Danica Patrick and Her Fellow Females: Looking at the Female Race Car Driver

Ashley McCubbinAnalyst IApril 5, 2011

BIRMINGHAM, AL - MARCH 13:  Danica Patrick, driver of the #7 Andretti Motorsport Team GoDaddy.com Dallara Honda poses during the IRL Indy Car Series Media Day at Barber Motorsports Park on March 13, 2011 in Birmingham, Alabama.  (Photo by Nick Laham/Getty Images)
Nick Laham/Getty Images

When it comes to the motorsports industry, it is mainly thought to be one that is dominated by men, as a lot of people state that cars are for boys, while girls are to stay clean and be all pretty.

However, according to USA Today, 40 percent of fans of one of the leading motorsports categories, the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing (NASCAR), are female.

Despite this, for the longest time, there were a lack of females who could be spotted in the garage, whether as engineers, owners or as a driver.

In this male dominated culture, the female race driver subculture emerges as these drivers face their own adversity to try to make it to the top.

Lastly, there are some females who are drivers in some of the top world-famous divisions–NASCAR, Automobile Racing Club of America (ARCA) and IndyCar–and also some who are drivers at the local level.

This is a topic that has been looked at before, through members of the NASCAR media. Raygan Swan wrote about the historic viewpoint and struggles that females went through then.

She contrasted that to drivers today, such as Danica Patrick and Jennifer Jo Cobb, and determined that it is easier for females today.

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Challenges these days are much easier, whether they are the same type of challenges or different ones. 

You can see this through media image, results and how they have taken on the stereotype through interviews and the media image they have portrayed.

While many say it's probably best to keep quiet and treat them as anybody else, these girls are out there telling the story of their struggles, whether it be in contrast to what the media believes, or whether it be the story of just trying to make it in general.

They don’t mind talking about their struggles as it allows themselves to be better understood.

One of the stories that many have spoken of is their relation to the stereotype brought forth by the mainstream media, which begins with IZOD IndyCar and NASCAR star Danica Patrick.

Patrick has had limited success in IndyCar, as she won a race in Japan in 2008, though only by fuel mileage. In NASCAR, she is still learning the ropes, though she scored her first top-five finish at Las Vegas through fuel strategy.

In any other case, a lot of people said that she’d just be known as an average driver with those stats. However, within the racing world and even beyond, she is known more so for her appearance that is played out in GoDaddy.com commercials.

She dresses sexy to promote domain names for them, along with their other models. She is also known for how she posed in Sports Illustrated’s Swimsuit Edition for two straight years, wearing a bikini.

Patrick says that it’s all about being the package deal as “it’s not just being able to drive the cars, but being able to talk to the sponsors, CEOs, talk to the media and represent products (Patrick, 2011).”

Patrick says that it’s not a big deal, however if you look at the stereotype that’s been created, it has now become a big deal. Other female drivers are now supposed to act the same way.

Alli Owens said that she could’ve got any deal that she wanted—if she did the bikini-ready look for them. Her response was, “I’m like, ‘No way. I’m a racecar driver; I’m not a model. If I wanted to be a movie star, I would have gone to Hollywood. I wouldn’t be in North Carolina trying to make a racing career’.

"I mean, that’s my opinion–I think now corporate America and people in the general public are looking at females in Motorsports as sex symbols and I don’t think that’s the right avenue (Owens, 2011).”

With her contrast to the media stereotype, she ended up bringing forth a story that was quite unique to herself. She had brought some sponsors together and was ready to have a breakout year this year, though the sponsorship fell through the cracks at the last minute.

With her refusing to do the bikini-model game, she in exchange had to take a different, harder approach to this season. After losing her sponsors, she decided to go down a new route by taking in fan donations and sponsorships from small companies.

She opened up a paypal account on her website to start sending donations, whether it be $1 or $100, any amount that they could afford.

She took the honest route in the game, telling the truth to her fans through the entire process, completely keeping her fans updated via Twitter and Facebook on the progress.

"In my press release today, I put a dollar figure in the press release, and everybody in NASCAR will tell you that you don’t put the money out there in public and you don’t put a dollar figure out there," she said during the process earlier this year.

"But at this point in my career, I have nothing to hide. If people want to know how much I need, I want to tell them, and I want to tell them exactly how much I have, who is giving it to me and where it is going."

The dollar figure that Owens set to reach was $35,000. From the beginning of January to the beginning of February, fan donations poured in and small companies jumped on board with the project, donating money to have their name on the truck.

Together, Owens reached her total and tried to qualify for the Camping World Truck Series opener at Daytona International Speedway. Sadly, she failed to qualify and the deal fell apart, as no sponsorship and continued funding could be found.

This is a story that could’ve changed drastically by Alli choosing to go down the easy route by playing the media game and dressing as a bikini model. However, Alli chose otherwise, despite this route being harder.

