Going From Female Drivers To Just Drivers

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Friday morning, we awoke to the news that popular IndyCar driver, Simona de Silvestro, would not be returning to the series in 2014. Instead, she will be seizing upon an opportunity that she hopes will lead to what has been her ultimate lifelong dream – a fulltime ride in Formula One. She has accepted an “affiliate driver” with Sauber – one of the more established teams on the F1 grid. From what I can gather, this is essentially the role of Test Driver. Although she is hoping this will lead to a fulltime ride with the team in 2015, there are no guarantees.

Most reaction that I’ve seen has been positive – sad that she’s leaving IndyCar, but wishing her well and congratulating her. However, there are some interesting takes that aren’t so positive. There are the predictable sour-grapes comments of “Don’t let the door hit you on the way out” and “You’ve turned your back on us – we hope you fail”. Others say that this is a risky move at best and that the deck is stacked against her ever getting an F1 ride.

Count me in the first group. I am not that familiar with the politics of F1, but I do know they are convoluted, at best. I am sad to see her go, but I hope she finds great success over there. During her four years in IndyCar, she exuded class, skill and courage. She never seemed to be trying to make a statement for her ability as a female driver; rather she preferred the focus to be on her ability as a driver. She succeeded. Simona also impressed me with her lack of concern over her celebrity status. Instead, she focused every spare moment she had on improving her standing as a driver. She succeeded there, as well.

Aside from her driving talents, what I’ll remember most about Simona de Silvestro was her ability to put her head down and move forward, without complaining about her situation or laying blame elsewhere. She certainly had many reasons to complain in her four years as an IndyCar driver, yet she never did.

We fans first took note of this after a fiery crash at Texas Motor Speedway, involving Simona in her rookie season. The Holmatro Safety Team stood by helplessly as a fire hose malfunctioned, all the while – Simona was trapped inside her burning Dallara. Finally, she was pulled from the dangerous situation by one brave member of the safety team who wasn’t going to stand there and hope that the hose would start working. After her release from the infield car center, a bandaged Simona de Silvestro was all smiles and never uttered the first disparaging word against the Holmatro Safety Team or IndyCar’s safety procedures. She simply shrugged the whole thing off as a racing incident that happens.

To the defense of the Holmatro Safety Team, an inquiry revealed that the hose had been packed improperly. They do an excellent job and many times are risking their own lives to save others. The drivers are lucky to have them as first responders, but that night in Texas was not one of their best moments.

The following year, Simona found herself upside-down and ablaze again during practice for the Indianapolis 500. She was trapped beneath the flaming car and suffered third-degree burns on both hands. Yet, she strapped herself into a much slower backup car that weekend, while wearing special white gloves to protect her severely burned hands and went out and qualified, without complaining one bit – further endearing herself to fans for her mental and physical toughness.

The following season, she was saddled with the inept Lotus engine. While the other Lotus drivers had cut deals with either Chevrolet or Honda by the time the Month of May rolled around – her HVM Racing was the only team that opted to stay with Lotus for the entire season. Consequently, Simona finished dead last in points among drivers that ran the entire season. No matter how talented you are, if your engine is down seventy-five horsepower to the rest of the field – you will be stuck in the back. Still, Simona kept her mouth shut and plodded along at the back of the field race in and race out.

Finally, she moved on to KV Racing for 2013. This was a team that, surprisingly, had no wins to its credit. But they had the powerful Chevy engine and a former champion, Tony Kanaan, as their other driver. Simona had never had a teammate her entire time in IndyCar, but she probably could not have asked for a better one than Kanaan. From what I can tell, Kanaan offered de Silvestro keen advise with the genuine goal of helping her. She improved from twenty-fourth to thirteenth in points in just one season. There were race weekends when she seemed to have completely missed the setup, but I attribute that more to the dysfunctional team at KV more than a reflection of her talents.

But now Simona de Silvestro is gone, and I doubt that she is ever coming back. Formula One is where the Swiss driver wanted to be all along. I applaud her and wish her the very best. Some are blaming IndyCar for letting its lone fulltime female driver get away. I don’t. Why should IndyCar do any more to keep Simona than they would, say – Oriol Servia. He is another talented driver that currently has no ride. Is IndyCar doing anything to inure that he races this season? No, and they shouldn’t. If they weren’t going to do all they could to keep Rubens Barrichello, they wouldn’t try to keep them either.

