Women Make Significant Gains During The Indy 500's First Century

05/27/2015 02:06 pm ET | Updated May 27, 2016

"Ladies and gentleman, start your engines!"

The words have been echoed before. Yet, during the 99th running of the Indianapolis 500, their utterance by Indianapolis Motor Speedway chairwoman, Mari Hulman George, represented significant meaning. As the Indianapolis 500 closed out its first century of running, Hulman George's presence at the podium was symbolic of the event's wide-reaching and broad inclusion of women during its first 99 years.

Women found a place in the Indy 500 early, with some becoming team owners or sponsors in the 1920s. Progress towards female inclusion in the event gained the most speed, though, during the 1970s. 1977 in particular was a pivotal year for women's involvement in the Indy 500. After the passing of Tony Hulman, his wife, Mary Fendrich Hulman, took over as chairman of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Also in 1977, Janet Guthrie became the first woman to qualify for the race. Beyond that, female reporters gained access to the pit area in the 1970s, signaling the wide scope of progress made by women towards inclusivity at the Indy 500 during the decade.

Since the 1970s there has not been any slowing down of women's involvement with the Indianapolis 500. That fact was perhaps the most apparent in 2015 during the 99th running of the race.

This year's field of 33 featured two female Indy 500 veteran drivers, Simona de Silvestro and Pippa Mann. The two may be joined by another female driver next year, with the announcement that the first all-female team in IndyCar history, Grace Autosport, will seek to qualify Katherine Legge for the race's 100th running.

Through a female chair and multiple female drivers competing to kiss the bricks, the role of women in the Indianapolis 500 is visibly apparent. Yet, the gender inclusivity of the event becomes more apparent behind-the-scenes.

Walking the grid, one quickly realizes that women have entwined themselves with every part of race day operations at the Indianapolis 500. From pit crews to news reporters and over the wall personnel to engineers, women serve a role in every component of the Indy 500. While the growing involvement of women in the Indy 500 may be surprising to some, it comes as no shock to the women forging careers through the motor sports industry.

Take for instance, Cara Adams. As a senior project engineer for Bridgestone Americas Tire Operations, Adams is responsible for designing and engineering the tires used by all Indy 500 drivers on race day.

A graduate of the University of Akron with Mechanical Engineering and Spanish degrees, Adams credits her mother's role as a science teacher and grandfather's position as a NASA scientist for instilling in her the passion to attain her current position. "I always thought of science as being fun. It was a way to play with toys and understand how things worked," Adams said.

Today, Adams gets to enjoy that fun inside of Bridgestone's labs, where she has already begun plans for designing next year's race tire. "To have in the back of my mind that these drivers are trusting the tires that I'm the lead engineer for gives me goose bumps," Adams described.

Adams never perceived her gender as a barrier to excelling in the motor sports industry. "When I got to Bridgestone, I asked the manager of the engineering group what skills or traits the perfect engineer would have for the race tire development group. Once I learned what those skills were, I went out and bought textbooks to begin learning them. I wanted the decision to give me the position to be based on me being the best possible candidate and not being male or female," Adams explained.

Unlike other segments in sports, Adams has a surprising number of female counterparts to engage with and be mentored by. Lisa Boggs currently serves as Bridgestone America's Director of Motor Sports -- a position previously held exclusively by men. During her tenure in the motor sports industry, which has seen roles in advertising agencies, racing teams and now Bridgestone America, Boggs has witnessed the sport and industry's inclusivity of women.

"What's interesting is I was never in a situation where there weren't a lot of women. Advertising and public relations agencies have a lot of women. Even motor sports does. What's evolving, though, is what the women are doing. We have a woman designing tires for the Indy 500. Some are going over the wall with drivers. My role of marketing and communications bridges that. Many women do marketing and communications, but I bridge it through holding the director role with a tire company," Boggs noted.

Women have made significant career gains in motor sports during the Indy 500's first century. What, then, exists for them moving into the race's second century?

"Women are pursuing things that they may not have in the past, because there's the opportunity to do so. Doors are opening and they are learning and jumping through them. There are no limits to what a woman can do in this industry. The proof in the pudding is we are seeing women in the cars and they are doing very well," Boggs said.