Commentary

Racing success still elusive for women

Updated: March 25, 2009, 11:31 AM ET
By Terry Blount | ESPN.com

In 1977, Janet Guthrie became the first woman to race in the Daytona 500 and the Indianapolis 500. Shirley Muldowney became the first woman to win a major racing championship, earning the NHRA Top Fuel title.

Almost 32 years have passed since those historic days, but how much really has changed?

More women are competing in motorsports, but Guthrie and Muldowney say real success at the tops levels of racing remains elusive for women.

"I think the doors are wide open for these ladies," Muldowney said last week in a phone interview. "They couldn't have more than what they have now. But what I haven't seen is a lady who's really willing to wear the pants out there. That's what's holding them back."

[+] EnlargeJanet Guthrie
AP PhotoJanet Guthrie was the first woman to race in the Indy 500. This photo, taken at the 1977 500, was a year before her best finish of ninth at Indy.

Guthrie wasn't quite as direct in her assessment, but she sees some meaning in what Muldowney said.

"I hate to say this, but there are probably fewer women that have that burning desire to succeed," Guthrie said last week. "For me, it just came down to the fact that I wanted it so much.

"Whatever obstacles came with the territory, I was willing to deal with it to get to the top levels of racing. I would have walked across hot coals from the East Coast to the West Coast. That's how much I wanted it."

Are there women who want it that much today?

"Sure there are,'' Guthrie said. "Are there an equal number of women with the talent and desire to succeed at the top level as men? Probably not. But there certainly are some."

Women have made gains. Danica Patrick's success is the most obvious example. She became the first woman to win a major open-wheel race last year at the IndyCar Series event in Motegi, Japan.

Muldowney wasn't impressed.

"I wonder where I would have gone if I had Andretti Green Racing [Patrick's team] behind me," Muldowney said. "I would have reached some amazing heights. Danica needs to win a race in the U.S. and show she can kick some butt.

"These girls now don't understand what we had to overcome in our day. We won championships without any real sponsors. We beat the biggest and best on a regular basis. Races were not given to us."

Nothing was given to Patrick when she proved a woman could win a major closed-circuit race.

"If it hadn't been proven, I couldn't really fault people for not believing," Patrick said. "But it's time to believe."

Patrick made her comments Saturday during an IndyCar test session at Barber Motorsports Park in Leeds, Ala. She knows her accomplishments wouldn't have been possible without trailblazers like Guthrie and Muldowney.

"What those women did paved the way," Patrick said. "They sacrificed a lot and worked very hard. I'm just pleased to be a part of that process."

But it's a slow process.

Shirley Muldowney
AP Photo/George BrichThe fastest to 1,000 feet? Shirley Muldowney said she'd have none of that.

Muldowney, who also won Top Fuel crowns in 1980 and 1982, remains the only woman to win an NHRA pro championship on four wheels -- Top Fuel, Funny Car or Pro Stock. Angelle Sampey won three consecutive NHRA titles in Pro Stock Motorcycle from 2000 to 2002.

Ashley Force became the first woman to win an NHRA Funny Car event last year at Atlanta. Melanie Troxel also won a Funny Car event last year, becoming the first woman to win in Top Fuel and Funny Car.

But Troxel lost her sponsor and doesn't have a ride this season. Muldowney believes Troxel is the best female driver in drag racing -- "They don't come better or more qualified," she said.

And what about Ashley Force, the daughter of NHRA legend John Force?

"Ashley has talent, but she needs toughness," Muldowney said. "That's something she will have to do on her own.

"I told her there was one thing above everything else she needs to remember: 'These people [fellow competitors] are not your friends. They may smile and act nice to you, but in the end, they aren't out there to help you.'"

John has told Ashley that she should emulate Muldowney and her determination. He compares Muldowney to Jackie Robinson.

"For Shirley, it was the same thing as being the first African-American in baseball," he said. "She had to go through that type of difficulty and abuse.

"I have so much respect for her because Shirley was a fighter. She was tough as nails and still is. She would look these guys right in the eye and have absolutely no fear."

Muldowney knows John Force, who will turn 60 on May 4, has been around long enough to see some of the things she endured.

"I appreciate John's perspective," she said. "These girls now don't have to endure the meanness that I lived [with]. There were some real jerks, and it was hurtful. And a few of those old pros are still out there. But I never remind them of it. I don't want to relive it."

