From Louise Smith to Janet Guthrie, female drivers have played roles in the development of stock car racing. In 1946, three years before he started NASCAR, Bill France Sr. needed a novelty driver to promote a race at the Greenville-Pickens Speedway in Greenville, South Carolina. He chose a woman. Louise Smith had never been to the racetrack or driven a race car, but her credentials were highly regarded in the Greenville community. She was rumored to have "outrun every lawman and highway patrol" in the area. They labeled her "crazy."
Smith's fearless and aggressive style of driving earned her a Third-Place finish that day in 1946. Although Smith was only chosen as a publicity stunt for one race, she made a name for herself in the racing world by recording 38 minor-league victories over an 11-year span. Along with those wins came broken bones and one horrendous crash that left her with 48 stitches and four pins in her knee. In 1999, Smith was inducted into the International Motorsports Hall of Fame.
It was a trait that served Janet Guthrie well during her career, as she moved into areas women had never been. Guthrie became the first woman to compete in the Indianapolis 500 and the Daytona 500. She holds the title of being the only woman to lead a Cup race, and her Sixth-Place finish at Bristol Motor Speedway in 1977 remains a record for a female driver in NASCAR. In addition to her accomplishments in NASCAR, she also achieved many "firsts" in the IRL series.
Two years after her last competition in 1988, Guthrie said, "The thing women don't have that men do have is money. Without money, the best race driver in the world is nothing." The exceptional aspect about the sport of racing is, once a driver gets a ride, it's a playing field in which both male and female drivers can compete equally. Every car begins at the start/finish line, makes the same turns, and follows the same rules, but peer approval and corporate sponsorship are hurdles that female drivers have had to overcome in the past.
She blazed the trail for women in big-league racing, but she certainly didn't fight her way into the male-dominated sport for the sake of the women's movement. When the world first heard of Janet Guthrie, she was already an experienced racer with a desperate need to advance. "I was a racer right through to my bone marrow," says Guthrie, who is being inducted April 27 into the International Motorsports Hall of Fame (IMHOF) in Talladega. "I was a racing driver who happened to be a woman. I knew that didn't make any difference, [but] nobody else seemed to at the time."
Guthrie's big break-an invitation to make a qualification attempt for the 1976 Indianapolis 500-came in late 1975, after she'd already competed in 120 sports car races over 13 years. The quiet young lady with a wide smile, a former aerospace engineer with a degree in physics, was a good driver; she had won her class twice in the 12 Hours of Sebring, but she was also dead broke. "I had no house, no jewelry, no insurance, no husband, no savings. I was in debt," she says. "I had one used-up race car, and I was saying to myself, You really must come to your senses and make some provisions for your old age."
Then the phone rang. It was Indy team owner Rolla Vollstedt, whom Guthrie had never heard of. He asked her if she'd like to take a shot at the Indianapolis 500. "All that followed was due to Rolla Vollstedt," Guthrie says. Guthrie drove in her first IndyCar race at Trenton in early May 1976. Then it was on to Indianapolis, where most of the drivers and crews, and some spectators, chose not to welcome with open arms this single, 5-foot, 9-inch, 135-pound female driver.
Vollstedt's car had not made the field at Indy in 1975, even with experienced open-wheel driver Tom Bigelow behind the wheel. Guthrie also could not make it go fast enough to qualify in 1976. But another opportunity had presented itself. Guthrie had received an offer to try to qualify for the World 600 NASCAR race at Charlotte Motor Speedway. "The day after the last day of qualifying at Indianapolis, I was on my way to Charlotte, where it was just like Indianapolis all over again," she says. "People said, 'She'll never make the field.'"
But she did make it, qualifying right behind Dale Earnhardt and Bill Elliott. Then some folks said Guthrie would be worn out after 40 laps in a stock car with no power steering, and she'd have to pull in. They were wrong. They didn't know this soft-spoken, modest woman who liked classical music and ballet was also very, very determined. "I finished Fifteenth," Guthrie says. She had become the first woman to qualify for and compete in a NASCAR race during the sport's modern era.
Guthrie drove in some more NASCAR and IndyCar races in 1976. The next year, she became the first woman to qualify for and race in the Daytona 500. In May 1977, Guthrie and her crew overcame one frustrating problem after another to put a prototype car in the field at Indianapolis, making her the first female driver to qualify and race there. In all, Guthrie competed in three Indianapolis 500s - her best finish was Ninth in 1978 - and 33 NASCAR races between 1976 and 1980. Guthrie's top NASCAR finish was Sixth at Bristol in 1977, where, according to Greg Fielden's book, Forty Years Of Stock Car Racing, she was relieved by driver John A. Utsman. Using a relief driver at Bristol was common in those days, however.
Patty Moise's racing career spanned fifteen years. The daughter of a stock car racer, Moise later married fellow racer Elton Sawyer in 1990. During her career she faced three major challenges. First, Moise had to prove that a woman could succeed in a sport dominated by men. Second, she had to prove herself on the track, not as a woman, but as a driver. Third, Moise had to convince sponsors to fund her racing career. On the first two counts, Moise came through with flying colors, but securing adequate and ongoing sponsorship was her nemesis that ultimately forced her into early retirement.
Patty Moise was born in 1961 in Jacksonville, Florida. Her father, Milton, was a veteran stock car driver and avid racing fan. Moise followed in his footsteps. Although she was never big on sports, she loved speed and accumulated so many tickets and accidents as a teenager that the family's automobile insurance was revoked. Moise attended Jacksonville University, earning a degree in business, but her heart was always in racing. "I'm an adrenaline junkie," she explained to Cosmopolitan. "I like to do things that involve danger."