The reason behind her choice resides in the fact that these girls want to be respected just like any other driver would be. They don’t want to be unique; they just want to be known as a racer.

They don’t want their gender to be the reason that they are in the situation they are in as they want to be there, just like everybody else. Danica, meanwhile, doesn’t mind being different as she’s out for sponsors and to do whatever she has to do to survive.  

Gender separation is something that doesn’t matter once you’re on the track, yet here we have girls being expected to dress sexy for the mainstream media while guys can do ads in whatever they like. The only time guys have expected to dress sexy was in photo shoots of their choice.

Alli says for her coming up through the ranks before the media game, it was about the success on track. She said that, “the way I was brought up, I was brought up on the dirt tracks where you’re one of the guys and its built on respect on the track, not media value off the track (Owens, 2011).”

Though once in NASCAR, big media deals enter to try to get the sponsorships needed so therefore it becomes a media game.

The media game brings forth a war between most females and Danica within the subculture as it presents a challenge to those who are trying to go against it.

That’s why you always see the girls trying to stress that they are like any other driver and take the gender side out of the equation by trying to keep that to a minimum. Many girls who have played that game have had trouble finding funding like Alli, including Shawna Robinson.

In 27 ARCA races, she had five top fives and 14 top 10s, though instead now owns a chair company, as funding wasn’t there for her, either.

Chrissy Wallace also looked to have a strong start to her career when she started with top Camping World Truck Series team Germain Racing, though it fell apart as funding could not be found due to the fall in the economy.

The team even felt the economy fall hard with their top driver and champion Todd Bodine as they could only find sponsorship with 10 of the 25 races.

Other women who ended up like Shawna and Chrissy with subpar equipment and running partial schedules because they couldn't get sponsorship include Robin McCall, Patty Moise and Erin Crocker. These were girls trying to make it in the 1980s and 1990s, though they gave up because the sponsorship wasn't there. 

Patty Moise says, "I quit trying to get sponsorship and made the decision at the point, at the age, for me personally, I had not achieved the success I wanted to achieve so I moved on (Swan, Before Danica, Females Weren't Widely Accepted, 2010)."

In trying to gain their identity, you see girls trying to make it into racing, no matter the level of racing, whether it is the national level of NASCAR racing, or the short-track ranks. Looking back, though, it was harder for females, as the struggles that these girls have overcome to even get to this point are huge.

As according to female journalist Raygan Swan, she said that Danica Patrick joining NASCAR in 2010 is a first as she says “never before has a female driver been handed the keys to the kingdom, so to speak, like the 27-year-old Patrick.

She has a multi-year deal with one of the sport's premier Nationwide Series teams, engine support from Hendrick Motorsports, and veteran Cup drivers such as Tony Stewart and Kevin Harvick willing to help her along her 13-race endeavor this season (Swan, Before Danica, Females Weren't Widely Accepted, 2010).”

Back in 1977 when Janet Guthrie qualified for the Indianapolis 500, the male drivers protested saying that they feared for their safety and saying that women were emotionally unstable.

When Guthrie qualified for NASCAR’s 1976 World 600, Richard Petty said his wife could drive better with 14 screaming kids in the backseat.

Guthrie understood things then as in 1988 she said that “the thing women don't have that men do have is money. Without money, the best race driver in the world is nothing (Miller, 2009).”

Guthrie wasn’t the first female in racing, as that belongs to Louise Smith in 1946. Bill France Sr., who founded NASCAR in 1949, needed a driver to promote a race at Greenville-Pickens Speedway.

His choice was Louise, as she was rumored to have outrun every cop in the area, despite no race track experience. In the race that day, she finished third and recorded 38 minor-league victories in an 11-year span.

As seen historically and currently, these girls are trying to stand in opposition to the female stereotype that is seen in racing. According to the stereotype, girls are just a pretty face while the racing is for the boys.

Crystal Doucette says, “Clearly the stereotype is false. If you take the females that race just at Barrie Speedway or Sunset Speedway, they all do very well. For example, myself, 2008 season, placed third in points for the Charger Series and received the Hard Charger Award (no matter what position this driver starts they always make it to the front).

"Females should be treated like any male racer would. It’s always good to see female drivers in any type of race cars, dirt cars, four cylinders, thunder cars, late models. Females are slowly making an impact in the big world of racing, and hopefully, there will be no difference between male and female racers (Doucette, 2010).”

While Doucette says there is no such thing, Alison MacLeod, an ex-USAC Sprint racecar driver, says the stereotype is something that has always existed and will always be there. She says, “Much like any other stereotype, it’s based off of some truth as of what is seen.

"There are more guys than girls [in auto racing], but just because it’s a stereotype does not mean that some people go against it. It is a male-dominated sport, I don’t see that changing, and I think if it did, it would lose much of the fanbase (MacLeod, 2010).” 

In the end for most of these ladies, it comes down to the factor of woman drivers are part of the game and the whole part of the stereotype that Barbies are for girls and cars are for boys, well it is just a stereotype.