Muldowney, 68, lives in Michigan. Her life story was told in the 1983 movie "Heart Like a Wheel," starring Bonnie Bedelia.

Danica Patrick
AP Photo/AJ MastDanica Patrick says she's pleased racers such as Janet Guthrie and Shirley Muldowney paved the way for her success.

Muldowney recently had both her knees replaced and doesn't get around quite as easily as she used to, but she isn't complaining.

"What I'm doing now is looking for a job," she said. "I think I have a lot to contribute."

Guthrie, 71, has lived in Colorado since 1985, when she began work on her autobiography, "Janet Guthrie: A Life at Full Throttle," which was published in 2005. She said she spends most of her time "juggling family issues."

She went to Indianapolis in February for the gala event to kick off the celebration of Indianapolis Motor Speedway's 100-year anniversary. She also is going to the old-timers Hall of Fame dinner in Indy on May 15.

Guthrie admits she doesn't watch a lot of races.

"I try to watch when the women are running," she said. "Otherwise I don't watch much."

Both Muldowney and Guthrie would like to see more women throughout motorsports. The NHRA clearly is doing a better job of that than other leagues. NASCAR isn't close to finding a female who can race competitively in Sprint Cup.

"In NASCAR, it's a tough row to hoe," Muldowney said. "I tested in a Cup car once, but it just wasn't my bag.

"Obviously, there's a lot more stamina involved in NASCAR. You can't slide through there. And honestly, in NASCAR, your mistakes will show up a lot faster than they do in drag racing."

Most people remember Guthrie for the Indy 500, in which she raced three times and posted a best finish of ninth in 1978. But her best racing was done in NASCAR.

She was the first woman to compete in a Cup superspeedway event, finishing 15th in the 1976 World 600 (now the Coca-Cola 600) at Charlotte.

Guthrie was on her way to a top-10 finish in the 1977 Daytona 500 before blowing an engine with 10 laps to go. She still finished 12th.

Guthrie also posted five top-10s in 33 Cup starts over four seasons.

"There was no doubt in my mind that I was going to win in NASCAR," Guthrie said. "I could see it was coming. But that all came to a screeching halt when the sponsorship ended. It's the reason I wasn't able to continue at the height of my career."

Sponsorship continues to be an issue for all drivers, but especially for women.

[+] EnlargeChrissy & Mike Wallace
AP Photo/Mike McCarnJanet Guthrie had high hopes for Chrissy Wallace, left, the daughter of Mike Wallace.

"People don't believe it," Guthrie said. "Why wouldn't corporate sponsors jump at the chance to back a female driver? If I've heard that once, I've heard it a thousand times. But finding sponsorship always has been a problem for women.

"Look at [IndyCar racer] Sarah Fisher. I always thought Sarah would be the first one to win in IndyCar. She's a very talented, down-to-earth, really friendly and intelligent person. But finding sponsorship still is difficult for her. It's still a chicken-and-the-egg thing. You can't win without money and you can't get the money unless you win."

And the money problems don't start in the big leagues.

"Even at the go-kart level, it takes a lot of money," Guthrie said. "I recently read that Danica's parents invested $100,000 a year in her karting program before she was a teenager. Not many people are in a position to do that."

Guthrie hopes the money comes for Brazilian Ana Beatriz, whom she sees as a rising star in open wheel. Beatriz, 24, won an Indy Lights race last year at Nashville and finished third in the standings for the IndyCar feeder series.

"And in NASCAR, I was really disappointed to see Chrissy Wallace [daughter of NASCAR driver Mike Wallace] was unable to continue her truck ride this year," Guthrie said. "I really thought she had the desire and the ability to make it."

Guthrie said it's all about getting quality equipment, something she never had.

"No driver who got in one of the cars I drove ever qualified it faster and finished higher than I did,'' Guthrie said. "I drove on par or better than them in any car I ever had my hands on. I take a lot of pride in that. I raced the cars as fast as they were capable of racing."

Muldowney did the same. Now she wants to see another woman reach those heights.

"I'm very proud of what I did and how I did it," Muldowney said. "But is there a lady out there who can wear the pants and really get after it in racing? I don't know. I hope so."

Terry Blount covers motorsports for ESPN.com. His book, "The Blount Report: NASCAR's Most Overrated and Underrated Drivers, Cars, Teams, and Tracks," was published by Triumph Books and is available in bookstores. Click here to order a copy. Terry can be reached at terry@blountspeak.com.

Terry Blount

ESPN Seattle Seahawks reporter

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