LI's female racers thrilled Danica Patrick making inroads

Marisa Niederauer, a modified race car driver is Marisa Niederauer, a modified race car driver is photographed with her car in a barn in Wading River. Photo Credit: Joseph D. Sullivan

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There are no passenger seats in race cars, but several of Long Island's most accomplished female drivers will feel as if they are riding shotgun with Danica Patrick in Sunday's Daytona 500.

Patrick is the first female to start the Great American Race, the kickoff to the NASCAR season, from the No. 1 position.

"I think it's wonderful," said Marisa Niederauer, 26, a driver from Plainedge. "So many times people are like, 'Women belong in the kitchen, they don't belong behind the wheel.' . . . When you get into the race car, the race car doesn't know if you are a male or female. And people wouldn't even know if they didn't see who was under the helmet."

Patrick, 30, won the Daytona 500 pole position during time trials last weekend. While starting the race in first place is far from a guarantee that she'll finish it in first place, it is another big step in creating a gender-neutral playing field in one of America's most popular sports.

Patrick is one of 10 active female NASCAR drivers, but the only woman presently competing in the elite Sprint Cup division. Her achievement is great news for Long Island's female drivers.

"It just proves that it's reachable," said Erin Dumicich, 25, a driver from East Quogue who has three career wins at Riverhead Raceway. "It's reachable on the local level like we do every Saturday night, but it actually can be done [at the highest level]. She will make history, which will be pretty awesome."

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Holtsville's Amber Fortin, 20, who has raced at Riverhead since she was 16, said she dreams of following Patrick to the Daytona 500 someday.

"I can't even imagine," she said. "Going 200 miles per hour, it's got to be so much fun. It's got to be wild. Intense. It's got to be crazy, guys all over the place around you and pushing you and shoving you. It's got to be fun."

Fortin said that a win by Patrick would be monumental for female drivers. But she is not counting on it.

"I don't think she's going to win," she said. "If she wins, it's good for all the girl racers, but I don't think she has a shot. I don't think she's that good yet."

Not everyone agrees with that.

"I think her chances are a lot better now than what they were two years ago," Dumicich said. "I feel like she has grown a lot as a driver even though you see people are still doubting her. She has a lot to prove, but I think that she can eventually do it."

If she does, it could have the same effect on racing that the United States' 1999 Women's World Cup victory had on soccer, inspiring a generation of young girls who became more interested in the sport.

"It would be awesome for all of the little girl fans to look up to someone," Dumicich said.

And if not Sunday, then Patrick at least showed that she can win the time trials and drive the fastest car -- even if it was a week too early.

"To get the pole at Daytona, that's an accomplishment in itself," Niederauer said. "Nobody can take that away from her."

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