NASCAR and Women in Motorsport

It’s no secret that there aren’t a lot of women in motorsports, especially at the top levels. Why? And is that a problem?

The Numbers

Let’s take a look at how many women there are (or aren’t) in some of the top motorsports series. I tallied up how many women were represented in the top 10, the top 20 and the entire roster of drivers who’d run at least one race that season.

My conclusion is that there are entirely too many drivers named Kelley/Kelly, Jesse/Jessie and Chris because I had to go find pictures of all these folks to tell if they were male or female. Also, the following graphs.

The number of women represented in the top 10 for the 2018 season for nine racing series.
The number of women represented in the top 20 for the 2018 season for nine racing series.
The number of women participating in the 2018 season for nine top racing series.

F1

Since the F1 Championship began in 1950, there have been more than 900 drivers.

  • Only six female drivers (~0.67%) have attempted to qualify for an F1.
  • Only two female drivers (~0.22%) have qualified for an F1 race.
  • The first was Maria Teresa de Filippis in 1958
  • The last time a woman appeared in a F1 championship race was 1976. The Italian racer Lella Lombardi only completed 23 laps before a fuel system problem forced her out of the race.
  • Lombardi is also the only woman to be classified in the world championship points. (Sixth place finish in the shortened 1975 Spanish Grand Prix when a driver crashed into the crowd.)

Trivia

Lella Lombardi raced NASCAR: she competed in the summer Daytona race in 1977. She then switched to sports cars, where she won world championship events and finished fourth in the drivers’ world championship with co-driver Giorgio Francia in 1981. She had her best season in 1985, but became ill shortly after that and died of cancer in 1992.

NASCAR

There have been 2926 drivers who have started at least one race at the Cup level

  • 16 of the 2926 drivers (0.55%) were women.
  • The last woman to drive in a NASCAR Cup race was Danica Patrick in the 2018 Daytona 500.
  • The highest season ranking of a woman at the Cup level in the modern era was 23rd: Janet Guthrie in 1977.
  • The highest finish by a woman in a Cup race was 5th out of 23 (Sara Christian, the first woman driver in NASCAR history, in 1949).
  • In the modern era, the highest finish by a woman in a Cup-level race was Danica Patrick (6th in Atlanta, 2014)
  • Danica Patrick holds the record for most top-tens by a female at 7 (out of 167 races).
  • Danica Patrick was the first woman pole winner in NASCAR at the Cup level.

So This Isn’t Just NASCAR?

No. Many racing series have about the same numbers.

But NHRA doesn’t.

  • Shirley Muldowney (from Burlington, VT) won three NHRA Championships, the first in 1977.
  • Muldowney has a career 18 national-event wins, placing her up there with Joe Amato, Gary Scelzi and Big Daddy Don Garlits.
  • The first all-female national-event Top-Fuel final was in 1982 (Muldowney and Lucille Lee). There wouldn’t be another female-female Top Fuel final until 2016 (Leah Pritchett and Brittany Force).

Women in STEM

By way of background: In 1991, there were 1276 Ph.D.’s in physics awarded in the United States. About 140 of them (11%) were awarded to women and about half of those were awarded to women who were U.S. Citizens. I was one of those 70.

For most of my career, I was the only (or one of two or three) women in any room. I have a lot of ‘first woman to’ things on my resume. I spent of a lot of my career involved with trying to understand why there weren’t many women in the field and what we could do to get more women into the field. Twenty-mumble-mumble years later and we’ve made a little progress, but not much.

It looks like a big rise, but in percentages, between 2006 and today, women were static at about 18–20% of all Ph.D.’s in physics. (That number was 11% in 1991.)

Why should you care about women having access to STEM careers? Because you’re losing out on 50% of your talent base. Especially as China and India step up their STEM games, the U.S. needs our best people in the game if we’re going to stay competitive.

But What About Motorsports?

You can’t really make the same argument for motorsports. The world won’t end if NASCAR remains a male-dominated sport.

But NASCAR might end. And, believe me, NASCAR knows it.

We can argue about whether or not Danica Patrick ‘deserved’ to race at the NASCAR Cup series, but the evidence is strong that she brought new fans to the sport, most of them female and a lot of them young.

The average age of NASCAR fans is in the 50’s. One source puts the average age of NASCAR television viewers for the 2016/2017 regular season at 58. That’s compared with 49 in 2006. NASCAR won’t survive without attracting a new generation of fans and they have get those fans from a population that is far less car-crazy than the last few generations.

Introducing the W-Series

On November 28th, 2018, the new open-wheel “W Series” released their list of the 55 drivers who will contend for 18–20 spots in the inaugural six-round series in 2019. Every driver on that list is female.

