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Does anybody really suppose that austere Hoosier gentleman, Tony Hulman, is ready to step up to the microphone at Indianapolis next Memorial Day and say, "Lady and Gentlemen, start your engines"? Not likely—but not impossible, either. That thing on the Indy horizon, no larger than a woman's hand, is not just a wandering blot of California pollution. It is a woman's hand.
It is, in fact, the fine Italian hand of Signorina Leila Lombardi, a 31-year-old racing driver who grew up working in a salami factory in the little town of Frugarolo, which is near Alessandria, which is not far from Turin in Italy's Piedmont. In her first U.S. appearance, in the Formula 5000 California Grand Prix at Ontario Motor Speedway over Labor Day weekend, Lombardi made sausage out of some of the big names of U.S. and British motor sports—among them Indy winner Johnny Rutherford and Indy veteran Lloyd Ruby as well as James Hunt, Brett Lunger and Graham McRae.
To be fair, it should be said at once that Leila (pronounced Lay-la) didn't beat all these chargers to the finish line. On her 30th lap of the twisting, 2.9-mile road course laid out within Ontario's great scorched oval, the fuel pickup in her Eagle-Chevy ceased functioning and left Leila stranded and invisible in the "hazy sunshine" (Californian for strangling smog) shrouding the distant third turn. She was running sixth at that point, trailed by Rutherford among others, a position she had maintained for the previous five laps. Hardly anyone doubted she would have held it to the end, or even improved it, if her equipment had not failed. Despite the breakdown, her fast early going placed her 14th—not bad for a lone woman in a field that originally had numbered 47 men. But not good enough for Lella.
"I am disappointed, but I feel very positive about the race," she said a couple of hours later. "Of course, it is better to win." So said another Lombardi, but that conviction and the name seemed to be the only links between the granitic Vince and this peppy little (5'2") woman, a trim 120-pounder with a quick smile. "Seemed" is the operative word. The casual girl watchers admiring Leila after the race would have drowned in their martinis if anyone had told them that this—well, sprite—had spent a good part of the afternoon pushing a 1,450-pound race car, its long nose resembling a hammerhead shark, at 113 mph some 135 miles through Ontario's 99� haze.
What Leila wants Leila may or may not get, but what she already has is gritty dedication and fortitude, which means no complaints or alibis. "I would very much like to race again in the United States," she said. One who would be quick to agree is Marty Friedman, a Los Angeles women's wear manufacturer and racing buff, who understands the value of publicity and who sponsored Leila's car. On the rear of the Eagle was stenciled the legend: EQUAL OPPORTUNITY EMPLOYMENT.
Had Lella really expected to win at Ontario? "I did not come here to lose," she said. None of the racers, Lombardi included, were there for a jolly good time; the entire field was out to challenge Mario Andretti and Brian Redman who were tied for the Formula 5000 series lead with 50 points each.
When the news reached American drivers that a woman would compete against them at Ontario, a good many were annoyed. "I'd guess she'll finish dead last," said one of the latter, who now prefers to remain anonymous. There was less antagonism among British drivers, who were familiar with Lombardi's nine-year racing career in Europe. By Saturday, the official qualifying day for the California race, the outright chauvinists were sulking in their garages and the top drivers were, as they say in Sicily, showing respect.
In the Parnelli Jones garage, where mechanics were tuning his Viceroy Lola, Trieste-born Andretti, who had chatted with Leila in Italian, said, "It's kind of hard to figure her as just another race driver. What do you say when you're both going into a corner... 'After you, Leila'? But you have to give her credit. She is the first real woman professional ever to drive this type of car. From what I have seen she drives very well." Johnny Rutherford said," I don't see that gender makes any difference. If she's brave enough to get out there, we ought to be brave enough to watch her."
Lella was neither put on nor put off by male comments, nor did she see herself as an emissary of Women's Lib. "I am just doing my thing," she said, or at least that's the way it came out in translation. "I have always raced against men. It is nothing new."
It also was not easy. Lombardi bought her own Monza 500 eight years ago when she was 23, and paid her own way, winning three events in that class in 1966. In 1967 Imec, an Italian women's underwear firm, offered her partial sponsorship. Even so, and despite many cash prizes, she worked in her father's salami factory. Then this year ShellSPORT Luxembourg signed her to its European Formula 5000 team. In the interval she had won the Italian women's championship six times, and had done well in the F-Monza and F-850 classes, taking the championship of the former in 1969 and the latter in 1970. In 1972 she switched to Formula Ford, finishing the season in third place, and then moved on to the highly competitive Formula 3 races. Last year at Monte Carlo she was the only woman in the field of 86 F-3 entrants. She qualified with 21 men and drove to a 12th-place finish.