Danica Patrick Becomes The First Woman To Lead The Indy 500

Illustration for article titled This Day In History: Danica Patrick Becomes The First Woman To Lead The Indy 500

Photo: Donald Miralle (Getty Images)

At the 2005 Indianapolis 500, history was made. With 10 laps left in the race, Danica Patrick—who had fallen as low as 16th in the running order, took the lead of the world’s most iconic race. And with that, she became the first woman to ever lead a lap of the Indy 500.

(Welcome to Today in History, the series where we dive into important historical events that have had a significant impact on the automotive or racing world. If you have something you’d like to see that falls on an upcoming weekend, let me know at eblackstock [at] jalopnik [dot] com.)

Danica Patrick hasn’t made a ton of friends or fans during her racing career, which includes her stint in IndyCar. Whatever you think of her racing, many folks have found fault with her give-no-fucks personality and fiery behavior—but she has done a hell of a lot to prove that women can compete on equal terms with their male competitors, which includes her having led at Indy.

In 2005, Patrick qualified fourth on the grid for the race in her Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing No. 16. That in and of itself was an incredible feat for a rookie, but her performance during the race led to her further cementing her place in the history books. It was, at the time, the highest-ever starting position for a woman at the Indy 500, and it was a record that Patrick herself beat several years later when she qualified third, which at Indy is on the front row.

It wasn’t an ideal race for Patrick, though. On lap 79, she pitted and stalled her engine, which saw her lose her fourth place position and fall back to 16th. Over the next 70 laps, Patrick passed one car after another to push into and then through the top 10. And with 10 more laps remaining in the event, she nabbed the lead.

But with a race like Indy, a lead doesn’t guarantee a win until you’ve crossed the finish line.

The big issue here was the fact that Patrick had pitted so many laps earlier that she would run out of fuel before the end of the race if she were to continue pushing. Rather than bring her in for a pit stop, which could cost her even more time, the RLL team opted to leave Patrick out and have her conserve fuel. Her lead only lasted until lap six, when Dan Wheldon passed her to become the first British driver to win the Indy 500 since Graham Hill did so back in 1966. Patrick had to be content with the same position in which she started: fourth.

Her drive, though, was stellar. Exactly 28 years prior to Patrick leading the 500, Janet Guthrie became the first woman to compete in the event; it served as a reminder of how far history had come in those three decades. Patrick took home Rookie of the Year honors for her incredible performance, one that has yet to be bested by another woman driver.

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