Does IndyCar Still Welcome Women?

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Much was made about former IndyCar driver Danica Patrick earning the pole for this Sunday’s Daytona 500 – and rightfully so. It is historic and significant that a woman is on the pole for any Sprint Cup event – especially their biggest race. It is ironic that it comes at a time when the IZOD IndyCar Series – a series much better known for providing women more opportunities to race; more than any other top level series on the planet – is down to only one full-time driver for the 2013 season. On Trackside recently, they read a couple of tweets from listeners wondering if IndyCar had declared war on women. Hardly.

With only one full-time driver for 2013, it may seem that way to some, however. There are various reasons for that, but it is not due to a shortage of available women drivers. IndyCar has been much more open to women drivers to the point that it is no loner a novelty. There are two reasons why Danica has caused a stir this week – one because she won the pole at NASCAR’s top level and also because it is on their biggest stage. It doesn’t hurt that the choices for TV sports viewing is rather sparse next Sunday. I don’t tune in to every NASCAR event, but I always watch the Daytona 500. On Sunday, even the most casual fan will be tuning in.

NASCAR has not always been so open. IndyCar wasn’t so open either, but they came around to the idea a lot sooner than NASCAR. The fact that women in racing is no longer a novelty in IndyCar is both a blessing and a curse for women trying to break into the top level in open-wheel racing.

In 1976, Janet Guthrie tried unsuccessfully to qualify for the Indianapolis 500. She was not exactly welcomed with open arms, but keep in mind – women had only been allowed in the pits and the garage area for about five years. Al Unser has gone on record saying he didn’t shun Guthrie because she was a woman. He simply thought she wasn’t a good driver and didn’t belong at that level. Fair enough.

But Mr. Old-school himself, AJ Foyt, allowed Guthrie to shake down his backup car and she was able to get it up to a speed quick enough to make the race. However, they never struck a deal for her to qualify the car and she sat on the sidelines until the following year, when she became the first woman to make the field at Indianapolis. Guthrie raced in three 500’s before failing to qualify in 1980. Her best finish was ninth in 1978. It wasn’t until 1992 that another woman made the grid at Indianapolis, when Lyn St. James finished eleventh in her first 500. Out of seven starts between 1992 and 2000, it would be her best finish.

For those keeping score, 1999 was the last year at Indianapolis that the command to start engines did not include the word “ladies”. Sarah Fisher and Lyn St. James made history in 2000 for the first 500 with two women. Sarah pursued other forms of racing beginning in 2005, but just as she left – Danica Patrick came onto the scene that same year. Had it not been for a bobble on her first lap, Danica may have been on the pole as a rookie at Indianapolis in 2005. She tried desperately to get her owner, Bobby Rahal, to withdraw the time and let her go again. Those were the days when your time was your time and withdrawing a time was almost never done. Instead, she settled for starting fourth. Danica led in the late going, but had to conserve fuel and finished fourth. But it wasn’t winner Dan Wheldon that landed on the cover of Sports Illustrated the next week – it was Danica. This irked a lot of IndyCar fans. To them, it detracted from the glory of winning the Indianapolis 500 and focused on the novelty of a woman that almost won. Danicamania was born.

Over the next several years, resentment turned into contempt as fans felt good drivers were ignored while all of the attention was focused on a driver who was perceived as a mid-pack racer at best. The microscope focused on her off-track lifestyle as well as her tantrums. Danica’s fiery temper found her shoving and hitting her fellow drivers on a semi-regular basis. It was a lose-lose situation for the other drivers. If they sat there and took it, they were wimps. If they hit back, they were bullies and guilty of physical abuse. Some said Danica was a pioneer for women in racing, while other say she set their movement back. But she has moved on to NASCAR and I wish her well on Sunday.

Whatever you think of Danica, there are now a ton of women racers coming up through the various developmental series. There was also a major increase in women drivers in the Indianapolis 500 and the IZOD IndyCar Series. In 2010, there were a record five female drivers in the Indianapolis 500 – Danica Patrick, Sarah Fisher, Milka Duno, Simona de Silvestro and Ana Beatriz. For 2011, there were four. Duno had moved on, while Sarah Fisher had retired; but Pippa Mann had come onto the scene by then. Last year there were three women for the 500, and two full-time competitors – Simona de Silvestro and Katherine Legge. As it stands right now, Simona will be the only full-time woman in the series.

