Going From Female Drivers To Just Drivers
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?