Does IndyCar Still Welcome Women?
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?