The W-Series is F1’s plan for increasing the number of women in the top tiers of open-wheel racing by supporting a women-only racing series. Their goal is to provide a forum for women to demonstrate to team owners and potential sponsors that they’ve got what it takes to succeed.

The Goals

The Series’ CEO is Catherine Bond Muir is a lawyer and finance backer coming from the sports world who originated the idea for the W-Series while at home pregnant with her first child.

The series is funded by Scottish businessman Sean Wadsworth at an estimated $26.4 million for season one, although they plan to enlist support from sponsors to cover costs. The series pays for the cars, travel, training and races. A total $1.5 million prize fund is offered, with $500,000 going to the winner to be used to advance her career. The goal is to create a pipeline into F1 by giving women drivers an opportunity and a stage on which to prove themselves.

“…women racing drivers tend to reach a ‘glass ceiling’ at around the GP3/Formula 3 level on their learning curve, often as a result of a lack of funding rather than a lack of talent.”
David Coulthard

The Car

The W-Series will run identical Tatuus Formula 3 cars with 1.8-L, 270 hp turbocharged 4-cylinder Alfa Romeo engines. Thirty-minute races are scheduled to run in tandem with DTM (Deutsch Tourenwagen Masters), which means all six races will be in Europe and the UK. The series starts in May and ends in August at Brands Hatch in the UK.

The idea of running identical cars is to let the drivers demonstrate what they can do with equal equipment, thus eliminating variables like quality of equipment. Motorsport fans generally don’t look kindly on spec racing series, but in this case, I think it fits the goals.

The Drivers

W-Series organizers received more than 100 applications from 30 countries. The 55 drivers chosen as finalists to compete for 18–20 spots come from 26 countries.

Nationalities of the 55 finalists for the 2019 W-Series. Between 18 and 20 drivers will be chosen to compete in the first season.

The finalists range in age from 17 to 33. Their experience levels vary from former GT4 and F1600 Champions to drivers having little to no open-wheel experience beyond karting. You can view the list here.

NASCAR fans might recognize Natalie Decker and Cassie Gannis, or perhaps Carmen Boix Gil from the NASCAR Whelan Euro series or Toni Breidinger from ARCA. Among other notables is Amna Al Qubaisi from the United Arab Emirates, the first female racing driver from the United Arab Emirates and whose father was the first UAE driver to compete at LeMans.

  • The United States led with 8 finalists, followed by
  • The United Kingdom (5)
  • Germany and the Netherlands (each with 4)

The selection process will include on-track and simulator testing, technical engineering tests, fitness trials and such. The selected drivers will be mentored by

  • former F1 driver David Coulthard
  • Adrian Newey (the most successful F1 designer in history)
  • Dave Ryan (a team manager with teams like McLaren and Manor, as well as his own GT racing team)
  • Matt Bishop (a communications/PR specialist)

It’s important to note that this isn’t an F1 initiative. The W-Series will likely be sanctioned through the British Racing & Sports Car Club, but they are in touch with the FIA.

Is This is a Good Idea?

The Pro

Many of the women who have signed on to the W-Series see it as one more opportunity. There’s little to risk for someone like Decker or Gannis.

For others, this might be their last chance. Alice Powell was the first woman to win a Formula Renault championship and the first woman to score points in the GP3 Series. She won five races and finished second in the GP3 championship standings in 2013. And then…

Nothing. For lack of money to move up. Her response to the W-Series came via twitter.

I see both sides of points… but funding is the thing. I haven’t raced for 4 years because of no funding. I just want to race.
Alice Powell

The Con

Some believe that an all-female series suggests that women can’t compete with men on a level playing field. Toto Wolff, the Mercedes F1 executive director, said formats like Series W ‘undermine’ women in the sport.

An all-women championship is giving up on the mission of eventually making girls compete on a high level and against the boys in Formula One. It is undermining what girls are able to achieve.
Toto Wolff via the Guardian

Driver Pippa Mann was even more vehement in her opposition to the idea.

She argues that there are already women competing in mainstream series who are struggling for sponsorship, and that the money invested in the W-Series would be much better used to support those women.

Lyn St. James (the first woman to win the Indy 500 Rookie of the Year award in 1992 who still holds many land-speed and closed-course speed records) was at first dubious, then came out in opposition to the idea.

Do we need an all-women series? No. Do we need opportunities for women in racing? Yes. It is a male-dominated sport; it is a sport where women need to learn to compete equally with men.
Lyn St. James (via Road and Track)
“Do we need an all-women’s series? I don’t think so. Not at all… If you want to start a new series, that’s great. But put half men and half women in it and give some of the guys a shot that wouldn’t get one otherwise.”
Lyn St. James (via Autoweek)

Is A ‘W-Series’ the Answer for NASCAR?

