FOR WOMEN IN RACING, HURDLES STILL REMAIN
By Al Mattei
In 2000, Sarah Fisher is hanging onto a podium position in an Indy Racing League event in Las Vegas. On a restart, the 19-year-old phenom pushes the car a little hard for the tire temperature and loops the back end, collecting competitor Eliseo Salazar.
After the race, Salazar calls for Fisher to be excused from the series to run "powerderpuff" racing.
In Texas, a driver named Missy McAllister Kerr seems to be a marked driver at a track in Kennedale, Texas. Her dirt-track stock car is given more intense scrutiny at tech inspections, wild rumors about her sexual orientation were passed around (though she is married), and a male driver whose family business sponsors the local dirt-track series is seen to be given preferential treatment.
At Indianapolis, one of the main stories of the month of May became the fact that not one, but two women -- Fisher and veteran Lyn St. James -- made the Indianapolis 500-Mile Race. But one of the subplots for the Monday morning quarterbacks was the fact that a mid-race collision took out Fisher and St. James, threatening to overshadow Juan Montoya's dominating win.
Women have made strides in big-time motor racing, but attitudes remain a big barrier -- not just in terms of whether a woman belongs behind the wheel of big-horsepower machines, but in the criticism that happens after a mistake.
"There was a lot of discussion as to the range of allowance of mistakes for women versus the range of mistakes that men can make before you really get looked down upon," says Nicole Ruman, a driver in the Women's Global GT (WGGT) Series. "The consensus has been that, as a female driver, your mistakes are magnified by several times, versus if you were a guy, making the same mistakes at the same point in your career."
Some female drivers in major series have had good performances, but not-so-good finishes. Janet Guthrie's foray into Winston Cup racing once featured an excellent run at Daytona which was ended with a broken axle.
St. James, despite starting as high as sixth, has not seen the checkered flag at Indianapolis, either because of contact or mechanical difficulty, since 1994.
"Everyone's racing on the edge," Ruman says. "There's always going to be crashes, there are always going to be spins, there's always going to be contact. There's going to be different interpretations of who had the line, who had the corner, and who had a fender on whom. All you have to do is to watch any NASCAR or Trans-Am race and you can debate all day as to who was making the mistake. But when you throw in another factor, like gender, sometimes there's more debate."
"I don't think it has to do with a woman, but it's anyone who stands out in a sport," says NHRA drag racer Cristen Powell. "If anyone expects you to fail, there'll be more focus on you. I don't necessarily think it's because you're a woman, but it does tend to happen to most women because they do stand out."
As more women have begun to get interested in racing, the successes have begun to come more easily as the acceptance of women in competitive motor racing has increased.
"I'd like to think that, once the helmet goes on, it's driver vs. driver," Ruman says. "That's what most of us female drivers are striving for. That's when it's most enjoyable for us, when we are treated as drivers, and we are criticized like male drivers when we make a mistake."
"But you also get into the limelight if you do something good," Powell says. "It can work either way."
Today's racers do not have many of the barriers that they may have had even in the late 80s, but garnering of respect is still one of the toughest hurdles -- perhaps even tougher than winning a race on track.
"We are still a bit of a rarity," Ruman says. "When it comes right down to it, the respect that a female driver garners comes from the same kinds of characteristics and skill set that the male driver needs to have."