By Steve Keating
(Reuters) - Women are poised to return to the Indianapolis 500 starting grid this year with a female-led ownership group and driver that could herald a new era in IndyCar racing, Indianapolis Motor Speedway said on Tuesday.
Paretta Autosport will be spearheaded by automotive and motorsport executive Beth Paretta with 2010 Indianapolis 500 Rookie of the Year Simona De Silvestro back in the cockpit for what is billed as "The Greatest Spectacle in Racing".
Yet the goal is far bigger than a one-off, with plans to have an all-women outfit eventually running full-time on the IndyCar Series.
Put together with the help of IndyCar's Race for Equality and Change initiative, Paretta Autosport will also benefit from a technical alliance with powerhouse Team Penske and billionaire owner Roger Penske, who last year purchased the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and IndyCar Series.
"Change is happening," said Paretta. "The past several years there's been some progress with programs to get more female drivers on the grid, from all female driving lineups in sports cars, the W Series, these are all great strides.
"We believe there is a lot more to do and a lot more opportunities."
From car owner Maude Yagle in 1929 to Danica Patrick more recently, women have had a presence at the Brickyard, but progress was slowed last year when for the first time since 2000 there was not at least one woman in the starting field.
There were four women sprinkled through the 33-car starting grids in 2010, 2011 and 2013.
A five-times Indy 500 starter, De Silvestro last raced at the Brickyard in 2015, but has spent her time since driving in a number of series from Australian Supercars to Formula E.
The Indy 500 will be the launching pad for the ambitious outfit with Paretta hopeful of running "one or two" other races this year with an eye on running a full schedule in 2022.
"I know that there's already interest from some to do a few more races even this year, so we'll look at that," said Paretta. "My hope is that we could maybe even run a full season next year, always pushing forward, but we'll see how it pans out."
(Reporting by Steve Keating in Toronto. Editing by Toby Davis)