I think not.

  • Where would the money come from?
  • Last year’s champion’s team shut down.
  • The current Truck Series Champion doesn’t have a ride.
  • If someone had a spare couple of tens of millions of dollars around, why wouldn’t they spend it on an established team? Or an up-and-coming female driver who’s proven herself to have potential?
  • The idea of female-only racing series hasn’t worked in the past and there’s little to suggest it might work now.
  • The W-Series got 100 applications and they were drawing from the entire world. A number of their 55 choices are a questionable IMO — including one driver who has never won a race and claims women aren’t capable of racing against men.
  • Don Panoz started the Women’s Global GT sports car racing series in 1999 to support ALMS races. Very similar in concept to the W-Series, it folded after one year due to the high costs.
  • It reinforces the idea that women aren’t capable of racing men.
  • It doesn’t take advantage of everything we know about helping women break into male-dominated fields.

Critical Mass

Critical mass is a term that comes from nuclear weapons physics: it’s the minimum amount of fissile material you need to maintain a nuclear chain reaction. That chain reaction is what makes nuclear weapons possible.

But it’s come to be used by the people who study representation because we’ve learned that there’s a particular level (generally around 15–25%) below which nothing changes. Danica Patrick was hailed as the woman who was going to open up NASCAR to other women by blazing a trail.

It doesn’t work like that. Yes, role models are important, but they’re not the only thing you need. Researchers have studied everything from Navy ships to corporate boardrooms to STEM disciplines. Change happens when you get to critical mass.

Can NASCAR Reach Critical Mass?

NASCAR’s Drive for Diversity program has come a long way since its start in 2004, but they have six drivers (usually 1–2 of whom are women) per year. Kyle Larson, Bubba Wallace and Daniel Suárez are graduates of that program, but the majority of the drivers don’t make it: Some learn they don’t have the talent or drive. Others have stalled out for lack of funding. At this rate, though, there’s no way to make critical mass.

I’d suggest you’ll never reach critical mass with drivers, but it’s possible to make situation improve by getting more women in technical and racing-related positions in NASCAR. With due respect to the communications and PR specialists, many of whom are women, they live in a different world.

There are women in technical jobs. Lisa Smokestad, an HMS tire specialist and Alba Colon, an engineer now also with HMS, but previously with Chevrolet Racing spring immediately to mind. More recently, we have lead engineers Angela Ashmore and Andrea Muller. But the numbers are growing very slowly. They aren’t a lot of women among NASCAR officials or the R&D Center, either.

What To Do Instead

Study NHRA

NASCAR has sent executives to other racing series to study how they do things in an attempt to come up with new ideas. Perhaps they should think about sending a delegation to NHRA. Talk to the racers and talk to the fans. What are they doing that NASCAR isn’t?

Unfortunately, I think part of the answer to that question is that John Force had four daughters.

Seriously.

If they didn’t make critical mass, they were at least close to it. He had the resources to support their interest in racing and no one in NHRA was going to mess with John Force’s kids. So maybe one thing to do is to look toward the next generation of NASCAR kids: Audrey Larson, Piper Harvick, the Kenseth girls, Molly and Taylor Hamlin, Karsyn Elledge, and, of course, Isla Rose Earnhardt.

The Importance of Family

As I looked up the 55 women on the W-Series list, I noticed something really interesting. With very few exceptions every one of them got into racing because her father raced, wrenched, or had wanted to race.

We see the same thing in STEM fields. Women who succeed almost always mention the importance of parents who supported their goals (even if the parents had never been interested in (or liked) science. You cannot over-emphasize the impact on your kids when you tell them they can do something — or that they can’t.

And even if they don’t end up driving professionally, they’ll likely be fans for life.

Start Earlier

Susie Wolff (the wife of the Mercedes Executive I quote above) was a development and reserve driver for F1 team Williams. She retired in 2015 when she realized she wasn’t going to get a full-time seat. She’s putting her energies into encouraging more girls to get into karting, where they currently make up about 3% of participants in the UK.

In Conclusion

There are no easy answers, but everything we know about representation suggests that segregating women in their own series is unlikely to even be a hard answer.

Photo Credits

The photos in the header image are:

  • A Shirley Muldowney hero card
  • The W-Series Car
  • Lella Lombardi at 1974 Monza Formula 5000 race by giuengi from giussano Milan Italy, Milan Italy
  • Janet Guthrie
  • Lyn St. James (Chuck Carroll) CC BY-SA 3.0 from Wikimedia Commons

Originally published at The Building Speed Blog.