If you're watching Sunday's IndyCar Grand Prix of Sonoma and think there's something missing, you won't be alone. There's been something missing from the entire 2012 IndyCar season.
It's the Danica Patrick phenomenon.
With Patrick taking her talents to NASCAR, the IndyCar series has lost its most popular driver and it's a hole not even "Dancing With the Stars" champion Helio Castroneves or another three-time Indianapolis 500 champ, Dario Franchitti, can fill.
That's because since Janet Guthrie first broke the gender barrier in 1977, female drivers have been an important part of open-wheel racing's popularity, from Sarah Fisher to Patrick. A record four women started in the 2010 and 2011 Indy 500s.
IndyCar rookie Katherine Legge, who finished the best (22nd) of three women at this year's Indy 500, hopes to eventually fill the void left by Patrick's departure. If she can't do it alone, several of her up-and-coming teammates on her TrueCar Racing Women Empowered Initiative team would love to help.
TrueCar Racing, the brainchild of CEO Scott Painter, is the first all-female racing team, with six drivers in six different series. Legge, 32, is the only IndyCar driver, but two other drivers - 20-year-old Ashley Freiberg and 22-year-old Shannon McIntosh - are in IndyCar developmental series and hope to be up on the big circuit soon.
"Coming from a modest background - my father's a machinist and my mother's a teacher's aide - I started racing for fun when I was 5," said McIntosh, who wanted to be a NASCAR driver but jumped at the chance to be developed as an IndyCar driver. "After lots and lots of letdowns, I'm very jaded to this filthy motor sports world. So when I signed the contract (with TrueCar Racing) ... to be fully funded and racing and pursuing my passion and living my dream - it's what I always wanted, although there's a long way to go."
Legge is one of two women racing in the Indy Grand Prix of Sonoma this weekend, the other being Switzerland's Simona De Silvestro. The British-born Legge, a former Champ Car driver, has had a challenging rookie year with a troubled team - Dragon Racing, owned by Jay Penske. Sebastien Bourdais is the other driver, and the team had to race one car after a midseason switch from Lotus to Chevrolet engines. So Legge hasn't raced in two months. But Legge said some of Dragon Racing's sponsors - TrueCar Racing, McAfee and Bing - felt it was important to race a full team at Sonoma, and Chevrolet provided another engine.
"Chevrolet stepped up - our knights in shining armor," Legge said. "Yes, it's been very hard. ... I'm trying to be politically correct. It's been tough. But I can see the end goal is what it is. The hard thing is not having the testing. It's a long-term process. Sebastien's been doing well, so I'm hoping to get some kind of momentum up at Sonoma."
All the women of TrueCar Racing are at Sonoma this weekend to promote the team, although Legge and Shea Holbrook (in the Pirelli World Challenge series) are the only ones racing. That includes Emilee Tominovich, only 19, who is on track to join the American Le Mans series, and Rally America B-Spec series champion Verena Mei.
Mei is a former Hollywood stunt driver ("The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift"), and she and co-driver Leanne Junnila are the first all-female team to win a season Rally Car title.
"It's something that has changed my life," Mei said. "We've all been pursuing racing individually, and not having the tools to get to where we want to be has been the biggest challenge for all of us. ... Now we really have a chance to compete at the top levels."
Patrick left a void, but she also created opportunities for women, the TrueCar drivers agreed. "The challenge for us is to be taken seriously," Freiberg said. "We can drive fast, that's not the problem."
McIntosh added: "When Janet Guthrie raced in the Indy 500, there weren't even any women's bathrooms in the (drivers' area). We still go through a lot of battles that men don't, but it's something that's becoming more common."
The TrueCar lineup
Katherine Legge: British-born driver, 32, is IndyCar series rookie, has Champ Car experience.
Verena Mei: Former Hollywood stunt driver, just became part of first all-female Rally Car team to win a series championship.
Shea Holbrook: Will race at Sonoma this weekend in Pirelli World Challenge (is currently fourth in the points standings).
Ashley Freiberg: Only 20, is on track to IndyCar series in the Star Mazda Championship series.
Shannon McIntosh: Also on track to Indy Car series. At 22, is with Cooper Tires USF2000 series.
Emilee Tominovich: At 19, the youngest team member. With Mazda MX-5 Cup SCCA Pro Series; is on a path to American Le Mans series.
Source: San Francisco Chronicle