Janet Guthrie remembers feeling like a sideshow for the main event when she qualified for the 1977 Indianapolis 500, the first woman to race in the world's biggest open-wheel event.

Thirty-one years later, three women are entered in next month's Indy race and there's no question that Danica Patrick is standing center stage in the world of American open-wheel racing after becoming the first woman to win an IndyCar race last Sunday night in Japan.

"Back then, I predicted it might be two generations (before a woman won)," Guthrie said Tuesday, chuckling during a telephone interview. "But it turns out to be just a generation-and-a-half."

Was the win by Patrick a surprise to Guthrie?

"Like I've been saying, anybody who didn't think she was going to win simply hadn't been paying attention," Guthrie said.

"It's interesting, on the blogs, I can't believe it _ well I can believe it _ there's still so much naysaying: 'Oh, she only won because of fuel conservation strategy, blah, blah.'

"Well, guess what, there were times when she could have won except somebody else had a better fuel conservation strategy," Guthrie continued. "She has been in the hunt for a long time. And, when you are in the hunt, then the win is just a matter of minor strokes of luck."

Lyn St. James, who followed Guthrie to Indy in the 90s, but whose IndyCar career consisted of only nine races over 13 years, also said by phone it may be a good thing the first victory by a female didn't come earlier.

"The talent was there and the ability was there, but the ingredients weren't there until this last decade," St. James noted. "It's too bad it's taken this long, but the reality is that because there are so many more (women) in the pipeline, I think it's almost better now.

"If it had happened earlier, it may have been considered a fluke because there wouldn't have been anybody to follow it up. It's not like the floodgates have suddenly opened up, but I can tell you there are lot more (women) in the pipeline, and this will put a lot more (emphasis) on it."

Sarah Fisher was the next woman to get to Indy, in 2000. She showed plenty of talent, finishing second at Homestead-Miami Speedway in 2001 _ the only woman to finish that high until Patrick's second-place run last year in Detroit _ and became the first woman to win an IndyCar pole in 2002 at Kentucky.

But Fisher, the most popular driver in the IRL from 2001 through 2003, couldn't find enough sponsorship to keep her in a full-time ride. She recently announced the formation of her own team, which will make its debut next month at Indy.

"(Patrick's win) marks the celebration for all of us who have chipped away at the barriers that many women have faced in fields that are dominated by men," Fisher said in a statement after the race in Japan. "To finally have a female win an open-wheel race is simply a progression of what Janet Guthrie started.

"The torch was passed to me when I became the first female to win the pole position in 2002. It's been a joint effort to cast off the doubts in the minds of those that think women can't compete in the auto racing field."

St. James said it's ridiculous that Patrick has taken so much heat for failing to find Victory Lane until her 50th IRL start.

"We all saw she had some opportunities slip away last year," she said. "I don't think it's so long or so bad. If anything, I've watched her improve every race every season.

"Even if you're as prepared as you want to be, you're still learning the tracks, learning the chassis and the car setups and working with new teams or working with new engineers, personnel changes. All of that has to click and groove, and it takes time."

Guthrie echoed St. James, noting that Patrick is part of a strong team with top-notch equipment at Andretti Green Racing.

"Certainly, when I was driving, I said that success was 25 percent driver, 75 percent car, and in order to win you have to have it all," Guthrie said. "Of course, that's what Danica has. She does have the talent and she also has the team."

St. James said one of the things that excites her most is not just the win, but Patrick's start this season and the fact that she goes to Kansas Speedway this weekend third in the points after finishes of sixth, 10th and first.

"She has a chance to contend for a championship, which is really a legacy," St. James said. "Since Shirley Muldowney (in drag racing) there has never really been a female at any top level of racing win a championship. I'm really thinking ahead."

St. James, whose foundation runs a driver development program for women racers, said that all most people wanted to talk about during the years she raced at Indy was women's place in racing and if they could be successful.

"When I used to go there in May and qualify and had to go through the media, I would talk about the whole issue of women in racing," she said. "I always tried to talk more about my sponsors and my accomplishments as much as possible. But, at the same time, I was telling them that there was more coming.

"Danica came through our driver development in '95 when she was 14 and came back when she was 15. She was one of those that I knew was potentially special. Obviously, a lot had to take place to make what has happened happen. Once she got there, though, it was just a matter of when and not if."

St. James added, "We have a scholarship grant program and I'm trying to make sure that pipeline is given the right preparation so they can accomplish the same type of things (as Patrick) and not struggle and just be a sideshow."

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press.