The novelty of a female driver is long gone. Once I got over the shock of Janet Guthrie driving in the 1977 Indianapolis 500, it was fairly old hat to me – even though it took more than a decade for Lyn St. James to become the second female driver. Like their male counterparts – there are excellent, average and terrible female drivers. Over the last two decades, we have seen the complete spectrum.

Last week, Richard Petty made news for criticizing Danica Patrick’s driving abilities. Some viewed his comments that got the most play as sexist. I did not think those were at all, but some of his lesser publicized comments from last week were. The thing is – the female driver has evolved to the extent that they should be allowed to be criticized for their driving abilities just as male drivers, Japanese drivers or African-American drivers.

For example, Willie T. Ribbs was an African-American that happened to be a good driver that drove mostly below-average equipment during his short stay in Indy cars. George Mack, on the other hand was also African American – yet he may have been one of the worst drivers to ever run in IndyCar. Does criticizing him make me a racist? I certainly hope not, because I thought he was terrible and had no business being at this level.

I was not a fan of Danica Patrick, but not due to her driving ability. I thought she was a solid driver. She usually brought her equipment home in one piece and normally in or near the top-ten. It was her attitude and off-track antics that turned me off. I am a big fan of Simona de Silvestro, as well as Pippa Mann and Sarah Fisher. However, I am lukewarm to Katherine Legge and Ana Biatriz and I thought Milka Duno was terrible in IndyCar’s. Does that make me a sexist? I didn’t think so, but when I wrote criticisms about Milka’s inabilities, there were some that pretty well said as much.

Does IndyCar need to bend over backwards to make sure that there will be a female driver in this year’s field? After all, the last season without at least one fulltime female driver was 2004 – and Sarah Fisher ran the Indianapolis 500 that year. You have to go all the way back to 1999 to find an Indianapolis 500 starting grid that did not contain at least one female driver. The answer to that question is – no. It is not up to IndyCar to fill quotas.

Today’s female drivers would consider it an insult for others to think they got their ride based on their gender. Those females that are most likely to secure rides for this season are Ana Beatriz and Pippa Mann. If either do, I would think both would likely be in part-time roles – not because of their gender, but based on the sheer numbers. Those two both drove for Dale Coyne at various times last season. His second car is one of the few unnamed seats for 2014, so logic would tell you that either of them getting a ride probably hinges on Dale Coyne.

I truly believe that IndyCar has done its part to help female drivers. I also think the drivers have too. I don’t know of many drivers who work as hard in the offseason to secure sponsorship as does Pippa Mann. The owners have done their part, also. They seem pretty much blind to gender, so long as there is sponsorship involved. If I want to point the finger of blame to anyone, it would be corporate America.

The potential advertisers and sponsors of IndyCar are missing the boat and have been for years. For whatever reason, Sarah Fisher has struggled for years to attract sponsors. Even when she was the only female among NASCAR, IndyCar or Formula One – she couldn’t even get a sniff from a major sponsor. One of the most logical sponsors for female racers was Lyn St. James being sponsored by JC Penney and their line for “The Spirit of the American Woman”. Did they do anything to capitalize on it? Not a thing, except write a check.

Go-Daddy went from a company that none of us had ever heard of, to a major player on Super Bowl Sunday. However, they followed the stereotypical formula of using their female athletes in ads built around their sex appeal. Their athletes became stars, but not better athletes. In the long run, I’m not sure their campaign did other female drivers any favors.

There seems to be a slew of young American female drivers toiling in lesser developmental series, but none appear close to breaking through to join Pippa or Bia. Credit Pippa Mann for her work with Glass Hammer Racing – an organization that aims at introducing girls to motorsports at an early age. She has worked tirelessly with this group to maintain interests among young girls and getting them very involved with racing in their formative years.

