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Auto racing gives little opportunity to women and minorities

Auto racing gives little opportunity to women and minorities

DONNA LOPIANO

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There's a wonderful book by Virginia Scharff, "Taking the Wheel" (The Free Press, 1991), that makes you wonder where all the women are in auto racing. Early in the century, when the auto industry was interested in proving that the automobile was safe and reliable transportation, women were used in racing and touring exhibitions to promote automobile use by the general population.

There were instances of commercial sponsorship of female drivers whenever such sponsorship was in the best interest of automobile sales. In 1909, the Maxwell-Brisco Co. sponsored 21-year-old Vassar graduate Alice Huyler Ramsey, who became the first woman to drive across the United States. The trip took 41 days, and Ramsey handled all but the more major repairs to her car. Claire Rochester drove from New York to San Francisco in 11 days in 1917 to demonstrate the electric gear shifter.

From the start, however, there were limits to how seriously women would be allowed to pursue competitive auto racing. In 1903, Camille DuGast, a Frenchwoman, tried to enter the transcontinental race from New York to San Francisco and was refused by the sanctioning body, the Automobile Club of America (ACA). While the American Automobile Association (AAA) included females from its inception in 1902, the ACA would not open its doors to women until 1914. Even then, women members were denied voting privileges and the right to share equity in club property. Women faced barriers whenever they attempted to compete against men or to display daring or skill.

Yet, some women of wealth were always able to "play with the boys" as long as they didn't go too far. Mrs. Clarence Cecil Fitler, who won two races in August 1905 in Cape May, N.J., driving a 28-horsepower Packard touring car, was a great driver and a favorite of the fans. Joan Newton Cuneo, a wealthy Long Island socialite, had a stellar racing career from 1905 to 1909. In 1905, she was the only woman to compete in the Glidden Cup tour, a prestigious 1,000-mile event. Driving a White steam vehicle and, later, gasoline-fueled automobiles, Cuneo held her own against top male drivers of the day such as Ralph DePalma. In 1909, she broke speed records at the Mardi Gras races. Her racing career ended when the AAA decided to ban women drivers from its sanctioned events in 1909.

Today, young girls and women are racing in significant numbers. Approximately one-third of Soap Box Derby competitors are girls (ages 9-19), as are 50 percent of NHRA Junior Dragsters and 15 percent of go-kart racers. But as racing becomes more elite, as the stakes get higher and the cost of racing increases, the number of women participating plummets.

Still, the women are there and they are on the podium: Patty Moise, Shawna Robinson, Sara Senske, Danica Patrick, Lilian Bryner, Helen Bashford, Giovanni Amati, Divina Galica, Claudia Hurtgen, Ellen Lohr, Renee Dupuis, Becca Anderson, Margie Smith-Haas, Rhonda Trammell, Kat Teasdale, Kelly Williams, Angelle Seeling, Lyn St. James and lots more. They are racing all over the world because they are good, but also because most come from families who can afford the price tag of participating at top levels.

Only four women have competed in Indy cars, and only two have qualified for the Indy 500, an event that requires almost $4 million in sponsorships to put together a racing team of cars, engineers, mechanics and team personnel. Not one of them has been able to put together the resources to participate in a full Indy season leading up to the event.

One could go through the same historical and participation litany for men and women of color in auto racing. The only African-American to have competed in Championship Auto Racing Teams Inc., Willy T. Ribbs, last raced in the 1994 CART series. However, Ribbs is scheduled to drive in the Vegas.com 500 Pep Boys Indy Racing League event on Sunday at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

While the resources necessary to compete at the elite level are both significant and difficult to come by, there should be more women and people of color who are taking that step.

Lynx Racing is a championship-winning driver development program owned by two women, Peggy Hass and Jackie Doty, that is trying to make a difference. St. James hosts an annual driver development program. St. James, with the financing and commitment of Don Panoz, helped launch the Women's Global GT, a series of six races in top-notch 400-horsepower GT cars, provided by the league. The Women's Global GT addressed the challenge of making sure that top women drivers could compete in the best equipment with the best people supporting their cars.

CART recently responded to the challenge of diversity by launching a participation program designed to bring members of the minority community and women into racing as drivers, engineers, mechanics and administrative personnel.

The sanctioning bodies, automobile manufacturers, tire manufacturers, oil companies, team managers, team owners and corporate management must do more to make sure there are women and people of color as well as white men in the winner's circle. All of these entities have a part to play.

Sanctioning bodies should have nondiscrimination policies and should require event participation reports by sex and race. Team managers and team owners must talk about the importance of diversity in their sport and must embrace their individual roles and responsibilities in making diversity a reality.

But we need to be clear that the driving force behind who drives the car is the sponsor, who heavily influences driver selection. Consequently, proactive sponsors who voice the importance of diversity to the image of their companies would accelerate the selection of minorities in racing. When these minorities move up to the elite level, they bring along with them fans who are loyal to sponsors and buy the products and services that these sponsors sell. For sponsors, strongly stating the importance of diversity in the make-up of the racing team makes good business sense as well as being the right thing to do.

It is a particularly poignant time to reflect on diversity in sport. Is it right that Serena Williams, less than two weeks ago, became only the second African-American to win the U.S. Open (Althea Gibson was the first) and that Arthur Ashe has been the only male African-American to do likewise? Julie Krone retired from horse racing this year with few women in a position to take her place as legitimate top woman riders. Where are the African-American women in the LPGA, or on our Olympic gold medal-winning softball or ice hockey teams? Is it time to make sport sexism and segregation a priority concern?

Donna Lopiano is executive director of the Women's Sports Foundation.

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