The Dragon Racing/Katherine Legge debacle has been beaten to death – here and elsewhere. However, it does mean only one female in the series. While many have gone so far as to say that IndyCar has declared war on women – I disagree. The truth of the matter is that the novelty of a woman in a race car has worn off and they are being held to the same standards as their male counterparts.

Like male drivers, there are some female drivers that are good and some with questionable talents. There have also been some that are very likeable and others that many don’t care for. Just like male drivers, I have my favorite female drivers. Some of my favorite up and coming drivers are James Hinchcliffe, Simon Pagenaud, Pippa Mann and Simona de Silvestro. I don’t really categorize them by gender. The thing is – it’s really time to call them simply "drivers".

Warren Moon was a quarterback in a time when he was the best of a subset – he was labeled a black quarterback. Nowadays, Russell Wilson is considered a great quarterback – without the asterisk of being black by his name. It has gotten to that point in racing. Pippa Mann and James Hinchcliffe are both great at interacting with fans. They both also happen to be excellent drivers. The biggest difference between them is not their gender, but that one had things fall their way and they ended up in a full-time ride, while the other sits along with many other unemployed drivers.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that James Hinchcliffe doesn’t deserve to be where he is – far from it. He worked hard to get his Sprott sponsorship in 2011. His Newman/Haas ride went away at the end of the season and he was a free-agent. At the same time, there was an unfortunate opening at Andretti Autosport. He landed there and had a very good season in 2012. The same thing happened with Helio Castroneves in 1999, when he lost his ride and ended up in Greg Moore’s seat at Team Penske. No one says that Helio has squandered that opportunity.

Had Pippa come along ten years earlier, it may have been a lot easier for her. Women in racing were still uncommon. When Danica finally won a race in 2008, she raised the bar for other women. However she won that race – she won it and it was then expected of other women. After all, isn’t that the goal in racing?

As much as we all like Simona, the pressure is now on her to perform. Her first two seasons, she was saddled with an under-funded team and heavy, old and slow equipment. Then last year, she had the indignation of the only driver that had to run the Lotus engine all season. But she is now with a new team with a bigger budget, a championship winning engine and a former champion for a teammate. There are no excuses. If she languishes at the back of the field this season, it won’t be the fault of her equipment.

So, no – IndyCar has not declared war on women. But sponsors no longer raise their eyebrows at the thought of a woman driver to draw attention to their product. It is now too passé. Teams and sponsors want to go with who can win. It is not up to team owners or the series to make sure a quota is filled. There are too may quality drivers like Ryan Briscoe and Pippa Mann to be worried about what gender is being represented. There are also concerns that there are too few rookies for 2013, as Tristan Vautier is currently the only rookie for this season. Once again, it is not the responsibility of the series to make sure there is plenty of rookie representation.

Rides are tough to come by in this series. There is a lot of hard work and…well, a little bit of luck that goes into who gets a ride and who sits. But ultimately, winning is what will keep you around. Drivers that bring cash to the table still have to perform – or else that cash will eventually dry up or go to someone else. Although there is a dip this year, IndyCar still welcomes women. With the strong crop of female drivers in the ladder series coming up, I don’t expect that dip to last very long. Whether that someone else is male or female no longer matters. It’s all about performance. Isn’t that what real equality is all about, anyway?

George Phillips

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15 Responses to “Does IndyCar Still Welcome Women?”

  1. Bent Wickerbill Says:

    I agree George, the idea has become passé to potential sponsors most especially with money as tight as it is. While the Danica hysteria did help keep AOW off of life support for several years, it ultimately lost its luster, (especially when she did not perform so well) Personally I have never thought of Danica as more than a mid pack driver at IC, although she had her moments and has now made an impressive mark at NASCAR, and not to take anything away from that, but as Jimmy Johnson said the other day a monkey could do this. In other words, qualifying well is a far cry from finishing the entire 500 miles at Daytona. Believe me, I wish Ms Patrick luck and hope she does well, but historically, well you get my point…

  2. Only one problem: *are* there any women in the ladder series? I’m pretty sure there aren’t. Freiberg drives a GT3 car now, and McIntosh lost her USF2000 ride (I think there was another woman in USF2000 as well, but she’s not listed this year either). There weren’t any women in Lights last year, and nobody’s mentioned any for this year as far as I’m aware. So honestly? It’s not looking great. May have missed someone, but it looks like DeSilvestro will literally be the only woman in all of American open wheel racing this year unless Bia or Pippa Mann can scrounge up a ride.

