The 2002 Oldsmobile Bravada is a novelty among Indianapolis 500 pace cars—not only was it was the first SUV to pace the field, but its driver was the first woman to lead the ceremonial opening laps. Elaine Irwin, who was then living in Bloomington with John Mellencamp (she’s now married to racing royalty Jay Penske), called the milestone a “great honor.” After a training session with two-time Indianapolis 500 winner Al Unser Jr., Irwin described the huge track as “a little intimidating,” but once she got the hang of it, she didn’t want to stop. “It felt entirely different with the stands filled,” she says. “I was nervous and I took a deep breath, put the pedal down, listened to race control, and the rest is history.”
Little did anyone know the extent of the history Irwin was making, that she would remain one of only two women to pace the 500 by now; the other was Robin Roberts in 2010. At that pace, we’re overdue for another woman behind the wheel. Allison Melangton, senior vice president at Penske Entertainment, which owns the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, says that the IMS coordinates with Chevrolet to find the right personality each year, and women are always on the short list. But the three-day training commitment over Memorial Day weekend often poses a challenge in finding the right driver.
“It’s a very athletic role. You’ve got to be mentally and physically prepared, and that’s part of what the training is for,” Melangton says. Some who are approached—men and women—aren’t interested in reaching nerve-wracking speeds of nearly 200 miles per hour.
Despite the lean female representation in the honorary position, Sarah Fisher is the official pace car driver for the IndyCar Series. Since inheriting the duties from racing legend Johnny Rutherford five years ago, Fisher now trains the celebrity drivers and paces the field during a race under a yellow caution flag.
Female celebrities have paced other races in Indianapolis. Soccer stars Hope Solo and Lauren Holiday and broadcaster Sage Steele have all done the honors at the Brickyard 400, and Olympic gold-medal swimmer Lilly King led the first laps of the 2018 IndyCar Grand Prix. Melangton says, “We are going to continue to reach out to women and offer the role.” Paging another model who loves fast cars: Kendall Jenner.