More women are participating in sports than ever before. That's probably also true of auto racing. Statistics show that about one third of Soap Box Derby participants and 15 percent of go-kart racers are girls. But few ever rise to the higher levels of the sport.
There is no woman driving at any of NASCAR's top levels-the Winston Cup, Busch Grand National, or the Craftsman Truck Series. The last woman to compete in Winston Cup was Janet Guthrie in 1978. She logged 31 races over three seasons. According to historian and author Greg Fielden, Guthrie is the 10th woman to compete in Winston Cup in NASCAR's 51-year history. No woman has run the premiere series with any success or consistency in NASCAR's modern era, which dates back to 1971. The Busch Series has been without a regular female driver since Patty Moise withdrew in 1998 after losing her sponsor.
We might call Louise Smith and Sara Christian NASCAR pioneers, but when the dust settled on the trails they and others attempted to blaze in the early days, no one else followed them. Smith, of Greenville, South Carolina, won 38 Modified races, taking the measure of the best male chauvinists from 1946-56, and last year became the first woman enshrined in the International Motorsports Hall of Fame. Christian competed in the first NASCAR Strictly Stock race, the forerunner of Winston Cup, in 1949, and in six of the first eight events that historic year.
On the HorizonThe glaring gender disparity may be changing, even if at a stroker's pace. Is there a woman driver on the Winston Cup horizon? Is her name Shawna Robinson? The answers should come in two or three years.
Robinson is running the full 22-race Automobile Racing Club of America (ARCA) schedule this year in Kmart-sponsored Fords owned by Michael Kranefuss and Jeremy Mayfield. Kranefuss, the highly respected former director of Ford Motor Company's worldwide motorsports operations, is co-owner, along with Roger Penske, of Mayfield's Winston Cup team.
Robinson, a Charlotte resident and Iowa native, appears to have the best opportunity to succeed among any female driver currently involved in racing. Her driving career spans 17 years and includes rides in NASCAR's Busch and Dash Series. She also has what most other women who came before her lacked: owners with ample resources that are committed to racing and provide her with first-class equipment.
Robinson's situation, given her previous experiences, seems almost too good to be true. She has 52 starts in four years in the Busch series but never raced with the same team a full season or ran the complete schedule.
"I could get funding for a team, but quality of equipment and lack of consistency were my biggest roadblocks," she says. "It wasn't because I'm a woman. I'm not pointing any fingers. It happens to guys, too. When things seemed to be coming together in Busch, a good sponsor pulled out. Not because of me, they said, but to restructure their marketing program. If I could have gotten a car owner to give me a chance; a Bill Davis or Robert Yates, for example-I could have gotten a sponsor. I became so frustrated in Busch that I didn't make good decisions."
Big BreakRobinson took a four-year sabbatical from racing to start a family and build a business outside racing. At Daytona in 1999, she returned to the track, driving a car owned by James Finch, a Florida construction businessman. She took that ride to second place in the ARCA 200, tying the best finish by a woman in any form of Stock Car racing at the speedway. Kranefuss liked what he saw and signed Robinson. She responded with fourth place in her debut with the team in an ARCA event at Lowe's Motor Speedway last year. In the ARCA opener at Daytona this season, she was seventh when she was swept into a wreck not of her making and finished 12th.
The rest is largely up to Robinson and fate, and it's not going to be easy. ARCA is no powder-puff series, but neither is Robinson. Outside of six Winston Cup venues, there are bullrings at places like DeGraff, Ohio, and Salem, Indiana. But then, she already knows that.
"I realize I have the best chance I've ever had. I have to prove that I am a driver. The owners are looking at me as a driver, not as a marketing strategy," she says. "I wanted this opportunity 10 years ago, but it just wasn't the right time. I believe God has a plan; things happen for a reason. I think the time is better now for a female in racing and for women in sports in general."
With Kranefuss and Kmart, Robinson has the best shot of any woman in the country to succeed in NASCAR's highest ranks. "For sure in Busch, maybe in Winston Cup," says Lyn St. James, the nation's premiere female driver and the strongest, most passionate advocate of greater opportunity for women racers.
Waiting in the Wings"I used to think the roadblocks for women in racing were lack of talent and desire," St. James says, "but I know now that's not true, and Shawna is a prime example. There are some incredibly talented women with lots of desire and determination out there."
There is Renee Dupuis and Sarah Fisher, for example. Dupuis, like Robinson, has recently gotten the big break she has been waiting for. Dupuis, 27, a Glastonbury, Connecticut, native who started racing quarter-midgets at age 5, has been stuck at the local level-specifically, Riverside Park Speedway in Agawam, Massachusetts-until this year. She has moved up with car owner Bill Woodman to the NASCAR Featherlite Modified Series as part of a three-team Modified operation that includes Ted Riggott, and three-time and defending Modified champion, Tony Hirschman.
"It's the best situation I've ever been in ... to move forward," says Dupuis, a University of Connecticut graduate. "In a year or two, Bill's plans are to take the three teams to the (NASCAR) Busch North Series. I want to stay in the NASCAR family and progress as far as I can. At the same time, I want to be happy and create a life for myself. I've never had a better chance to do that than right now."
Fisher is a petite, 19-year-old Indy Racing League rookie who appears to have a bright future in open wheel racing after following a course in go-karts, Sprints, and Midgets similar to that of Winston Cup phenom Jeff Gordon. Fisher finished a respectable 13th and 17th in her first two IRL outings this season. She planned to live out her dream in May as only the third woman to drive in the Indianapolis 500, joining St. James-who aimed to make her seventh 500 start-and Guthrie, who drove in three.
"I've always liked Indy car racing, and my goal was to get there," says Fisher, a native of Commercial Point, Ohio, who has relocated to Indiana and temporarily put her college education on hold. "Racing and school are all I have ever wanted to do. My long-term goals are to win the Indianapolis 500 and the IRL champion-ship." Apparently, she's on her way.
St. James attributes the dearth of women racers in high places to a combination of factors, among them lack of funding, lack of developmental programs, and owners who are not receptive to women driving their cars.
"Obviously, the common denominator in all forms of racing is funding," says St. James. "That's not just NASCAR Winston Cup; it's across the board ... Corporate America flat doesn't support women racers, and that includes women that are CEOs and control the budget. We've got to find companies that understand motorsports. There are a finite number of them that are really looking at motorsports as a marketing tool. Believe me, I have hit all the cosmetics and apparel companies without success. What people think is the obvious in the real world doesn't exist ... I'm a prime example of a woman who has demonstrated the skill and the capability but has not been able to sustain a career. I've been in 15 races in seven years. It's simply a lack of funding ... Shawna has a good shot with Kmart because the company already has a motorsports program, knows how to use it, and has a broad market reach."
The IRL and Championship Auto Racing Teams (CART) have established development programs for women drivers, and they are working. Recently, NASCAR announced a program to promote diversity within the organization and throughout the racing industry, but it has shown no interest in women drivers, St. James says. However, NASCAR has always had an open-door policy for competitors, regardless of sex or race.
Car owners need to open their eyes to women for their talent and ability, not just for publicity and novelty's sake. "If Dick Simon hadn't taken a chance with me, I wouldn't have had a career," St. James says. Robinson adds, "I owe what I have now to James Finch for having enough faith in me to give me that one-race deal."
This old graybeard has pulled for Shawna Robinson, a media favorite, through thick and thin. She has no interest in becoming the first woman to do this or that; she simply wants to race on an equal footing. Lots of people are watching and rooting for her, and not all of them are wearing skirts. We wish her well, along with all the women who want to race. Give 'em hell, girls!