The topic of women and their role in racing has come to the forefront once again this week with several high-profile stories presenting vastly different perspectives.
Let’s start with the negative, work our way to the positive, and then – since this is a website about North American open-wheel racing – talk about the implications of it all for IndyCar.
The King says women aren’t meant to be racers
Earlier this week, Norris McDonald at Toronto Star Wheels published a set of quotes from Richard Petty regarding Danica Patrick that went viral.
For those who missed it: The King was in Toronto last weekend to greet fans and sign autographs at the Canadian Motorsports Expo. He spent some time with the media and was asked the same question that gets asked of everyone involved in NASCAR these days: will Danica Patrick ever win a Cup race?
“If everyone else stayed home,” was Petty’s response.
In a vacuum, this comment can be taken in a number of ways. Open-minded folks want to read it and believe that The King just thinks Danica lacks talent (he’s entitled to his opinion, however unpopular) but that he’s not painting all women with the same brush.
Sadly, a few more quotes from that same day are available to prove the contrary.
In a Q&A session conducted before a large group of fans, Petty was asked in general terms what he thinks about women getting involved in racing.
“I just don’t see that the good Lord said women need to drive race cars,” Petty replied. “I think He said men, you drive race cars, and women, you do something else.”
Heavens to Betsy. Excuse us for a moment while women in all corners of motorsport begin brewing pots of tea and toasting crumpets.
Here’s the kicker, though: it seems that it’s okay for the women folk to hang around, as long as they make themselves useful.
“If (Danica) had been a male, nobody would ever know she showed up at a racetrack,” Petty said. “The female deal is what got her going.
“There’s nothing wrong with that because that’s good PR for me because more fans come out and people are more interested in it. She has helped draw attention to the sport, which helps everybody in the sport.”
So, women can show up as long as the real stars – those are the men, by the way, in case that wasn’t clear – benefit from their involvement.
If you’re even slightly inclined toward being an equalist, you’re probably seething right now.
Let’s endeavor to forgive Mr. Petty – he’s 76 years old and comes from a very different era, after all – but hang on to that feeling as you read on.
Simona de Silvestro is on the cusp of her F1 dream
This morning, we learned that Simona de Silvestro will depart IndyCar after four seasons of competition to become an affiliated driver with Sauber F1 Team and pursue her dream of racing in Formula 1, potentially as early as 2015.
The first person to enter my head on hearing the news was Bernie Ecclestone. His views on having women in F1 have swung drastically in the past decade from infamously referring to Danica Patrick and all women in general as “domestic appliances” to proudly proclaiming (likely at roughly the same time he realized her marketing potential) that he’s “been looking for a woman for years.”
Those who have watched Simona’s progress through her career know very well that she’s certainly in the top-ten, and it would be pretty easy to argue top-five, female left-and-right turners of all time. If she’d been reduced to being played as a pawn in the game, it would be a blow to the credibility of women racers everywhere.
But then I remembered that Sauber is run by Monisha Kaltenborn, a woman who ignored convention and the naysayers to become Formula 1’s first female Team Principal.
Women who have been through the challenge of getting to the top of the game in spheres traditionally dominated by men understand each other very well. It’s easy to extrapolate, then, that Simona has been selected for her talent in this instance and not exclusively for her gender.
As long as she can maintain her focus while dealing with the inevitable burden of being pushed into PR shilling by outsiders – a task she’s always handled with the utmost of competence anyway – then Simona is in very good hands and we can all breathe a sigh of relief.
What is IndyCar’s next move?
Now, with all of that in mind, consider this: as of this moment, IndyCar is set to start its season without a woman on the grid for the first time in nearly a decade.
Does everyone in the series need to start running around in panicked circles with arms flailing in the air?
Having a woman racing full-time in a top-level series draws attention without question. But it’s of critical importance that any woman who gets a drive in a series like IndyCar has rightfully earned it through talent, for the credibility of both the series and the pursuit of racing as a career for women the world over. (I’m forced to insert Milka Duno here as an example of exactly how much can go wrong if this fact is ignored.)
As of now, there are exactly two women qualified to pilot an IndyCar in 2014 who are likely to be interested: Ana Beatriz and Pippa Mann.
There’s been no recent indication that Ana is actively seeking a ride in IndyCar, though she would no doubt drive just about anything if the opportunity came about.
Pippa, on the other hand, has been actively pounding the pavement for months looking for the funding she needs to get herself into a car and the shot at proving herself she desperately craves.
If either of these talented women finds a seat through the same means as any man would – and yes, in today’s world that means selling your talents to a sponsor and then taking that sponsor to a team – then more power to her. Both are polarizing figures in their own ways, but they’ve each been put through the paces enough to have earned the right to take a shot.
But where the water gets murky is if IndyCar or its teams begin to panic and get involved in making sure a female driver, any female driver, gets slotted in somewhere before the season starts in St. Petersburg at the end of March simply because someone is convinced the series needs a girl to get attention.
Women cannot and must not be treated as mere marketing accessories to motorsports. Simona is a shining example of what can happen when a genuinely talented athlete patiently pursues her dreams without compromise – through racing well, persevering through adversity, and earning respect, not through high-profile advertising and swimsuit issues. Women like Simona are the only ones who will be capable of silencing the Pettys and Ecclestones of the world, and doing so should be the unified pursuit and goal of women the world over.
So, until the next Simona comes along, in her own time and along her own path, IndyCar would do itself and talented female racers a better service by focusing on telling the world about the extremely talented drivers with great personalities that its series already has – Y chromosome notwithstanding.