The 2010 and 2011 seasons have seen several records broken by female drivers in NASCAR.
Danica Patrick has been in the news ever since she announced she would be driving a partial Nationwide schedule in 2010 for JR Motorsports.
But Patrick’s entrance into the sport is only part of a recent trend that has seen the emergence of several female drivers in NASCAR. Although Patrick has received the bulk of the media attention, several other women have been running under the radar and setting NASCAR records for women.
Let's look at the noteworthy accomplishments of female drivers in the last couple of seasons.
Last October, a record four women competed in the Martinsville truck race, breaking a record set in 1977, when three women ran in the Firecracker 400 at Daytona. Johanna Long, Jennifer Jo Cobb, Amber Cope and Angela Cope all ran the race, with the highest finish going to Long in 22nd.
Long, 18, is perhaps the most promising female driver in NASCAR today, including Danica Patrick. She made seven truck series starts in 2010 with a top finish of 17th, and won the prestigious Snow Ball Derby in 2010.
Long is the youngest competitor in the truck series and is attempting to run the full schedule while vying for the Rookie of the Year title, attempting to become the first woman to win Rookie of the Year in any of NASCAR's top three series.
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Jennifer Jo Cobb, 37, also set a record in 2010 by finishing 17th in truck series points. The previous highest points finish for a woman in a NASCAR national series was 20th by Tammy Jo Kirk in 1997, also in the truck series. Kirk, who last competed in NASCAR in 2003, was the first woman ever to compete in the truck series, and her best finish in a race was 11th.
While 2010 was a strong year for female drivers in NASCAR, 2011 is looking like it could be even better.
Cobb continued her record-setting ways in 2011 by finishing sixth at Daytona, the highest ever for a woman in trucks history, and also the highest ever for a woman in a NASCAR race at Daytona. Cobb is planning to run a full season in the Nationwide series this year. She is also competing for the Rookie of the Year title in that series.
In the Daytona Nationwide race this year, Danica Patrick also recorded a first by becoming the only woman to lead a lap at the track in one of NASCAR's top three divisions. She finished a strong 14th in the race.
Just a few weeks later, Patrick set another record at Las Vegas. She recorded the highest finish ever for a female in any of NASCAR's top three divisions. With a fourth-place run at Las Vegas, Patrick beat the 61-year-old record of Sara Christian, who finished fifth at Heidelberg Raceway on Oct. 2, 1949.
In addition, Patrick sat fourth in the Nationwide standings after her record-setting run at Las Vegas, the highest position ever for a woman in any of NASCAR's top series. Patrick has faced a steep learning curve in NASCAR, and her improvement has been impressive.
Two weeks ago at Bristol, Cobb made the news again, although not any action on the track. Cobb’s dispute with car owner Rick Russell over the plan to start-and-park has been well publicized. This is hardly the first time drivers and owners have clashed over plans to start-and-park, and the attention the altercation received is an indication of the heightened interest people are taking in female NASCAR drivers these days.
Women have also had an influence on other areas of the sport. DeLana Harvick is the co-owner of Kevin Harvick Incorporated and helps manage the team. Many credit much of the team’s success to her calming influence when her husband’s fiery temper gets the best of him.
Kelley Earnhardt, daughter of Dale Earnhardt and half-sister of Dale Earnhardt Jr., is another influential woman on the business side of NASCAR. The co-owner of JR Motorsports, she played a pivotal role in bringing Danica Patrick on board as a driver.
Kelley Earnhardt’s career in racing started out as a driver herself. Her father, the Intimidator himself, thought highly of her racing abilities. Dale Earnhardt Jr. said as a driver she “was mentally tough. It was frustrating because you could see where she could have been a good race car driver and you just wanted to see her progress and get better. She would have been as far as females go,” but her sponsorship ran out and she moved to the business side of the sport.
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Why the recent resurgence in female participation in NASCAR? There are several possible explanations. Much of it has to do with connections.
Obviously Danica Patrick made a name for herself in the IndyCar series before coming to NASCAR. Chrissy Wallace and Amber and Angela Cope come from racing families. Wallace's father is NASCAR driver Mike Wallace, and last April the two became the first father and daughter to compete against each other in a Nationwide race at Talladega Superspeedway. The Cope twins are the nieces of Daytona 500 winner Derrike Cope.
Another explanation is that Americans are simply becoming more open to the ideas of female athletes starring in sports other than figure skating and gymnastics. Fifty years ago, it would have been impossible to imagine hordes of racing fans, including grown men, buying up Danica Patrick GoDaddy.com racing gear. Times have changed.
The nature of organized racing itself has a lot to do with females competing in NASCAR. Unlike with basketball and the WNBA, for example, there is no such thing as the "Women's Racing League." Racing is an incredibly physically demanding sport, but it's not hand-to-hand combat like football or basketball. When you look at a race car, you can't tell if it's a man or a woman at the wheel, and slowly but surely, respect between racers is starting to be based on driving ability rather than gender.
No one knows whether the recent trend of increasing numbers of women competing in NASCAR will be a lasting phenomenon. The long-term success of women in NASCAR will depend on the public’s perception of female drivers, simply because NASCAR, as much as any sport, is driven by sponsorship.
Undoubtedly, women have the talent to compete against the best in the sport. Given the chance to compete in top equipment, it could be only a matter of time before the Danica Patricks and Johanna Longs of NASCAR begin making trips to Victory Lane.