Women In The Motorsports Industry
Three top drivers are striving to take advantage of unprecedented opportunities as they attempt to move a step further than those before them. Female drivers continue to make small strides to earn recognition and respect on the track. Allison Duncan, Sarah Fisher, and Erin Crocker, three popular female drivers in NASCAR's development program, share many common attributes. They each have a strong work ethic and a desire to be a competitive Cup driver, but they also have possibly the most needed trait for women in motorsports-patience.
As in the early years, some of the same struggles still remain for women in the motorsports industry, but thanks to some strong-willed ladies who refuse to lose heart, they will continue on their mission to add diversity in racing despite the problems and the setbacks that have marked previous efforts. "What it is going to take is a car owner, like a Rick Hendrick or a Jack Roush or a Joe Gibbs, or someone who is well known and knows the equipment to put a female in a car and bring her up the same way Jimmie Johnson or Ryan Newman or Jeff Gordon has been brought up," Robinson said in a 2002 interview. "Then that is when you are going to see it happen, and it is probably going to be past my time when something like that happens, [but] I think eventually there will be one put in that position."
When open-wheel driver Danica Patrick burst on the scene with a Fourth-Place finish in the Indianapolis 500 last summer, the Indy 500 television ratings jumped 40 percent, and the IRL Web site had a 265 percent increase in hits. The media then went into a frenzy searching for NASCAR's version of Danica. Ironically, NASCAR began its search for the next female driver in 2002 when the driver development program, Drive for Diversity, was created. Duncan, Fisher, and Crocker are involved in the Drive for Diversity program. Duncan and Fisher drive for the Bill McAnally/Richard Childress Development program, and Crocker is a member of the Ray Evernham Racing Development program.
Crocker grew up in Massachusetts, and at the age of 7 began racing Quarter Midgets. "I knew when I was small I wanted to be somebody, and I guess all small children think that at some point," says Crocker. "My brother was very successful when he was racing, and he was going to be the star of the family, which was understandable. My father passed away when I was in high school, and at that time my brother lost his drive. I continued to go to races by myself and get in cars here and there. At one point I really wanted to be a professional ski racer. I wanted to go to the Olympics. I trained like crazy and sometime in the middle of college I had the opportunity to drive this guy's Sprint Car. To me, at the time, it was a huge opportunity. Literally from that day on, I have used most of my time to try and make it work."
Crocker remains the only woman in history to win a World of Outlaws Sprint Car race. In the spring of 2003, Crocker graduated from the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York, earning a bachelor's degree in industrial and management engineering.
Duncan grew up in the backyard of the Infineon Raceway, formerly known as Sears Point, in San Rafael, California, and has fond memories of the first time her father took her to the racetrack. "It was the very first race that NASCAR had at Sears Point," Duncan says. "That is about 15 or 20 miles from my house where I grew up. I was this little kid up against the fence, and I was absolutely enthralled by it. From the second the first car rolled out on the racetrack, I was immediately hooked on racing. The feeling in the air, the excitement, the speed, the adrenaline, the smells, just everything about racing immediately hooked me." At the age of 17, Duncan began her career in motorsports by racing in series such as the Sports Car Club of America, Late Model Stocks division, and the Women's Global GT Championship.
Duncan earned her bachelor's degree in mechanical engineering from California Polytechnic University. "One of my biggest role models has always been Alan Kulwicki," Duncan says. "He is one of the people who inspired me to go to school and get my engineering degree. I think my degree helps me tremendously every day when it comes to driving the car, when it comes to relating to the crew, and when it comes to understanding the changes we are making to the car and how that is going to affect the setup and the handling of the car. I think that is one of the things most people don't typically expect a female driver to have-a strong technical background. I think it just makes me a better, well-rounded driver." On June 11, 2005, Duncan became the first woman to win in the Western Late Model Series when she won a NASCAR-sanctioned race at Stockton 99 Speedway in California.
Sarah Fisher's mom and dad actually met while racing go-karts in Ohio when Sarah's mom took the checkered flag. Fisher couldn't escape racing-it's in her blood. "I have been racing since I was 5 years old, so that is all I know," Fisher says. "It was a very competitive environment I was raised in. Racing was one hundred percent of all the time I had. My parents were very strict with the grade point average that I carried. They wouldn't let me drop anything below a B or we wouldn't go racing. The time I had to work on the race cars while my dad was running his fabrication business and the time I had to do schoolwork and go to school was all the time I had, period."
Like Crocker and Duncan, Fisher regards a college degree as very important. Currently, Fisher is pursuing a marketing degree at Ellis College. "I have a year to go," says Fisher. "I am in an online program similar to the University of Phoenix. I really love school, and both of my parents are college educated and it is very important for me to do that."
