Katherine Legge struck a blow for the fairer sex - and for Britain - by claiming victory in the opening round of the Toyota Atlantic series in Long Beach.

The former F3 racer made steady progress up through the field from her seventh qualifying position, before assuming top spot three laps from home when veteran - and leading C2 class runner - Rocky Moran Jr suffered a broken wheel bearing that dropped him back to fourth and, eventually, out of the race.

Legge's success was momentous as she became the first female to win an Atlantic event, eclipsing current IRL driver Danica Patrick's efforts of the past two seasons. Indeed, the 24-year old's success was the first for a woman in any major US open-wheel race, overshadowing the efforts of Sarah Fisher and Lyn St James, and elevating her onto a similar platform to sportscar driver Milka Duno, who last year became the first woman to win a major sportscar event when she shared Grand-Am success with co-driver Andy Wallace.

"What a fantastic race and I'm just so happy for my team - they did an unbelievable job," said Legge, who only joined Polestar Racing Group in March, "I don't think this has quite sunk in yet. It's been a life-long ambition of mine to be sitting in this spot, and I'm very thankful to Kevin Kalkhoven and PKV Racing for giving me this opportunity. And I'm awesomely grateful to Polestar.

"There were a few full-course yellows and it was a long race, but I knew I had time. I didn't even think about winning, I just wanted to stay out of trouble. I had a good start, but I just let Rocky go. I knew I had enough car for him. Hopefully, this will encourage more young girls to get into the sport."

Pole winner Antoine Bessette, who led through to lap 26 of 32, and Charles Zwolsman, who initially occupied the front of the grid before being found guilty of a technical infringement, completed the podium, the Dutch driver having battled from plumb last at the start. Legge held off Polestar Racing team-mate Bessette to the flag by just half a second.

"I'm very happy with my performance and the performance of my car," the runner-up commented, "The track was excellent - but I wish it had stayed green! I was trying to stay clean and I think I did.

Bessette started from the pole and was able to stay clear of an incident at the green flag that involved Andreas Wirth, who started second, and Tonis Kasemets, who lined up sixth at the start. Wirth was forced to retire as a result of the contact while Kasemets lasted 15 laps before his day was done.

"For me, I think it was a good start, but I had bad luck with traffic," Bessette continued, "I got off-line to get around traffic and both the cars behind me had a good line and got past me."

Legge and Brazilian rookie Fernando Rees also got together, in turn one on the twelfth lap. Rees, who started third, got the worst of the exchange as he was forced to park his car as a result of the contact, but Legge continued on, although it appeared that her car had suffered slight damage. The Polestar team hoped that its machine wasn't too negatively affected, as they had spent much of the night fixing it after the young Brit hit the wall during Saturday qualifying.

"For a few corners, I was concerned, as I thought I might have more damage than I did," Legge admitted, "But I just had a bit more understeer."

Everything turned out to be fine on Legge's entry as she settled into an entertaining and tight chase up front with Bessette and Moran. Moran, making his fifth career Atlantic start at Long Beach, moved up from fifth to be in second place by the eighth lap and, despite running a C2 class entry for older Atlantic equipment, ran up front with the championship-class competitors all weekend.

All three drivers took turns leading the race in the final seven laps. With just three tours remaining, Moran was out front, but facing heavy pressure from both Legge and Bessette. It was cruel luck, therefore, when a mechanical problem forced the 'veteran' into the run-off area in turn one and ended his dream day in heartbreak just a few miles short of his third career series victory.

"It's kind of a double-edged sword," Moran admitted, "To go out with two-and-a-half laps to go while leading is tough - it's the kind of stuff you read about. But I'm happy we ran so well and went from fifth to first. It was a great race with a lot of passes and we had fun out there. I'd rather be leading and break down then not be running well and be stuck in fifth or sixth place."

Legge was there to pounce after Moran's misfortune, but she continued to feel the heat from team-mate Bessette, who kept closing on his Polestar partner. However, a nifty bit of driving saw Legge manage to fight back the charge, winning by just 0.507secs.

"I actually thought Rocky had made a mistake and missed the line," the winner said of her accession to the lead.

European racer Zwolsman completed an emotional rollercoaster of a weekend by finishing on the podium on his series debut. Zwolsman's car failed post-qualifying technical inspection on Saturday after he had appeared to capture pole but, after starting from the back of the field due to the infraction, the Dutchman ran an incredible race, moving steadily up through the field to finish third for Condor Motorsports.

"It's been a rollercoaster - I was up and down and up and down," he admitted, "Now, I went up and that was most important. It was quite difficult [moving up], but the guys at the back helped me. They didn't block, and I was passing in every corner. The yellows helped out too, although I got to the front, I couldn't get close enough to pass Antoine and Katherine."

Established sportscar veteran Chris Dyson turned in a good performance as he carded a fourth-place finish is his first Atlantic street race. Local driver Justin Sofio won the C2 class for the second straight year as he wound up fifth overall.

Dan Cobb enjoyed a strong debut, finishing sixth overall and second in the C2 category, while Dan Selznick recorded his best career Atlantic result in seventh. Rookie Kyle Kelley wound up eighth on debut for McAtee Motorsports, ahead of fellow newcomer Mark Ishikakawa and the luckless Moran.

Legge now carries a slim one-point lead over Bessette into the second round of the championship, in Monterrey, Mexico, in the middle of May.