As Alison MacLeod says, “There are talented female drivers that break the stereotype, but there are also...male ballet dancers, girls that can't cook or clean, and guys that are chefs/cleaners...in all reality it’s just a stereotype and should be seen as that (MacLeod, 2010).”

The stereotype is something many girls have faced in their own respect, especially on the national level.

For Chrissy Wallace, she felt the effect of it, even with being the niece of Sprint Cup Series champion Rusty Wallace. She says that at first things didn’t go well, though, but said during the latter part of her time that she felt more accepted.  

She says that she still that as “guys have it stuck in their heads that females don't need to be out here. The phrase 'never a successful female' is stuck in owners' minds and some have said we don't run well and look like idiots, but if you don't take the chance you'll never know (Swan, Latest Wallace hoping to break female stereotypes, 2008).”

Patty Moise says in the same article that in the time that her racing career lasted, she had tough moments where she was singled out as a female.

She says that “there were times when my crew chief told me as I was passing a male driver that on the radio they would say, 'Are you going to let the blank pass you?' They would use different terminology of course (Swan, Before Danica, Females Weren't Widely Accepted, 2010)."

This is something that is even seen as the short track level as Amanda Connolly, late model driver says, "They forget about the great move you made to take the lead, but focus on the way you might have spun yourself out one night.

"I embrace negative comments, I am an aggressive driver, and I have been for most of my career. I have never been insulted by anyone saying that I am a bad driver, nor have I ever been inflated by anyone saying I'm a good driver. Everyone is entitled to their opinion, and everyone has their favorites."

As these girls try to fight the stereotype, many females are asking the question that Robinson brought up in a 2002 interview.  In that interview she said, “What it is going to take is a car owner, like a Rick Hendrick or a Jack Roush or a Joe Gibbs, or someone who is well known and knows the equipment to put a female in a car and bring her up the same way Jimmie Johnson or Ryan Newman or Jeff Gordon has been brought up?

"Then that is when you are going to see it happen, and it is probably going to be past my time when something like that happens, [but] I think eventually there will be one put in that position (Miller, 2009)."

Big-time car owner Richard Childress counters that in saying that “there are some ladies out there who have the potential of doing it. Right now, the biggest thing any of them need—even Danica if she came down here to race—is seat time...I think it would be huge if a lady would come down here [and excel].

"Just our demographics, which show us with [a fan base of] 44 percent women, is huge, as are the sponsoring opportunities and the media opportunities. But at the end of the day, they still have to be successful to bring sponsors (Miller, 2009)."

The problem is the sponsors won’t come if they don’t dress like a bikini model, so the magical solution would be for females to be accepted just like any other racer would be, and be able to get sponsorship with lack of bikini modeling.

It sounds like such a simple solution, though it’s one that remains much tougher for these girls as it is hard to change the attitude of the world.

The attitude that sex sells is seen through many avenues, such as music videos that have girls dressed in sexy ways dancing. For the magical solution to work, these girls need to change a world-view on females as a whole.

The resistances for now is to stand up against it and not go with it, though it hasn’t been quite successful. Females have lost their rides and funding, therefore erasing the racing dream.

Whether their tactic can be made stronger or not, it doesn’t seem like it as resisting against stereotypical views is the best route that can be taken. One thought would be to create their own team and do things their own way, such as what Jennifer Jo Cobb did.

Jennifer Jo Cobb took everything that was dished in her direction head on as she bought a team and got lessons in being a public speaker. She has used that to go out and get sponsors of all different avenues to fund her career and has since been able to move from the Camping World Truck Series to the Nationwide Series.

The deal in Nationwide sadly fell apart, however, as she got into a contract dispute with car owner Rick Russell. Since then, Cobb has had a hard time finding funding, so this is only a short-period fix that only works if you get the sponsorship.

In most cases, it doesn’t work out as sponsors don’t want to trust a team just coming into the sport as their image depends on it.

In the end, the mainstream media has hurt what females want to become by accepting the sex-sells principal and accepting Danica Patrick’s package deal, as many other females are now faced with that principal and struggling.

Instead of helping the female image, in the end, the mainstream media has hurt it and is the only outlet who can change it.

With everything these females are facing, Crystal Doucette sums it up by saying you can’t expect it to come easy. She says, “You need to gain your respect out there on the track. You can’t come into racing thinking everyone is going to go easy on you because you’re a girl.

"Don’t act like a princess around the track. You're coming into a male-dominated sport, and you want to be treated the same as them (Doucette, 2010).”


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Doucette, C. (2010, March 12). From NASCAR To Short Tracks: Females Defy The Stereotype. http://bleacherreport.com/articles/361488-from-nascar-to-the-short-tracks-females-defy-the-stereotype. (A. McCubbin, Interviewer) Bradford, Ontario, Canada: Bleacher Report Inc.

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