The sleek Lola T-332 racing car crossed the starting line at the Riverside, Calif. Grand Prix, hurtled ahead of three cars and swooped back inside with split-second timing. "You mean that's really a girl?" muttered three-time Indianapolis 500 winner A.J. Foyt, looking on incredulously from the sidelines.

For Lella Lombardi, the first woman in 17 years (and the second ever) to compete on the high-powered Formula One Grand Prix circuit—the big league of professional auto racing—the question is all but inevitable. What in the world Is a nice Italian girl like Lella doing in coveralls and a crash helmet, risking her life at speeds close to 200 miles per hour? "That's what mama keeps asking me," says the tomboyish, 3l-year-old Lella. "I guess she thinks I should be home with a good husband and houseful of bambini."

It was obvious from the beginning—to Lella, at least—that she was cut from different cloth than most girls. Born in the little Piemontese village of Frugarolo, she was hooked on auto racing almost before she was out of her diapers. "The first I remember I am perhaps 4 or 5 years old," she recalls. "I was making little cars from things I find in my mother's sewing box. When I was 8, I decide I shall be a racing driver. I didn't say anything, but I make up my mind."

As a teenager, Lella raced motorcycles with the boys in her village. The boys were scandalized that she beat them—their mothers that she was racing at all. Eventually the village priest came to call. "He explained why I should be like a girl and what a girl must do," she remembers. "So I told him, 'Yes, Father,' but all the time I am thinking why I am not allowed to do as I want."

Nothing if not persistent, Lella saw her first race at 18. Five years later she bought a car of her own, a secondhand Formula Monza 500 that she tinkered with and drove in races herself. Last year, after nearly a decade of coming up through the ranks, she was approached by March Engineering Ltd. of England, which was looking for a driver for its two-man Grand Prix team. "Formula 2, Formula 3, Formula 5000—I race in them all," says Lella. "I win a lot in Italy—six times women's champion. So when March comes to ask me to try out for them, I say to myself, 'Why not?' "

March's decision to hire her was hardly made lightly. A single Grand Prix car costs $100,000, and putting it through a season of racing costs several hundred thousand dollars more. "Putting a woman into a Grand Prix cockpit meant shattering a lot of tradition," acknowledges March team manager Max Mosley. "Of course, my wife kept telling me the only reason I was hesitating was because of Lella's sex, not doubts about her skill. In the end, I guess my wife was right."

Now prepping for this Sunday's Monaco Grand Prix, Lella is given little chance of winning a race this season (although she finished a respectable sixth in last week's accident-shortened Spanish Grand Prix), since March is redesigning its cars. Some drivers, perhaps disturbed by Lella's invasion of their male preserve, doubt the chunky, 120-pound, 5'2" Lombardi has the stamina for long-distance racing. But March crew chief Roy Wardell, who watched her during a grueling test of the company racer, disagrees. "Thrashing a car about is bloody hard work," he says. "Most male drivers would have been bitching and complaining, but she drove more than 300 miles flat-out without a whimper." Her main fault, says Wardell, is a rookie's understandable caution. "Lella is still a bit afraid that if she spins out, everyone will say, 'See, a woman driver,' " he says. "But her confidence is building. Pretty soon she'll be mixing it up with the best of them."