So today, I mourn the fact that IndyCar has lost a good racer to Formula One. It doesn’t matter that we lost a female racer – we lost a good racer. It speaks for the improved quality of the IndyCar Series. Just a few years ago, drivers from this series would not have gotten a sniff from a Formula One team. But as much as we’ll miss Simona – there will be good racers coming up through the ranks to replace her. They may be British, American or Brazilian, male or female, short or tall – does it really matter if they are talented and want to win?

George Phillips

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21 Responses to “Going From Female Drivers To Just Drivers”

  1. If any female driver stood a chance of getting a ride in F1, I should think it would be Simona. She has everything she needs to succeed: the work ethic, willingness to listen and learn, the skills, and, frankly, the fire in her to improve and succeed.

    If she proves herself to the team over the next year, by showing the same skills and determination she has shown throughout her IndyCar career, she should be able to get a ride. Don’t forget that her manager is shrewd and will doubtlessly have sponsorships lined up for her by the time she earns her F1 license. That will also ease her way into a ride. Don’t forget, F1 teams don’t waste money on drivers they don’t think can hack it.

    The other thing to remember about F1 is possibly her “secret weapon” or ace in the hole: Bernie. He’s a smart man and a master promoter. He is possibly a mysogenist or more tradition bound than some, but I suspect that even he would help get an extremely qualified female driver like Simona at least a chance for a full season ride. He is winding down his career under a cloud right now, but I’m sure he would love to be known as the man that got F1 it’s 1st female driver.

    Am I being a butt by emphasizing the fact Simona is female? No. She’s an extremely skilled driver with talent. Period. She has stated repeatedly that she doesn’t want to advance her name through cheesecake or sex appeal, but by letting her driving do the talking. As George has pointed out, despite being on teams with mediocre equipment and/or staff, she has done well. Her first race at St. Pete she placed 4th after dueling with TK for the last laps of the race. However, she would be foolish not to make at least some use of the fact that she could/would be the first female full time F1 driver.

  2. “Formula One is where the Swiss driver wanted to be all along…..”

    That is your answer right there…

  3. If I ran Indycar–and if Simona wanted to stay–I would have pulled strings (cheated/showed favoritism) to keep her not only in the series but with a good team. Good female drivers are very difficult to find and Indycar lost a pretty good one.

    • by the way, I’m not sexist. I would also cheat and lie to get young Daly a seat. and I probably would’ve cheated and lied to keep P. Tracy in a car just to have a great “bad guy.” I should work for professional wrestling, I guess.

  4. Simona has talent, and it is real. Her last two races (2nd and 10th at Houston) were no fluke. It’s unfortunate that she had those horrible accidents at Indy and Texas, the concussion that kept her out awhile, and that she had to deal with the Lotus engine crap.

    That being said, I just think that team already has so many drivers, it’s hard to see her getting a seat for next year. I wish her the best, but wouldn’t be surprised to see her back in IndyCar in the future. I, for one, would welcome her back with open arms.

    She is a driver. A talented driver, that just also happens to be female.

  5. Doug Gardner Says:

    She has talent. She is a European and ultimately that is where she will want to be. Politics will chew her up though. I wish her well. She has been nothing but class. Series will miss her.

  6. billytheskink Says:

    Those of us who are especially avid fans of motorsports know that female drivers are no longer much of a novelty, and it seems most of us think that’s great. I see this from Indycar on down to the local short track, where several women and girls compete in the various classes of fendered cars.

    Nevertheless, female racers are still a novelty to the general public. See Visa’s winter Olympic ad featuring US figure skater Gracie Gold, who can “accelerate faster than the BOYS on the race track.” The “boys on the race track” are driving 10 year old Toyota Atlantic cars, for what that’s worth.

  7. Agree, George. Totally bummed to see another driver with top-shelf talent and fantastic attitude leave the series.

    On the gender issue, I think it’s well overdue to simply call them ‘drivers’. During a conversation last week about NFL Quarterbacks James Harris and Joe Gilliam, we noted at the time, they were always referred to as ‘black quarterbacks’. Now NFL players of all ethnicities are simply known by their position. Michael Sam will likely have to endure the essentially unnecessary label ‘gay NFL player’ until it no longer is a novelty. To assume he is the first gay player in the NFL is folly. He is merely the first to be able to declare it publicly.

