Commentary

NASCAR still searching for its Danica Patrick

Danica Patrick's historic victory in Japan last week was a triumph for the publicity-starved IndyCar Series. If only NASCAR could discover its version of Danica, writes David Newton.

Updated: April 25, 2008, 1:06 PM ET
By David Newton | ESPN.com

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Erin Crocker was attending a wedding in Indianapolis last weekend when she heard that Danica Patrick became the first woman to win a race in the IndyCar Series.

[+] EnlargeErin Crocker
AP Photo/Terry RennaErin Crocker's take on female drivers in NASCAR: "To be quite frank, NASCAR is not doing much to help women get into the sport."

Crocker felt an emotional tug as she watched television highlights of Patrick crying in Victory Lane at the facility in Motegi, Japan. Crocker experienced a sense of pride and satisfaction understanding all Patrick went through to reach that moment.

"I was really happy for her," Crocker said.

At the same time Crocker was frustrated, knowing NASCAR in many ways is not much closer to having a woman in the Sprint Cup Series than it was 20 years ago.

Despite a diversity program that began in 2004, there are no women competing full time in the top three series: Sprint Cup, Nationwide and Craftsman Truck.

Chrissy Wallace, the 19-year-old daughter of Cup driver Mike Wallace, recently was signed to drive six more truck races for Germain Racing, which is expected to turn into a full-time deal in 2009. She finished 18th in her truck debut last month at Martinsville Speedway.

But for the most part women face what Crocker has: owners not willing to fully commit without a sponsor and sponsors not ready to gamble on an unproven commodity.

"To be quite frank, NASCAR is not doing much to help women get into the sport," Crocker said. "Maybe that will change, but up until now they haven't done too much."

By "NASCAR" Crocker doesn't mean just the governing body, which has helped increase opportunities for women and minority drivers with its Drive for Diversity program. That includes owners and sponsors and everybody connected with putting a team together.

Lyn St. James, a seven-time starter in the Indianapolis 500 and a member of NASCAR's diversity council, said change likely won't occur until a top team makes a long-term commitment to putting a female driver in top equipment.

Women in NASCAR

A look at the 14 women who have competed in NASCAR's premier series since it began in 1949:

Meet the trailblazers
Driver Years Races
Sara Christian 1949-50 7
Louise Smith 1949-50 11
Ethel Mobley 1949 2
Ann Bunselmeyer 1950 1
Ann Chester 1950 2
Marian Ragan 1954 1
Fifi Scott 1955 2
Goldie Parsons 1955 1
Janet Guthrie 1976-80 33
Christine Beckers 1977 1
Lella Lombardi 1977 1
Robin McCall 1982 2
Patty Moise 1987-89 5
Shawna Robinson 2001-02 8

"I'm not privy to the insides of how they're doing business," she said of Cup operations. "I just know it's not a high priority. Their priority is making sure they're in the top 35 in points, taking care of their sponsors.

"No one has put their stake in the ground and said we're going to make it work. Everybody has just given it a shot, and when the going got tough they gravitated back to the norm."

Only 14 women have competed in a Cup race. Sara Christian, Ethel Mobley and Louise Smith were the first in 1949. Shawna Robinson was the last in 2002. Before her it was Patty Moise in 1989.

Janet Guthrie (1976-80) was the most successful. She competed in 33 races, including 19 in 1977. Ten of the 14 competed in a total of 18 races combined.

Marcus Jadotte, who oversees the Drive for Diversity program, hopes Patrick's win will re-energize the effort to get women involved in motorsports.

"I believe it is good for motorsports in general to have a young female driver win at the top of her form of racing," he said. "It will only lead to more young women taking an interest."

St. James agreed.

"Danica kind of controls the tide of that," she said. "When Danica is doing well team owners seem to show more interest. They actually ask who is the next up-and-coming great female talent.

"When Danica sort of fades into just being a competitor they [team owners] have other priorities. So it ebbs and flows. With Danica's win, hopefully it will flow over to the higher priority, but unfortunately it doesn't stay there."

Results-oriented
Richard Childress Racing paraded open-wheel driver Sarah Fisher and stock car driver Allison Duncan before the media three years ago as part of its diversity push.

