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Mann only woman on Indy 500 grid this year

By Steve Keating

INDIANAPOLIS (Reuters) - After years of building up a presence at the Indianapolis 500 there will be a noticeable lack of girl power when the green flag drops at the Brickyard on Sunday.

At one time, the only females on starting grids were the glamorous models holding placards with drivers' names on them, but last year there were four women in last year's 33-car field at the Indianapolis 500.

But on Sunday when Pippa Mann takes the command to "start your engines," the Briton will be waving the female flag alone.

"It's actually a little strange, I'm used to seeing a few other women out here," said Mann, who will be lining up in her third Indy 500. "I don't notice it when I'm out in the car but I do when I look around the garage. It feels a little odd to be just me."

Women have been part of every Indy 500 discussion since 2005 when Danica Patrick burst onto the IndyCar scene claiming rookie of the year honors after she led the race and finished fourth.

But Patrick, once the darling of IndyCar and the series' marketing dynamo, has taken her considerable sponsorship and high-profile to NASCAR.

Swiss Simona de Silvestro, who tried to fill the void when Patrick jumped ship, has also moved on testing for Sauber and is poised to join Formula One while Brazil's Ana Beatriz, Britain's Katherine Legge and Venezuelan Milka Dunno have fallen by the wayside given a lack of results and sponsorship.

It is that shortage of funding, not ability, that accounts for the drop-off in women drivers, according to Mann.

"It's tough for everyone to go out there and put together partnerships to run, it doesn't matter whether you are male, female, Russian, American, English," said Mann. "It doesn't matter where you are from, who you are or what gender you are.

"It is just a tough economic climate for all drivers.

"Personally I think it is a good thing that it is as hard for us as our male counterparts because when we get here we have truly earned it."

This year's 500 might have been the first since 1999 to run without at least one woman on the starting grid if Mann had not secured what she terms a partnership with the Susan G Komen cancer organization and Dale Coyne racing to drive the number 63 pink car to help raise awareness and money for breast cancer research and awareness.

Mann, who has spent her entire career avoiding female cliches like wearing pink, will be dressed from head-to-toe in the color on Sunday, including the repainting of her red and yellow helmet which she has fiercely protected for 10 years as part of her racing identity.

With no women currently racing full-time in IndyCar series, Formula One is seriously flirting with the idea of female drivers.

De Silvestro continues to test for Sauber while Susie Wolff could become the first woman driver in 22 years to take part in a Formula One Grand Prix weekend this season after Williams said the Scot would be on track for them in two free practice sessions later this year.

With the gender spotlight slowly shifting from IndyCar to F1, the 30-year-old Mann admitted to feeling a bit alone at the speedway this week but come Sunday she will be focusing on the boys.

"I certainly miss seeing and having the other girls around but that acceptance hasn't changed between me and the other drivers just because they are not here," said Mann.

"From a personal standpoint, as someone who views herself as a bit of an advocate for female drivers in general and who tries to help young female drivers, yes I am a little disappointed there is only me.

"But from the standpoint does it affect me any other way no it doesn't.

"All the guys I am racing out there they just view me as a driver when I have the crash helmet on."

(Editing by Frank Pingue)

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