    For me time is well passed for people in all endeavors to stop the unnecessary categorizing and stereotyping that occurs with extended labeling of people.

  8. I disagree with the idea that we can ignore the issue of female drivers. Firstly Indycar needs them because they make Indycar unique (has the most female participants of any major circuit racing series) and because they make Indycar marketable, which is sorely needed.

    BUT, there is a bigger point, which I made on my blog. To summarize, even though there are more female racers than ever before, they are still in the clear minority. Such a clear minority that I do think it is significant and does matter. Women make up slightly more than 50% of the U.S population and between 5-10% of the Indycar field (fulltime-ran a race). And remember out of the circuit racing series (exclude NHRA) Indycar has by far the most female participants. I believe the reason for this discrepancy are a combination of societal and structural issues which keep women and girls (and their families) from participating in racing as much as they could. That is a problem. I would ask this to people who don’t agree; Even though female drivers are clearly marketable, very talented, and get a lot of media attention why is it that only Danica seems to keep a reliable ride and sponsor? I think further until you’ve got multiple women who’ve won races and championships in all of the major series (RE: F1/NASCAR/Indycar/Le Mans) having a female driver is a big story, and that is justifiable. Hopefully one day we will get to the point where women racers are not remarkable, but we are very far from that point today.

    • Don’t know why you’d exclude NHRA. I was about to add a reply pointing out NHRA, but, since you brought it up, I’ll add it here. In my view, NHRA has long gotten past the male / female driver deal. They have drivers. Strapping into an 8000+ horsepower nitro methane powered bomb is no small feat!!!

  9. First. Good for Simona. Everyone should follow their passions and heart when it comes to their profession, so I wish her nothing but the best. Second, the true test, IMO, of our “female driver” attitudes evolving is when we stop comparing one driver to another strictly based on gender. How many people loved Simona mainly because she wasn’t Danica? Present company excepted, I am sure there are still legions out there who love any anti-Danica, including Simona, which is hyper unfair to both drivers. Almost always, any kind of praise about one female quickly brings up “she’s much better than (another female driver).” I, for one, will be glad when that gender-based comparison is dead, burned and buried.

  10. I could not care less about whether someone considers my remarks sexist here or anywhere. I think that girls and women add spice and interest to any sport. In head to head competition I believe most folks will always root for them to do well against the guys. I doubt that will ever change and I would not want it to. Put Emma Dixon in a car alongside Scott Dixon and I’m cheering for Emma.

    Anyway, regarding Simona: I thought one of the defining moments in Indy500 history was when she climbed into a backup car after a fiery crash, put on special gloves over her burnt hands and put that car in the field. She is a fine combination of class and toughness. I imagine that if she were not a race driver she would be an Olympic downhill racer careening down the slopes throwing caution to the wind.

    I wish her well. I sure as hell will not bet against her.

  11. Carlos Villalobos Says:

    She will have a 2015 ride, it doesn’t mean that she will continue in 2016 in Sauber, let alone in F1. See the Sergio Perez case. Backed up by one of the more powerful and rich man in the worid, Mclaren politics ate him.
    Hope Simona’s team can protect her from this.
    Her boss is a woman also though.

  12. IMO, Simona is the best female driver to ever drive an IndyCar. What is so infuriating is the only reason she did not get the opportunities of DP is the sex appeal aspect and that is really unfortunate for Simona and IndyCar. She is the only driver that can physically handle an IndyCar on a road course/ street course.

    I have to disagree with you George about Pippa Mann and Ana Beatriz and Lynn St. James for that matter. They all, including DP did ok on ovals because lets face it that is because if a driver can tolerate the g’s on most ovals, its about finesse, diving extremely smooth and precise, and having a powerful engine behind you. DP had all that. DP had a good team-Simona never did end of story. When it comes to throwing the car around on a road course and the violence of getting bounced around a street course, these women can’t a candle to Simona.

    I do however agree with you about DP’s antics and attitude. I will never forget when she threw her team under the bus at Indy for not giving her a fast cat qualifying for Indy. Going on to say “It’s not my fault”. If I had any question about her appeal it was answered at that moment and will stay secured for me forever.

