By John Bisci
Danica Patrick's arrival on the NASCAR scene has stirred up quite a bit of publicity and message-board chatter. First, she is coming to NASCAR from Indy car racing. Second, she is driving for a high-profile team with a colorful, aggressive sponsor. Third, she's a girl.
She's a female race car driver. So what's the big deal?
Taking nothing away from Danica's talent and appeal, she is not the first female to don a firesuit. Janet Guthrie blazed the trail for women in Indy car racing and NASCAR's modern era (Louise Smith raced in the Carolinas and Virginia from 1949-1956). Shirley Muldowney forged her way to the top in the NHRA's premier series. Lyn St. James proved women could handle sports cars and Italy's Lela Lombardi competed in 17 Formula One races from 1974-1976.
But it wasn't always that way. There was a time - as recent as the 1970s - when women were not even allowed in the pit area at NASCAR races and many short tracks. At one short track in New England, the first sign you saw when you pulled up to the pit gates proclaimed, "No Women Allowed." Sometimes women were allowed to race - usually once each year - in a so-called Powder Puff Derby. It was more of a spectacle than a legitimate race. One asphalt track in N.Y. (which shall remain nameless because it still is in operation) determined Powder Puff starting positions by bra sizes: the lady with the biggest chest started on the pole.
Woman fought hard for their right to compete with men and in the process silenced - and often humbled - their chauvinistic detractors. To paraphrase the old Virginia Slims cigarette commercial, "They've come a long way, baby."
Ms. Patrick's decision to enter our Sam's Town 300 on NASCAR Weekend allows us to shine the spotlight on other talented drivers - who just happen to be female - who race here.
Ashley Force Hood is the daughter of drag racing legend John Force but also is a winning driver in her own right. Ashley earned her NHRA Funny Car license at The Strip at Las Vegas Motor Speedway and on April 27, 2008 won her first NHRA Full Throttle Drag Racing Series event, in Atlanta.
"I grew up in NHRA drag racing, so from my perspective, it's not such a big deal to have girls participating in professional racing. I'm a girl, and I like racing. I'm no different than my male competitors in that I love competition, speed, the rush of adrenaline, and the excitement of a good side-by-side race whether I'm in the driver's seat, or up in the stands. The only difference is that I happen to be wearing makeup under my helmet! If a person is passionate about something and willing to put hard work and time in to it, their gender really doesn't factor in.
"However, when it comes to sponsorship, that is where I see the difference. My sponsors, like Castrol, Ford, Auto Club, Mac Tools, and BrandSource love that they have both male and female drivers because we can reach out to all types of consumers. I have a lot of fans who are children and I don't think it's so much because I'm a girl, but that I'm a child of a racer and grew up gathering autographs from my favorite drivers just like they're doing now.
"I am very fortunate to race at a time when women are not only accepted in racing, but racers and fans are happy to have them there. I am good friends with many of my competitors and their families. It wasn't always like this but because of strong women like Shirley Muldowney who didn't care what others thought, ignored the criticism and rudeness, and raced anyway, we are today able to take part in this sport in a fair and fun atmosphere.
"I'm proud to be a female who races a Funny Car. They are very challenging and exciting to drive and there's only one other female in my category, Melanie Troxel, at this time, so of course I want to do well for the girls. But I also have a team of twelve very talented male crew members and crew chiefs who give me a safe and fast race car each week to compete in. And at the end of the day, I believe most women strive not to be the best female race car driver out there, but the best race car driver period."
Brianna Holley is a 17-year-old student who competes in the Charger division at the Bullring (LVMS' 3/8-mile asphalt oval). She is the first female to win a Bullring points championship (in the Bandolero division).
"I don't think it (being a female race car driver) matters whatsoever," Brianna said. "I think we have the exact same abilities every man has. I've never been asked this question before - I've never even had to think about it. I've never had any problems and I've never been criticized for being a girl."
Like Ashley Force Hood, Becky Phlegar grew up in a racing family. Today, her father, mother, stepfather, husband and father-in-law are drag racers. Chances are, her one-year-old son will race when he's old enough. Becky races - and does very well - in the Super Pro class at The Strip at LVMS, which is the highest level of local bracket-racing competition.
"I'm just one of the racers out there," said Becky. "They don't treat me any differently because I'm a girl and they don't cut me any slack because I'm a girl. I get treated just as fairly as anybody else out there."
Today, the only men who can legitimately complain about girls winning races are the 1960s-era comedians who made a living telling those hackneyed "women driver" jokes. Danica, Ashley, Becky and Brianna put them all out of business for good.