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Women in Racing…what do we really think?

by Scott Morris
Wednesday, December 30, 2009

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Danica Patrick
Danica Patrick is all the rage right now. We all know that much of her popularity is because…well…she is hot. No complaints here at all. Let’s just say it, and not candy-coat it. But based on her performance on the track, she would not get so much attention.

She is a decent driver, and has her moments, but I cannot personally say I have ever witnessed her set the track on fire. Really, I would love to see that. I would love to see a universal diversity in any and all kinds of motor racing. In fact, besides her IndyCar win I don’t think I have seen her really drive in a way that would be characteristic of a racer that sees the top step of the podium on a regular basis. In Motegi, where she drove a great race, she did not win because she simply out drove everyone else; she won on great fuel mileage that was no doubt aided by her very light weight.

Still though, a win is a win. It was a great accomplishment, a feat that many men have yet to achieve. Bobby Rahal was one of the most consistent front runners in the sport, and by being that type of a driver, he put himself in position to take advantage of opportunities that brought him wins. I see Danica more as that type of driver. Would I like to see her just drive away from everyone else, just once. I would be the first one up there clapping and hollering.

Though Danica seems to command the spotlight, she is most certainly not the only woman out there racing. There are hundreds of them, and we can probably all name a dozen or more. She was the first to win an IndyCar race, but not the first to win in pro racing.

In fact, I would say that Michelle Mouton had the most credible victory for a woman in racing, as she was a top runner, and winner in the gut-wrenching Group B World Rally Championship, which was eventually outlawed because it was simply nuts. She likely would have won the championship if her car would have stayed together most of the time.

To beat the rally drivers of that day, in a format where you simply must be the fastest, all out, on a balls-to-the-wall (forgive the expression please ladies) run, is genuinely impressive and one simply cannot question the validity of that.

Lynn St. James had six wins the IMSA GTO class, among a host of top name drivers of the day. She won the Rolex 24 Hour race twice and Sebring as well. That is something any sports car racer would cherish in a career.

There were even female drivers in the early years of Grand Prix racing. Some of them raced under male or gender neutral names. But they raced well. No woman ever won a grand prix race, but there were other class wins by women when GP racing was structured as such.

So the notion of a female racing driver, even a winning race driver, is nothing new.

In fact, I have always felt that women have some advantages in the cockpit. They tend to be very focused and consistent. It is widely argued that the female body adapts to certain g-loading better than men, for some reason. They have a lower center of gravity, which helps in a racing car as well, especially a formula car. It probably also helps many of the very young female kart racers do well.

So why don’t we have any women that get in the car and simply out drive the best men? Is it about a physiological or psychological limitation? It is hard to say, and I would not venture to speculate, as I am not a doctor, and certainly not an expert on the female mind (as my ex-wife would confirm).

Even most of the female drivers might lift an eyebrow (neatly plucked and sculpted of course…) at the notion of a female driver beating a Michael Schumacher or a Jimmy Johnson.

But why?

Do women not have the physical strength and stamina for the job? Well, I am not sure if we have seen such preparation at this level as yet, but have known a few female Olympic athletes over the years, I can say that their strength and stamina level certainly can live up to the demands of racing. Many people have no idea how physically demanding a top tier racing machine can be. On top of the physical drain, the mind needs to stay perfectly sharp as well, which is almost like Chess Boxing, where two fighters beat on each other, and play chess between rounds.

Brandi Chastain
Look at the muscular definition of a top female gymnast, soccer or track and field athlete, and it is tough to say that women cannot attain the physical strength required to run a racing car. One would need to train for it with that extreme level of conditioning and preparation.

Honestly, I am quite sure that most men that think they are in decent shape, could not maintain peak performance for 10 laps in an F1 or IndyCar. I personally have put some of my gym-rat jock friends in go-karts for extended periods, and though they were very fast, you could still see their lap times drop when they would get up to about 15 laps, when their times should be maintained or getting faster.

Women are actually known to have some physiological advantage when it comes to physical stamina and endurance.

Nadia Comeneci
I don’t think we have seen physical preparation at the level of the elite athlete just yet, and I think that is what it would take at the top level of IndyCar and Formula One for a woman to really get up to the top. So though I think this is a factor with the current crop of pro drivers, I don’t see it as the ultimate limiting factor for seeing a major champion in the future.

So what else might it be? Is it that women do not generally have that “killer” instinct that racing requires? Many people give this reason for why women chess players do not fare as well as the men, even despite a sometimes higher IQ.

I think this might be part of it, but more from a social-cultural standpoint than anything. Again, I see this quality in almost all top female athletes, and there would not be any reason it could not be present in a female racing driver just as much as male driver. I just don’t think that women are exposed to it so that element can be cultivated.

Much for the same reason we don’t see a lot of Hispanic kids in the NFL or NBA, but have a heavy presence in baseball and soccer. Its not that the talent or potential might not be there, but more about those sports not being in the cultural pipeline for that population segment.

My answer for this will likely be controversial, but I think it is more about social convention and norms than the skill or potential of female drivers.

Women and men simply are typically raised, exposed and inclined to different things in life. Those that are directly exposed to the sport, tend to show pretty well, especially in the junior ranks.

I also think women have an instinctual nurturing tendency that they must overcome, where men tend to have a bit more primal and conquering instinct. Of course this is not a sweeping statement that applies to all, but in general, I think this is simply part of nature.

It certainly is a quality that is common among the very best drivers.

So can a woman be a world champion? Can a woman be an IndyCar Champion? Can a woman be a NASCAR Champion? I don’t see why not, but the odds are heavily against it, simply because vastly fewer women are exposed and inclined to get into the sport as a driver. Combined with the additionally extreme level of physical conditioning that would be required, this stacks the odds heavily against that ever happening.

Though I doubt I will see it happen in my lifetime, I would love to see it happen. With the odds so against it, I think it would make it that much more of a huge and amazing accomplishment that would be really great for the sport.

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