    Now, all that said, I strongly suspect this is less a reflection on IndyCar’s degree of welcoming toward women, and more on the state of the sport as a whole – there’s not much incentive for a woman (or a man) to pursue a career in open wheel when there are so many more opportunities in stock cars and sports cars. Or, for that matter, European open wheel – GP3/2, WSR, F3, all seem to be much more welcoming of women than they were in the past.

    What I’m really curious about is how many girls are in karts/quarter-midgets/etc. – there’s been a really unfortunate tendency to quickly push every talented woman as far as possible – sometimes too far, too quickly (see: Legge, Kat and her champ car career), and it’s all out of proportion to the number of women actually involved. If we really want to see women in racing, what needs to happen is noticeably increased participation in the junior and amateur ranks. Sadly, only drag racing (thank you Mses. Muldowney and Sampey) has that happening to any real extent right now.

    Sorry for the lengthy comment, I’ve just been a bit annoyed by all the blasé “But we just want the best available drivers!!” attitudes around lately…

    • OrdinaryRaceFan Says:

      “Only one problem: *are* there any women in the ladder series? I’m pretty sure there aren’t. Freiberg drives a GT3 car now, and McIntosh lost her USF2000 ride (I think there was another woman in USF2000 as well, but she’s not listed this year either). There weren’t any women in Lights last year, and nobody’s mentioned any for this year as far as I’m aware. So honestly? It’s not looking great. May have missed someone, but it looks like DeSilvestro will literally be the only woman in all of American open wheel racing this year unless Bia or Pippa Mann can scrounge up a ride.”

      Good point. Bar Simona, no other female driver has been announced for the 2013 season on Road to Indy.

      Then you have Bia and Pippa still hoping to secure a part time IndyCar gig somewhere. There is also Ayla Agren who tested in USF2000 for Andretti in October last year, but she isn’t signed anywhere yet and time is running up.

  3. I think they are more than welcome but I am unsure where the next big name will come from. Is there any in the ladder series? The Road to Indy Champions all seem to be men. You mentioned the lack of rookies for both genders. It seems we are getting one at most per year. No team is going to hire a woman just because she is a she unless she brings Milka money. Danica was the perfect storm. There will never be another. For the time being look for ride buyers (for both genders) only unless someone really destroys the junior formulas. That is just the state of racing.

    Doesn’t it make you wish Tobacco wasn’t such an aweful thing and could fund half the series again?

  4. It’s not that Indycar doesn’t want female drivers, they don’t want any drivers. They can’t afford them. They can’t afford drivers or parts or cars or venues or marketing or aero kits. No TV ratings = no sponsors. No sponsors = no money. No money = no cars. No cars = no drivers. No drivers = no female drivers.

  5. I no longer see women drivers as a novelty either and I got over all of that long ago. Sara Fisher has always been a favorite of mine. I have been a fan of her team since day one, NOT because she is a woman, but because she is an awesome person and she is the type of owner I want to see more of.

  6. As others have said, I don’t see women in the IndyCar pipeline, anywhere. I don’t think IndyCar itself is hostile to women … it’s admirably neutral. As far as IndyCar is concerned you show up with a check and some ability and a team, you’re in. Problem is women, I think, will have a harder time showing up with a check. Couple reasons: companies that market to women (therefore more likely to employ a female driver) see the putrid ROI of IndyCar and say “no thanks.” Female owned companies are generally pretty well run (a big generalization I know) and tend to make decisions based less on testosterone and ego, so they look at the numbers and laugh. With only a few teams actually hiring on talent alone, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist, male or female, to see that pursuing one of 8 spots (or so) with sooooo many talented drivers out there of both genders is a pretty long shot, long enough to become a waste of time for many (of both genders). Then throw in the owners’ personalities (Chip wouldn’t hire a woman driver on talent if she was Rick Mears with ovaries) and women take their aspirations elsewhere, like NASCAR where the numbers are better or sports cars where the costs are lower. The lack of women in IndyCar is more market driven than anything. The downside for IndyCar is half the population is female, and many of them like to watch the girls drive.