Moise began racing in 1981, under the guidance of her father. She started out driving road races the first five years of her career. In 1986 Moise switched to oval tracks. Because she was unable to secure adequate sponsorship, during her first three NASCAR seasons she was only able to race part-time. In 1987 she became the first woman to ever lead a Busch event (Road Atlanta), and in 1988 she became the first woman to win a Busch qualifying race (Talladega).
Moise got a break in 1990 when Mike Laughlin, a Simpsonville car builder and team owner, took her on as a full-time driver for the entire season. In the same year she married fellow driver, Elton Sawyer, whom she had met at an auto show. Also in 1990 Moise turned in a NASCAR record fastest lap on Talladega's 2.66-mile track. She shattered the old record by nearly five miles per hour, making the trip around clocked at 217.498 miles per hour. Because Moise completed the lap on a closed course, the previous record of 212.809 miles per hour set by Bill Elliott in 1987 during a qualifying lap remains the official NASCAR record.
NASCAR racing is a fickle business in which finding and retaining sponsorship is the key to success. When Moise failed to make enough good starts in 1990, the following year she returned to part-time racing. From 1991 to 1993 she lined up for a total of only twenty races. In 1994 both Moise and Sawyers secured sponsorship on the Busch Grand National level, a step below the Winston Cup. During the year they often raced against one another, drawing attention from the press. "I think it's great for us to be able to work together," Moise admitted to a NASCAR representative. "As for racing on the track with Elton, this sport takes such a high level of concentration that you really don't have time to think of other drivers, including my husband. But deep down inside I can tell you that passing Elton for a win would make for some interesting conversations during the ride home from the race." In 1995 Moise completed the best finish by a woman to date, running seventh at Talladega.
In 1996 Sawyer made it briefly into the Winston Cup circuit, driving the David Blair Motorsports Ford, and Moise was racing in the Busch Grand National with a Dial-Purex Ford that she and Sawyer had purchased together. On the racing circuit the pressure to perform, to provide value to sponsors' funding venture, is constant. "You can't compete at this level without the sponsors," Moise told USA Today. "And once you get a sponsor, you are an advertising mechanism-you are working for someone else, and you feel the pressure to do well." Again losing sponsoring after the 1996 season, Moise only started one race in 1997, working with limited sponsorship from Pure Silk, whose parent company also sponsored Sawyer under its Barbasol label. On May 31, 1997, Moise completed five laps at Busch Grand National Series race at Dover Downs International Speedway in Dover, Delaware, before crashing and subsequently finished last. She tried but failed to make the field for the Watkins Glen road race.
Moise's future brightened at the end of her dismal 1997 season when she secured a commitment to drive for Michael Waltrip and his wife Buffy. Her car was sponsored by Rhodes Furniture, with associate sponsorships coming from the companies that provide Rhodes' product lines, including Simmons, Kroehler Company, Berkline, La-Z-Boy, Kincaid Furniture, and Sealy. Moise sold herself to Rhodes by pointing out that forty percent of racing fans are women, who in turn make most household decisions. "We all felt that giving a woman the opportunity to compete on a level playing field with adequate funding to support a first-rate team was the right thing to do," George A. Buck, executive vice president of Rhodes told the Associated Press. "Of course," he added, "we also believe it would be good for business."
Moise raced on the Busch Grand National circuit full-time during 1998, but once again funding dried up at the season's end. This led the forty-year-old to decide to retire and focus on her husband's racing future. "Moise should still be racing," Jerry Bonkowski of ESPN noted. "She wasn't just a good female racer, she was a good racer first and foremost, regardless of gender." Following her retirement, Moise declined interviews, preferring that reporters talk to Sawyer whose career was also on hold due to a lack of sponsorship.
During her on-again, off-again racing career, Moise made 133 starts. She was, at the time, only one of six women to ever race on the Busch Grand National circuit. Moise became comfortable with being a woman in a sport dominated by men, but acknowledged that on the track she saw herself as a race car driver, not a female race car driver. She was asked so often how it felt to race as a woman, she began tossing back in response a humorous rebuttal, "You mean, as opposed to when I used to be a man?"
Shawna Robinson began racing snowmobiles. Then, at the age of 19, she began racing diesel trucks in the Great American Truck Racing tour where she competed from 1980-1988. In 1988, she made her NASCAR debut in the Charlotte/Daytona Dash Series finishing third in the Florida 200 at Daytona. She won the Charlotte/Daytona Dash Series event at New Asheville Speedway becoming the first female to ever win a NASCAR Touring event. To cap off her rookie season, she won the Rookie of the Year title and Most Popular Driver. In 1989, she was voted Most Popular Driver for the second year in a row. From 1988-1989, she started all 30 races in the Charlotte/Daytona Dash Series. She scored 3 wins, and 21 top-10s.
In 1991, she made the move to the NASCAR Busch Grand National Series. In 1992, she started 7 NASCAR Winston Cup Series races. Her best finish being a 24th at Daytona. In 1994 she won the pole for the Busch Series event at Atlanta setting a new track record of 174.330 mph and the same year she had her Busch Series career best finish with a 10th. After taking a few years off from racing, Shawna returned to motorsports in 2000 competing in the ARCA/RE-Max Series driving for Michael Kranefuss. She ended the season points championship in the top ten.
She started 3 more events in the Busch Series in 2001. Her highest finish was a 19th place finish at Talladega. She started 1 Winston Cup event in 2001, finishing 34th and 7 events in 2002, her highest finish being 16th at Texas. She started 3 NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series events in 2003, her highest finish being 18th at Texas.
Sponsored by BAM Racing in 2002, Shawna Robinson was scheduled to compete in 24 races. Even though Robinson had success in previous years in ARCA and the lower ranks of NASCAR, lack of sponsorship monies and faulty equipment cut her debut in Cup racing short.
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