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Women drivers wanted

5/8/2004

Janet Guthrie, Christine Beckers, Lella Lombardi, Robin McCall, Patty Moise and Shawna Robinson.

Six women, scattered over the last 28 years, have reached the highest echelon of NASCAR racing, namely Cup competition during its so-called "modern era." Since Guthrie made her Winston Cup debut in 1976, only five other females have followed in her footsteps to Cup racing.

Guthrie, who also made a name for herself in Indianapolis 500 annals, competed in 33 Cup events between 1976 and 1980 until lack of funding ended her stock car racing dream.

Most recently has been Robinson, who has competed in eight Cup events, but none since 2002.

Moise, who had a semi-successful tenure in the Busch Series, made five Cup starts before moving into semi-retirement on her Virginia horse farm.

Meanwhile, Lombardi and Beckers managed just one career Cup start -- but it was arguably one of the most significant races in NASCAR history -- when they and Guthrie all competed in the 1977 Firecracker 400 at Daytona International Speedway, the first time (and only one to date) where three women have qualified for the same race.

McCall was the last female driver to race in a Cup event (actually, she had two total career starts, both in 1982) until Robinson ended a 19-year absence of females behind the wheel of a Cup car when she competed in the Kmart 400 at Michigan International Speedway in 2001.

Let's do the math: six women, 50 career Cup starts, in nearly three decades. Subtract Guthrie from the equation and you wind up with just five women in 17 career Cup starts over nearly 30 years.

What's wrong with this picture? A heck of a lot, in my opinion.

As we celebrate Mother's Day this weekend, I have to ask a few questions that shouldn't have to be asked in this modern day and age:

  • Why, with women making up nearly half of the crowds at NASCAR races -- not to mention the millions of diehard female fans who watch Nextel Cup races on TV -- are there no female drivers currently … or even on the horizon?

  • Or, for that matter, why aren't there any female crew chiefs or pit crew members?

  • Or, other than Teresa Earnhardt and Beth Ann Morgenthau, as well as Kim Wood Hall (a minority owner of the Wood Brothers Racing team), why are there not more female owners in the Cup series?

  • Or, other than NASCAR board member Lesa Kennedy, who some might argue got her position because she's the offspring of Bill France Jr. and sister of current NASCAR CEO Brian France, are there no women among NASCAR's top executives?

    When it comes to females in the NASCAR hierarchy, they are definitely second-class citizens. And like African-Americans who are also trying to make inroads in the sport, the journey is not easy.

    It has gotten to the point that most women give up when it comes to chasing dreams of being part of the sport … or, to borrow one of its well-worn phrases, one of the boys.

    The reasons are simple: no money, no sponsorship support, no desire among team owners to put a woman in the driver's seat, and perhaps most significantly of all, no other women currently racing with which to form a support system.

    I have two teenage daughters, both of whom are big NASCAR fans -- OK, so I won't hold it against them that they like Tony Stewart and Dale Earnhardt Jr. -- and who love to compete in video online games like NASCAR Racing. They'd love to one day bang fenders for real on the racetrack with the likes of Stewart and Earnhardt, but they know the odds are out of this stratosphere.

    The world of drag racing has been more progressive when it comes to female competitors and even crew chiefs than has NASCAR. Twelve-time Funny Car champion John Force, the most dominating and successful driver the sport has ever seen, is slowly grooming his daughter Ashley to take over his spot behind the wheel in the next three to five years. You sure don't see something like that in NASCAR, though. If a current driver like Sterling Marlin, Rusty Wallace or Mark Martin is going to be succeeded by one of their offspring, it's pretty much a certainty that they'll be males.

    NASCAR officials certainly have no problem taking money from female fans that pass through the turnstiles at racetracks, who buy millions of dollars of souvenirs or who also plop down millions at concession stands.

    So why doesn't NASCAR treat females as equals to their male counterparts? Why was someone like Robinson so ostracized when she tried to make it on the Winston Cup circuit in 2002?

    Why has NASCAR thrown its support behind the Drive for Diversity program that will hopefully lead to more minority drivers and crew chiefs in the Nextel Cup, Busch and Craftsman Truck ranks in the coming years, but hasn't formed a similar program exclusively for the development of females in areas of on- and off-track prominence and responsibility?

    Why hasn't Robinson, who has proven herself more than a capable driver -- yet has been surrounded by inferior equipment most of the time -- not been back to Cup racing since her seven starts in 2002?

    Much of the reason for that can be boiled down simply to what is best described as NASCAR's culture: It's a male-oriented, male-dominated and male-controlled sport.

    Quite honestly, I am so tired of the almost obligatory camera shots in virtually every televised broadcast of a Cup or Busch Series race that show the loyal, hopeful wife or girlfriend in the pits, wishing and hoping her man will take the checkered flag. Or how about the tears of joy or sadness when things go right or wrong?

    Is that all a woman is good for, a cheap cheesecake shot for a few seconds of air time? No, and NASCAR needs to take a long look at itself in the mirror and realize that women need a place in the sport, too.

    This is the 21st century, not the Neanderthal age. It's time for NASCAR to give women a chance to show what they can do either behind the wheel, in the pits/garage or sitting at the corporate desk.

    To borrow a phrase from a popular commercial of the 1970s, you've come a long way, baby -- but you've still got a long way to go if you want to be in NASCAR.

    Let's hope that situation changes -- sooner rather than later.

    Jerry Bonkowski covers NASCAR for ESPN.com. He can be reached at Motorsportwriter@MSN.com.