Fisher's career highlights include being the youngest driver in IRL IndyCar Series history to race (at the age of 19 in 1999), and in 2000 she became the third woman to qualify for the Indy 500. She was also voted the "Most Popular Driver" in each of her three years as an open-wheel racer in the Indy Racing League.
All of these high-profile drivers agree they have received many benefits from the Drive for Diversity program. "Well, I don't think Richard Childress would know who I was if it weren't for the Drive for Diversity Program," Duncan says. "We had been going and testing for the Drive for Diversity program a week or so ago, and I was there driving a car in front of and getting a chance to talk to representatives from a lot of top Nextel Cup teams. That is huge to get your name out there. If it weren't for the Drive for Diversity program, I don't think I would have a couple of years of Late Model racing under my belt." "It has provided me with an audience, more or less in NASCAR," Fisher explains. "For myself, I am the enemy. I came from a series they were not a part of. I had to back down to learn a lot of techniques required to drive these cars. The program just gave me an audience I could talk to and ask questions."
Each driver's attempt to progress into the Cup Series will be gradual, learning from the ground up. Duncan, 26, and Crocker, 24, understand the importance of persistence. "One of the big things is seat time," says Childress, who has avoided moving up too soon with either driver. Especially in stock cars, you get in a Late Model and you get out there and beat and bang and take your Saturday night licks," he adds. "Then you move up to the next bigger track, then the next bigger track, and then you take a look at how far you want to go."
Every year the number of female racers increases, and on any given Saturday night they can be seen behind the wheel at tracks across the country. In spite of past struggles, female drivers are very optimistic about their opportunities to make it to NASCAR's top levels. "In the past year, myself, Sarah, and Erin have gotten opportunities to get in really good equipment," Duncan says. "I always go back to Shawna Robinson. I think Shawna is a very talented race car driver. I don't think that Shawna was ever in a car capable of winning a race. She has never been in RCR equipment, or Evernham equipment, or Hendrick equipment. I think women are finally getting opportunities in top-notch equipment, and that makes a difference. You need to be in good equipment to win races. It's a very exciting time to be a female in motorsports because the opportunities are becoming available to us. Now we just need to go out and put them to good use."
Fisher agrees with Duncan and paraphrases Ryan Newman on what it takes for any driver, male or female, to be successful on the track. "To be successful and win in the sport of racing, you have to have every single element, every single part of your team," says Fisher. "Ryan Newman said it the best the other day on TV-every variable has to be right, and without every variable being right you are not going to win. That is true no matter if you are a female or a male. That is a very tough thing to do and very admirable to those who achieve it."
The USAC Focus Midget Series, which uses full-up Midget race cars and stock Ford Focus engines, provides an excellent learning environment for young racers. Drivers age 16 and up have learned to drive a full-sized race car with reduced power in this series, which is run nationwide. There are a number of female drivers doing well.
This much can be learned from the Danica Patrick phenomenon of last year: The motorsports world is ripe for the acceptance of a successful female driver. Patrick's performance-she led 19 laps and finished Fourth in the Indianapolis 500-set in motion a bona fide media frenzy in the weeks subsequent to the historic open-wheel race. From the cover of Sports Illustrated to network talk shows, Danica became all the rage.
A similar run in the Daytona 500 by a female would generate the same reaction, according to Richard Childress, who has drivers Allison Duncan and Sarah Fisher as members of his NASCAR development program. "I think it could open a whole new avenue for people, and I think there are some ladies out there who have the potential of doing it," says Childress. "Right now, the biggest thing any of them need-even Danica if she came down here to race-is seat time. That's what we're trying to get for Sarah and for Allison. It just takes a lot of seat time in a stock car. You learn something every time they go out, and they just keep getting better. I think it would be huge if a lady would come down here [and excel]. Just our demographics, which show us with [a fan base of] 44 percent women, is huge, as are the sponsoring opportunities and the media opportunities. But at the end of the day, they still have to be successful to bring sponsors."
Judging from the marketing success of Patrick, the corporate world appears ready to support a female at the top of the sport, as sponsorship dollars are almost certain to flow to the female driver who can consistently and successfully compete with stock car racing's top names. Several companies would likely jump at the chance to support a winning female driver in the top levels of NASCAR. "We've had a couple of companies talk to us about that, but what we do is basically say that we don't have anybody ready to move to that level," says Childress. "And the worst thing you could do with either of the ladies we work with is move them up even to Busch too soon. It's a whole different world when you get into Busch racing, and the water really gets deep when you step into Nextel Cup racing. We don't want to rush them. I want to see them be successful and be able to stand up to the guys."
Ultimately, the trait that marks most successful drivers-dogged determination-may determine just how far a female driver will go in the sport someday. "I think both these girls who drive for us want it, and they want to be winners and be successful," says Childress. "They don't want it just because they can say, Hey, I'm a lady, I need a break. They'll go out there and race hard with the guys, and that's what you've got to have."
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