TRUECar delivers a blow to women racers

IndyCar, IndyCar commentary — By on February 14, 2013 12:28 pm

Were I one of the racers being supported by the TRUECar Racing Women Empowered initiative, I’d be a little worried and a lot disappointed at the moment.

The story we’ve been following all week goes like this:

  • Katherine Legge is stunned to learn that her team and sponsor have been scooped out from under her and issues a retaliatory statement threatening legal action;
  • Dragon Racing owner Jay Penske and TRUECar CEO Scott Painter release statements in response that effectively say, if you read between the lines (“sincere efforts to resurrect Katherine’s open-wheel career”; “decided to pursue a different driver”) — sorry, Kat, but you just weren’t good enough.

There are a few different ways of looking at this situation, and none of them bode well for the development of women racers.

Let’s start the discussion with one indisputable fact: every sponsor has a right to expect reasonable return on investment for its sponsorship dollars.

But the exact definition of “reasonable return on investment” changes depending on each sponsor’s goals.

Some sponsors are more than happy to support cars that run consistently at the back so long as the driver turns up smiling at appearances and represents the company well.

We have to assume, for example, that CITGO fell into this camp with Milka Duno — as a company, it certainly didn’t seem to mind being represented by a driver who was friendly and pretty but was consistently criticized and ridiculed for her on-track performance. (Of course, there were international political influences involved in that situation as well, but those fall outside the scope of this discussion.)

Let’s be clear: Katherine Legge is no Milka Duno. There wasn’t a person in motorsport who questioned Kat’s credentials as a racer after she walked away from that horrific crash at Road America in 2006.

But is Katherine Legge a proven winner at the top ranks? Frankly, the statistics on that are widely available.

Generally speaking, there seem to be two camps on Kat. Some people feel she has talent but was pushed through the development ladder too quickly after being earmarked as Champ Car’s answer to Danica Patrick. Proponents of this angle argue that she may have performed better had she been allowed to develop her career at a more appropriate pace.

Others feel that Kat never has and never will have the chops to be a driver at the top and that she was undeservedly handed a career based on her gender alone.

Either way, there aren’t very many people claiming that Katherine should be winning a whole lot of races. Heck, that question remains open even at the prospect of her being placed in, say, a Penske car.

So, since TRUECar’s expectation of ROI evidently weighs heavily on statistics, it appears that as far as Kat’s ability is concerned, they were oversold.

What TRUECar is about to learn is whether they were oversold by Katherine Legge or by Jay Penske. (The answer, of course, most likely lies in some combination of the two.)

To look at the opposite perspective, though: for an organization that claims a desire to “resurrect Katherine’s open-wheel career,” they sure didn’t give her much of a chance. Regardless of the aforementioned precedent, a patchwork season filled with engine woes and team disarray was hardly qualifies as a shot at resurrecting a career. Kat was well within her rights to expect and demand a do-over in 2013.

The saddest part of this situation, though, is that through TRUECar’s clear placement of all its expectations on on-track results — as opposed to, say, driver visibility or the extreme marketability of the Women Empowered initiative, both of which have been vastly underused to this point in the partnership — TRUECar has weakened the intent of its initiative considerably.

The young, brilliant women, full of potential, still racing under the TRUECar umbrella thought they had found a home — a place where they didn’t need to add the search for financial support to their already-burdensome efforts to convince the world that they can compete equally with, and even outperform, men on a racetrack.

Now, after watching their brand’s ambassador and their season-long mentor get tossed aside after only a year in the role, career insecurity has returned. Simply being out there to learn and gain experience can no longer be counted on as being good enough. TRUECar is clearly leaning heavily on results, and these drivers will now feel far more pressure to perform, even more so than they may have if they had opted to continue their careers outside the program.

“Good,” some people will say. “They should have to perform. No male drivers get handed money for being men — if the ladies can’t hack it on equal terms, let them fail.”

Granted, that’s hard to argue with. Racing is about aiming to win and not much else.

But the day most women in this sport dream of is when female drivers are no longer exceptional — when they’ve achieved equal success and respect for long enough that gender no longer factors into discussions at all.

We’re not there yet. To hit that mark, we need to give talented women just a little bit more of a boost.

I, for one, had hoped the TRUECar Women Empowered initiative might give its drivers the stable foundation needed to learn, develop their skills, and achieve success over the longer term, providing they continue to demonstrate improvement — a luxury some say Katherine Legge was never afforded.

TRUECar, it seems, doesn’t have the patience for that.

Let’s hope that the situation between TRUECar and Katherine Legge is a one-off deal – or, should TRUECar opt to discard this noble goal, that another sponsor can see the immense value of stepping into those high-heeled shoes and give women in racing the shot they deserve.