A year later, Fisher was again pursuing a career in the IndyCar Series. Duncan continues to drive in lower series.

While the diversity program has had small victories, none have been big enough to get a woman into the top three series.

[+] EnlargeChrissy Wallace
AP Photo/Mark HumphreyChrissy Wallace, the teen daughter of Mike Wallace, finished 18th in her truck debut last month at Martinsville.

Of the women that made the top series before there was a diversity program, none consistently fared well enough to land a full-time job. Robinson finished 34th or worse in seven of her eight career starts. Her best finish was 24th in the 2002 Daytona 500.

Moise never finished better than 26th in five races from 1987 to '89.

Guthrie was by far the most successful. She finished sixth at Bristol in 1977 and was ninth at Charlotte and Rockingham that year en route to an average finish of 17.7.

"It all comes down to getting the job done on the track for the team and in the boardroom for the sponsor," RCR owner Richard Childress said. "Our sport is too competitive for someone, man or woman, to be in a race car if the skills to be successful in those two areas aren't there.

"Danica Patrick has proven herself to be a strong competitor and now a winner."

This is a major dilemma in the diversity push. As much as NASCAR may want a female driver, it is ultimately up to the teams to make that happen. And the teams aren't willing to sacrifice immediate success to give a female or even an inexperienced male the long-term commitment it might take to prepare for the top series.

"Team owners are impatient," Lowe's Motor Speedway president H.A. "Humpy" Wheeler said. "The first thing a team owner looks at is has that person, male or female, won races. They want to see what they can do up front."

As historic as Patrick's win was, Wheeler said he doesn't believe it will "have any significant impact on NASCAR."

Wheeler has been one of NASCAR's biggest proponents for female participation. He helped engineer one of the sport's most historic moments for women in 1976 when he arranged for Guthrie to drive in the Coca-Cola 600 after she was bumped from the Indy 500 field. Guthrie finished 15th.

"Janet was unfortunately 39 before she ran her first major NASCAR race," Wheeler said. "I certainly think if she had come into NASCAR when she was 22 or 23, she could have won a race."

But to truly get women integrated into the sport, Wheeler said, there needs to be four or five women racing at one time, not an isolated case such as Patrick.

Again, St. James agreed.

"You can't have a token and say we're going to put all of our efforts behind one," she said. "That's very narrow thinking."

A fine line
Crocker got a big break a couple of years ago when she landed a ride for team owner Ray Evernham and attracted a big-time sponsor in Betty Crocker.

Before she could fully prove her ability, an off-the-track relationship with Evernham got more attention than her driving. She ultimately lost her sponsor and has been struggling to rebuild credibility ever since.

Evernham admitted last season that negative publicity from the relationship hurt Erin Crocker's career. Crocker agreed, but makes no apologies for it.

[+] EnlargeSarah Fisher and Lyn St. James
AP Photo/Darron CummingsTwo of the trailblazers in women's auto racing: Sarah Fisher and Lyn St. James.

St. James, who has been one of Crocker's biggest advocates, said the relationship "created a distraction" that hurt the effort to get women into racing in general.

"It created a reason for people to shy away from that direction," she said. "It hurt her career and the career of others. It took women off the radar screen and gave everybody a reason to kind of take a step back."

But St. James remains one of Crocker's biggest advocates, believing she still is among the most likely females to reach the top level.

"The reality is you don't win a World of Outlaws race, you don't do what Erin did on the track in the years she built up to have the opportunity she got, without having some talent and ability," she said.

St. James thought Crocker performed well enough in the first two Truck races this season -- she was 14th at Daytona and 27th at California -- to warrant a full-time ride. Crocker was replaced the next week by Scott Speed, who finished 27th and 10th in his two outings.

"And of course that's a guy," St. James said. "If you want a different result you've got to change the way you do business."

Crocker said she had the opportunity to drive the No. 46 for Morgan-Dollar Motorsports the remainder of the season if she came up with a sponsorship. So far that hasn't happened.

"I had to become a saleswoman, and I'm not," she said. "I am a race car driver. I wish I knew how to make that connection [with a sponsor] happen. If you are signed by a Cup team you have a whole sales department working for you. If you have a lot of money behind you, you can hire an agency.

