field since 1999 and this year's race will mark a second shutout in three years.
Patrick is back at Indianapolis Motor Speedway this week but as a television commentator.
So is Sarah Fisher, the first woman to win an IndyCar pole, who will be on the track on Sunday but behind the wheel of the pace car.
"There should be more women in the sport for sure, certainly in a place like this," said Graham Rahal, who is married to former drag racer Courtney Force. "We need to generate more opportunities to help and find sponsors."
While there will be no women on the Indy 500 grid there will be a few at other IndyCar tracks this season.
Colombian Tatiana Calderon, a test driver for Alfa Romeo Formula One, is competing on the road and street courses for AJ Foyt Racing while Swiss Simona De Silvestro, who has been part of six Indy 500s, is back with Paretta Autosport, an all-woman outfit that will team up with Ed Carpenter Racing to run in three events.
"I know they have big plans, big goals to make sure they are back here for future Indy 500s," Carpenter, a three-time Indy 500 pole sitter who will line up fourth on Sunday, told Reuters.
"I think it has to happen the right way. Just putting something together to say that we have a female starting the race, I don't think that is necessarily the point.
"We'll see what the future brings."
For the Della Penna Motorsports Next Gen Foundation, the place to start is the grassroots which means carting, the entry point into sport for everyone from Formula One seven-times world champion Lewis Hamilton to Danica Patrick.
The foundation recently set up two advisory councils to support its mission to empower girls aged five to 16, creating a talent pipeline that provides motorsport career opportunities on and off the track.
"It is definitely grassroots for sure," founder Michelle Della Penna told Reuters. "The goal is to get girls interested at a young age and expose them to the different possible careers motorsport can offer.
"Women are just as exciting to watch as men so if we can start to have the advertising and sponsorship dollars to support them I think we will see a real change."
(Reporting by Steve Keating in Indianapolis. Editing by Clare Fallon)