By: Spencer Neff
March 18, 2021
In recognition of Women’s History Month, IndyCar1909.com will take a look back at some of the most impactful women in the history of IndyCar. Today, we profile the life and career of Desiré Wilson. Wilson’s career features many pioneering moments and her legacy continues to this day.
Wilson’s journey into racing began in the South Africa nationals, where the Brakpan native ran midget cars as a teenager. Soon, Wilson joined their junior formula ranks, winning the 1975 and 1975 Formula Ford titles.
As a result of her achievements, Wilson moved on to Europe, where she won two races in the Benelux and British Formula Ford 2000 Series, as well as making her debut in the USAC Mini-Indy Series.
In 1980, Wilson became the fourth woman to enter a Formula 1 event but ultimately failed to qualify for the British Grand Prix. Following a brief stint in sports cars, Wilson made a move to IndyCar.
While she continued her sports car aspirations, Wilson also moved her open-wheel racing aspirations with her to America.
In 1982, Theodore Racing entered her for the Indianapolis 500, making her the second woman and first African-born driver to attempt to qualify for the Indianapolis 500 (Libyan-born Italian Lorenzo Bandini entered the 1967 race but never attempted qualification).
Ultimately, Wilson was unable to follow Janet Guthrie, who became the first woman to qualify for the Indianapolis 500 in 1977. Wilson did best Guthrie’s fastest lap, running a top speed of 191.042 miles per hour.
Earlier that year, both women were part of the North American Racing Team along with Bonnie Henn at the 12 Hours of Sebring. In 1983, Wilson and Wysard Racing entered the race but again were unsuccessful in qualifying.
Despite the DNQ at the Indianapolis 500, Wilson made eight starts during the 1983 CART season, with a best finish of 10th at Cleveland and a best start of 13th at Road America. Wilson did not make the field in either of her 1984 entries (Long Beach and Indianapolis).
After three starts in 1986, Wilson did not attempt to run an IndyCar race again. Although she did run Indy Lights events in 1986 and 1991, finishing 6th at Phoenix in 1986.
In 1991, Wilson joined Lyn St. James and Cathy Muller for her final appearance at the 24 Hours of Le Mans, with Euro Racing / A.O. Racing. Like her appearance at Sebring nine years earlier, her team was unable to finish the race.
The next year, Lyn St. James became the second woman to qualify for the Indianapolis 500 and the first to win Rookie of the Year honors.
In 2000, Sarah Fisher and St. James qualified for the race, marking the first time two women entered. Two years later, Fisher became the first woman to win the pole position for an IndyCar race when she did so at Kentucky.
Earlier in that year, Wilson’s fellow South African Tomas Scheckter led the most laps at the Indianapolis 500 and earned co-Rookie of the Year honors. Scheckter earned his first of two career victories that season as well, winning from the pole at Michigan two weeks before Fisher’s historic effort.
In 2007, Milka Duno (Venezuela) became the first women born outside the United States to qualify for the race. Three years later, Swiss native Simona de Silvestro and Brazilian Ana Beatriz joined Fisher and 2005 Rookie of the Year Danica Patrick in the field as the Indianapolis 500 featured a record four women.
In 2011, England’s Pippa Mann joined de Silvestro, Beatriz and Patrick to equal that mark Two years later, Mann’s countrywoman Katherine Legge would join her along with de Silvestro and Beatriz make it three out of four years with a record-tying number of women in the race.
This year, de SIlvestro returns for the first time since 2015. As the 2010 Rookie of the Year attempts to run her seventh “500” with Paretta Autosport. Although it’s been nearly four decades since her run at Indy and has been out of professional racing since 1997, Desiré Wilson continues to leave her mark on the history of the Indianapolis and IndyCar racing.
Header Image By IMS