"But if you're on your own everyone has to become a salesperson."

Fine-tuning?
Crocker tried to join NASCAR's diversity program last year, but said she "had trouble getting a return phone call from them."

"I've never gotten much help from NASCAR other than a few appearances I've done for them," she said. "It's kind of a shame. I know the IRL has done a lot to help Danica and Sarah Fisher. They help promote their drivers. NASCAR needs to work on their diversity program."

Unfortunately for Crocker, the diversity program is designed for series below the trucks. NASCAR likely did not respond because Crocker would have had to begin in the Camping World Series, and it was made clear she did not want to take a step back to move forward.

A similar situation occurred when Wallace expressed an interest.

Jadotte said one day the diversity movement may be altered to include drivers already prepared for the top three series, which admittedly might speed up the process of getting a woman into the top series.

Many owners agree with that philosophy, rationalizign that if drivers are good enough to make it in the top three series they've already heard about them.

"Teams are developing talent at the higher level," Jadotte said. "The driver diversity program is focused on developing drivers at the lower end of the sport."

Andy Santerre, an owner in the Camping World Series, isn't sure that's enough. He said there were no female drivers in last weekend's opener at Greenville-Pickens Speedway and that NASCAR isn't putting enough money into the program to make it work.

"They only pay $200,000 for the whole season," he said. "It takes $750,000 to be a top Camping World team. They're going to have to spend a lot more money to make it work."

Jadotte said the program was not designed to cover all costs.

"Teams certainly need to play a role in this process," he said. "We believe that we all have a role to play in it."

Who will break the barrier?
Jadotte knew as soon as he heard Patrick won that there would be questions about NASCAR's program. He welcomed them and the attention.

He also reminded that Patrick wasn't an overnight sensation, that it's taken four seasons and 50 starts in the IRL to get a victory, and more years than that to reach that level.

[+] EnlargeDanica Patrick
AP Photo/Shuji KajiyamaWho'll be NASCAR's Danica Patrick? Some suspect it could be Danica herself.

He also reminded that NASCAR's diversity program has been in place less than four years.

"Candidly, I don't believe that is a long enough time to judge the progress of driver development or the progress of the program," he said. "We know it's going to take time, and we're committed to the process no matter how long it takes.

"We're going to be patient and make sure that it doesn't happen on an artificial timeline, that a female or minority driver will reach the top level when they earn it."

Jadotte doesn't know who finally will break the barrier and reach the Cup level. Maybe it will be one of the four females in this year's diversity program. Maybe it will be Crocker. Maybe it will be Wallace, the first female driver to win at Hickory Speedway in 57 years.

Wallace believes it might be Patrick, who has been wooed by NASCAR owners before.

"Definitely it's Danica," she said. "If she does well enough in the IRL, she's going to be like all the other open-wheel drivers that are coming over to NASCAR. She'll get a chance to prove what she can do."

Wheeler doesn't see that happening anytime soon, citing the struggles of established men who have made the jump.

"A number of people have talked to her, but right now she is pretty comfortable where she is," he said. "As someone said, 'She's got it made, so why change?'"

Change is what Patrick's win was all about. It showed a female not only can compete but win in this male-dominated sport.

Jadotte, who already has seen an increase in female drivers since the diversity program began, can't wait for the day when a female or minority driver wins in NASCAR's top series.

"We know if we broaden the pool of drivers that not only the level of competition will improve and get better, but we also believe we will grow our fan base and sport overall," he said.

St. James doesn't hesitate to remind that women represent about 80 percent of consumer spending in the country.

"If you want to follow the money, follow women," she said.

All agree it won't be easy because, as Crocker noted, NASCAR still is a little bit of the "Southern boys club" and for every one woman trying to get a ride there are 10 or more men.

"I don't think it's going to change because one girl wins a bunch of races [and] everyone is going to hire girl drivers," Crocker said. "It's always going to be a male sport. Maybe we'll break some records and make some history, but just because Danica has the ability to win in the IRL doesn't mean there are going to be 10 more female drivers.

"It's gonna take time."

David Newton covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at dnewtonespn@aol.com.

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