  7. OrdinaryRaceFan Says:

    There are quite a few female drivers in the European feeder series. Alice Powell, Vicky Piria and Carmen Jorda(former IndyLights) raced in GP3 last year. Samin Gomes will race in GP3 this year. Tatiana Calderon(former StarMazda podium finisher) raced in F3 Open last year, so did Valeria Carballo. Former Superstars Series(Italy’s take at V8 Supercars more or less) winner Michella Cerruti will race in European F3 this year. And you should get a few more while looking at the lower series’ fields.

    It wouldn’t be surprising to see one or several of them looking at opportunities in Road to Indy in the tuture. At this level it is quite common for any driver to look for new places to race to re-gain career momentum, and Road to Indy is an interesting option, first because of the scholarship system, but also because at the end of the day IndyCar arguably remains 2nd biggest single seater championship in the world, long behind F1.

    Granted, none of the drivers named in the first paragraph look to be the next big thing – even though Alice Powell is a proven race winner in the national F2.0 BARC and MRF championships, but anyway her career momentum is slowing as she is struggling to raise the funds to go racing again.

  8. I look at women drivers in Indy the same way I see road courses. A novelty but not a necessity.

    I thought we wanted the best drivers? If we get that then the sex of the driver should not matter. “Does Indy car still welcome women” you ask? Do we really want “afirmative action”?

  9. If you were a woman in the lower tiers of racing where would YOU go? I suspect that sports cars might be the only viable answer. For whatever reason, IndyCar has pissed off and driven away more sets of eyes than other series have ever had.

    I freely admit that I was a Danica fan from the git-go. I love being able to watch history. And there are one Hell of a lot of drivers who cannot favorably compare their records at Indy to Danica’s as Pressdog’s recent piece pointed out. It would not be inconceivable to see Danica (had she stayed in IndyCar) where Ed Carpenter is today: Very competitive on ovals and an also-ran on road and street courses. But being competitive in less than half of a series’ races does not add up to championships (unless you count the A. J. Foyt Trophy as a championship.)

    When you have talented, experienced drivers who can’t get a ride for a full season, such as Ryan Briscoe or Buddy Rice, if you were just beginning a racing career, where would you go? Quite honestly, until the IndyCar folks (Mark Miles, are you listening?) can get their act together on that question, then we have a bit of a problem here. Add to that that NASCAR’s second tier series already has a better ROI than IndyCar, and the problem becomes really glaring.

    With the aforementioned Miles taking the reins, and based on his commentary on last weeks’ “Trackside…,” at least there is some room for hope.

  10. Jim Howe Motorsports Says:

    I believe it all starts with opportunities and experience at the lower levels for women. And in this country, that means karting. As a kart team owner, I can tell you there aren’t very many females in karting right now.

    Part of that is exposure to the sport (many young girls are not aware of karting or motorsports in general); part of that is the economy (karting in general is down right now); and another part of that is the sport’s view toward females. Attitudes, unfortunately, haven’t changed a whole lot from years ago with many young men — and sadly, their fathers — unwilling to be beat by a girl and willing to do whatever it takes to ensure it doesn’t happen at any cost.

    Things do change and motorsports in general is more accessible to women than ever before but it still has a long way to go. But it has to start with karting and filter up to Indy Car before we see major changes. And those changes are still far away….

  11. Congrats to everyone who commented here. All very thoughtful (or at least civil) and I enjoyed reading them. Of course big credit to George for his skill and continuing efforts to maintain this blog.

  12. “The thing is – it’s really time to call them simply “drivers”.”

    Bingo and thank you.

    5 years from now, hopefully sooner, NASCAR will catch up to this way of thinking.

  13. I have been pleasantly surprised at the number of women in NHRA over the last several years and their last names are not all Force.

    I was pleased that Danica drove well at Daytona, but wish she hadn’t faded at the end. With more experience behind her I think she will improve as the season progresses. I am a big fan of Simona and hope she can show her stuff in a better ride this year.

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