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DATE News (chronologically)
05/27/10
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IndyCar 4, NASCAR 0, zilch.  The big Memorial Day weekend auto races are three days away, but an intriguing result has already appeared on society's cultural scoreboard:

IndyCar 4, NASCAR 0.

That's four women set to drive in Sunday's Indianapolis 500, the most to ever qualify for the nation's fabled holiday weekend race. And that's zero women, unfortunately, in the field at the mighty NASCAR event later that day, the Coca-Cola 600.

NASCAR has been so dominant in recent years that this raises a simple question: How is the auto racing giant possibly losing any battle these days to Indy cars?

The other day, Eddie Gossage, president of Texas Motor Speedway, took a whack at an answer in the Washington Post.

"(NASCAR) may not lend itself toward women, who are, by nature, smaller people," he said. "The cars are bigger, heavier and require more physical demands. The races are longer. There are 38 races to a season, and it gets to be a tremendous physical grind. I'm not slamming women. I'm simply saying there is a big difference in a 3,400-pound stock car vs. a (1,600-pound) Indy car."

Didn't people once say things like that about allowing women in the military? Good thing he didn't say women lack the "necessities" to drive, because we all know how that worked out for Al Campanis a generation ago when he tried to explain the dearth of African-American managers and general managers in baseball.

Then again, Gossage need not worry. If he had made controversial remarks about African-Americans, or Asian-Americans, or perhaps an entire religion, he likely would have had a Texas-sized protest on his hands today. But his comments concerned the perfect demographic, women, and its subset, women in sports. No Al Sharpton or Jesse Jackson or threat of a protest in that group.

I called Gossage on Wednesday and he was kind, jovial and sticking to his guns.

"I guess I could be politically correct or I could tell the truth," he said. "I want everyone in this sport. I want to see women succeed. I hope Danica (Patrick, who is racing in a dozen second-tier NASCAR events this year) proves the theory wrong, but it's a steep hill for her to climb because it may take a bigger, stronger person."

What if he's right? (Never mind those tough little guys named Jeff Gordon and Mark Martin and the fact there is power steering now in the 21st-century stock car.) What if women will never make it in the top level of NASCAR because they can't control the bulkier cars?

Nonsense, says an organization that does have a little credibility on the subject: NASCAR.

"I disagree," spokesman Ramsey Poston said in a phone interview. "I believe women can be successful in this sport. Smaller people have proved that they can win championships in this sport."

So, then, if it's not about size and strength, what is it? Poston says NASCAR is the "most competitive racing in the world," so it's tough for anyone to break in, male or female.

Fair enough, although Patrick and the other Indy women will actually be driving at top speeds 40-50 mph faster than their male counterparts in Charlotte this weekend, so they're hardly shrinking violets.

"Then you have the whole cultural thing," said seven-time Indy 500 veteran and women's driving advocate Lyn St. James. "NASCAR started in the South and it's always been family-oriented, run by family, so it's hard for anyone else to break into the sport. Then add the issues of cultural diversity and gender diversity and you're on the outside looking in. It has changed in the last 10 years, but has it changed enough? No. Has it changed completely? No. In IndyCar, it's always been much more open, with people from all parts of the country and all parts of the world."

St. James established a foundation and a driver academy in 1994 to educate and train girls and young women in her sport, including one by the name of Danica Patrick.

St. James works closely these days with NASCAR and its Drive for Diversity initiative. She estimates 85% of her young drivers want to go into NASCAR. It's coming, she says, but slowly. Much more money is needed from NASCAR owners and sponsors to make it happen.

"They recognize it and are trying to be more diverse," she said, "but money still hasn't trickled down enough to the young drivers who can make that happen."

The explanations and excuses will keep coming. So, too, will NASCAR's opportunity to change. The organization says women are strong enough. Now we need to find out if NASCAR is. USAToday.com

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