WOMEN'S GLOBAL GT SERIES AN OPPORTUNITY FOR RUMAN
By Al Mattei
To understand Niki Ruman, the racer, is to contrast her with Nicole Ruman, the office professional.
On six weekends a year with the all-star Women's Global GT (WGGT) series, Niki Ruman used to push one of about a score of finely tuned race cars onto the ragged edge of control, competing in a pastime which had been dominated by men since the first road races in France more than a century ago. It is a pursuit some might call "feminist."
On most other days, Nicole Ruman eschews four-wheel transportation and walks to her job at the conservative American Enterprise Institute in Washington, D.C.
There are two different sides to Ruman, who finished her second WGGT season in 2000 before the series merged into the Panoz GT Series. Both are support series of the American LeMans Racing Series (ALMS), the domestic sports car series which sanctions the 24 Hours of Daytona and other endurance races throughout the year.
One side of Ruman is the wire-rimmed intellectual with the business suit and briefcase. But the other side is in view when the helmet and driver suit goes on, and her intense focus and concentration comes into play.
The same goes for her younger sister Amy, who also drove the WGGT series. The same also goes for her mother Barb, who raced Corvettes at one time. These days, all three find time to help run the family Trans-Am team, whose car is driven by Niki's father Bob.
"I find that the women in my family, though being somewhat traditional, have also been somewhat pioneering in their attitudes in terms of being encouraging for going after things that you're interested in -- male or female -- and being very supportive, whatever that may be," Niki Ruman says. "They're not always thrilled about some of the high-end, dangerous activities, but ..."
Ruman doesn't need to say much more; on this day she was still recovering from a back injury sustained while riding a snowmobile. She had to miss the second race of the 2000 season, and returned to the WGGT in the summer, deep in the overall points standings.
Despite starting only half of the WGGT's schedule in 2000, Niki Ruman finished 12th in the points standings. Amy Ruman finished 10th. Few knew that it would be the last time the all-woman series would run in its present form.
She knows her thirtysomething body is up in age in comparison to her driving experience; indeed, she gave up most athletic pursuits (she was a field hockey player in high school) just before entering college, after suffering a knee injury. It was only then, in her late teens, that Ruman began driving in an autocross series, racing against the clock.
She knows that most of her male peers began in quarter-midgets and go-karts in pre-pubescence, and hopes that her building skill set will catch up and make her more than just a competitive driver in WGGT and her other series, the Spec Racer Ford circuit.
"I never say never," Ruman says. "But if you look at the sport of racing, most have a peak zone, and they're really looking for the young kids -- 17 to 21. You have to be racing at a very, very young age to be very good at all. That's what everybody's looking for."
WGGT events, as well as the 2001 Panoz events, are run against the clock, rather than over a set number of laps. Unlike the prototype and GT series, however, the women ran just 45 minutes -- a trophy dash in comparison to the 12- or 24-hour endurance tests.
The WGGT cars were identically prepared Panoz Esperantes, purpose-built race machines which look a little like 60s-era sports sedans. Those machines are scheduled to be used for the Panoz GT series in 2001, as well as the 45-minute time limit.
These cars not only are test beds for the men and women who race them, but serve to test out Michelin street tires (unlike most racing series, the WGGT races on an actual tire that can be bought at an auto shop) as well as for the Ford 4.6-liter V8 engine.
There is enough pump fuel to run the full distance over race courses which can be natural terrain (Road Atlanta, Sears Point) or part of the infield of an oval (Lowe's Motor Speedway, Las Vegas).
But in 2001, all three races are on traditional road courses: Sebring, Mosport Park, and Road Atlanta.
The WGGT never received high billing on race weekends, which is part of life as a support series. Race fans coming out to see a favorite driver in the top series of a particular weekend can be forgiven if they treat the other events on any given race weekend as an afterthought.
For that matter, so can ALMS. In 1999, for example, more than one WGGT race was run immediately after the three-hour main event, when the track is not the best of shape.
"It's very challenging, because there's a lot of rubber and marbles, and there's oil on the track," Ruman says. "It can be very tricky."
WGGT's low stature in the ALMS family also comes from the fact that there were only six races for the WGGT's inaugural season in 1999, and only six in 2000. There was also no major sponsor, which was a reason given for the change in the series.
It was, therefore, not easy for the casual race fan to get wind of the existence of an all-woman racing series; the first major mention of the WGGT in the mainstream media came out in USA Today's 1999 Memorial Day racing section. But fans who came out to see them race became believers.
"One of the best part about being in the women's series was the reaction of the fans to us being there, to see women racing drivers," Ruman says. "This is particularly notable when we had our autograph sessions. The kids would come up and the parents would come up, and the men and the women. It didn't really matter: everyone came through and said, 'We really enjoyed it,' or 'You had a great race,' or 'This is a really cool series.' All of the races were very close, and there was a lot of action, so sometimes people would tell us that we had the best action of the weekend."
Part of the attraction was the different contrasts between drivers. Some are very aggressive, while others, like Niki Ruman, see themselves as the calculating, careful drivers who save the tires and fenders for the final few laps.
"They think of me as the smooth, calculating one and Amy as the aggressive one," Niki Ruman says. "I like to be as aggressive as I can without going too far over the edge. If you don't have a car to finish the race, its not really worth it, is it?"
Television made the racing series easy to follow -- albeit several months after the champions were crowned. The cable racing channel SpeedVision taped all six races and showed them at the same time every week for six weeks -- making the series easy to find on TV if not live.
"I'd like to see this series, as the pool of applicants matures and gets more experience, become more like an IROC series," Ruman says. "Ultimately, I think this series will be more successful if the drivers are successful before they are in it, while they are in it, and after they are in it."
Different drivers found themselves in the WGGT. The Rumans are road racers, while Terry Huntdermark used to race watercraft. Lux ran stocks, while Divina Galica ran British Formula cars in the 70s. Galica, from England, is one of several foreign drivers who joined the WGGT from cultures where the concept of women in motor racing has at times been unthinkable.
"There's definitely an interest in the broader public to have more diversity in motorsports in every way," Ruman says. "I think that a variety of personalities definitely adds to it. What is enjoyable about this series is that there's a variety of people."
There was also a good the sharing of experiences amongst the WGGT regulars, sharing experiences in what is normally a lonely pursuit for a woman in a male-dominated pursuit.
"Being involved (in WGGT) was the first time that Amy and I have gotten to know female racers from across the country, and from overseas," Ruman says. "You're so focused on your own series that you'll only get to really know one or two other female racers the whole season. I hope this will not be the case in years to come. I think the competition/comraderie that ensued from the women's series has opened our eyes to what everyone else is doing, and we've been able to generate a little synergy."
For more information on the Ruman racing family, click here.
For more information on other women racers, click here.