    It pains me to say I don’t think Simona will succeed in F1. She may look back at this decision as the worst one of her career. Simply put, she is European and F1, in her mind is the pinnacle, and a lifelong dream of hers. No one can fault her for that. In the end it could have come down to a personal choice.

    What nobody can answer is ultimately why she could not find a ride in IndyCar. I am willing to bet it can be blamed partly on dysfunction of IndyCar. That, or the experts in IndyCar really thought she did not ultimately have what it took to succeed. I am willing to bet its the former. Why DP was able to succeed and Simona was not will be the question of the century and I think we all know the answer but are afraid to say it.

    I think IndyCar is loosing the best female driver they have ever had The only positive is that she was lost to F1 and not the dark side of NASCAR.

    To answer your question about George Mack- yes George, unfortunately in this ridiculous, insane world we live in, you would be called a racist proclaiming him to be a horrible driver. That is the way works now days.

    Also regarding Richard Petty’s remarks regarding DP- I don’t mean to disparage the Petty’s but ,consider the source. I will never understand the umbrage of the Petty’s regarding DP. When Kyle and Richard start shooting their mouths off about female racers my recommendation would be to go paint the house and consider the times Richard Petty grew up in. Until either one of those two drive and IndyCar or a Formula 1 car, I would consider them ignorant because that is exactly what they are. Richard Petty lived in a different century. He is so old school frankly it is embarrassing- talk about someone unable to change with the times. If he wants to make an ass out of himself in public at his age, I say let him .

    • Two points. We are lead to believe the deal for Simona to get a shot at Sauber was cut at the American F1 race. So she wasn’t really trying to land an IndyCar ride after that, although she couldn’t say so.

      Also, her manager seemed to rub too many people the wrong way.

  13. TheAmericanMutt Says:

    Not that he isn’t good, but I don’t understand why Briscoe is given a second chance at Ganassi, and Simona wasn’t even contacted…I assume she wasn’t anyway.

  14. Great article George ! I’ve been sitting here smiling and shaking my head at all the comments. Its what I love so much about Indy Car , the maturity and “racing intelligence” of its fans. It was a joy to read the article AND ALL the comments. Some different opinions but no hate , ignorance or childish high school comments. So refreshing if you’ve ever read comments on a nascar traveling circus site. I’m in the majority , will miss Simona and I wish her all the best. I’ve always thought F1 to be THE top series in the sport of Auto Racing. I consider IndyCar 2nd even though its my personal favorite by far. Then nascar , which I think is ruining the integrity of the sport. Theres MANY young women coming up and I think they are needed in the sport. We need more Simona’s and Pippa Mann’s. Pippa is a working dynamo and an EXCELLENT ambassador for IndyCar. One that comes to mind is Ashley Freiberg and theres many others. #1 goal should be to secure the best racers , period. Hopefully that will include some women. With Indy Car drawing the best from all around the world , makes it tough for any minority of any type. It’s already been proven , tough is not impossible !

  15. I look for talented driving first and foremost. Diversity in the drivers will bring in a more diverse fans, which is good for racing. I think Simona will be a plus for F1. Great comments!!

  16. I enjoyed Simona being a part of the series and I wish her nothing but the best.

  17. It would be terrific to see Simona get the Sauber seat in 2015, but who will get the boot? Mexican Esteban Gutierrez (with Telmex funding) or German Adrian Sutil (with a super-hot girlfriend)? Also, Dutchman Giedo van der Garde is the team’s official 3rd driver, and he has backing and a year of F1 experience already.

    There are also political chicanes to navigate. Just ask Michael Andretti or Al Unser Jr. See Gordon Kirby’s article from 2012; it will give you an idea of what Simona will likely face if she races in F1: http://gordonkirby.com/categories/columns/theway/2012/the_way_it_is_no361.html

    Perhaps Simona will have have an easier go at it, since Bernie has been keen to see a woman in F1. I wish her well, and she’ll need her steely resolve to survive the most cutthroat region of the sports world: Formula One.

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