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Woman finally takes pole position at Daytona 500

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There’s an old saying in motor sports: "Speed costs money. How fast do you want to go?"

That helps explain why Danica Patrick is where she is today — and why it took so long for a female racer to break a NASCAR record I set more than three decades ago.

Patrick will start from the pole position in Sunday’s Daytona 500 — the showpiece of NASCAR’s top-level Sprint Cup series — after setting the fastest qualifying time the previous week (with a top speed of 196.434 mph, for those keeping track). A woman in that spot is a historic first for NASCAR and an achievement that transcends motor sports.

But while we celebrate, it’s also reasonable to ask: Why has it taken so long to update the record books? For 36 years, until last Sunday, I had been the best female qualifier in a Cup race, with ninth-place starts at Talladega and Bristol in my rookie season. And as of this writing, my sixth-place finish at Bristol, also in 1977, remains the best Cup finish by a woman. That wasn’t what I was after, of course. I wanted to win Cup races, and I believe that I would have done so if I’d been able to find the money to continue.

Since then, many capable female drivers have come and gone — it’s not that there’s been a lack of talent. And it’s not just that the racing world is conservative or sexist, although those elements are there. The explanation lies in the extremely expensive nature of the sport. Patrick is the first woman who has been able to summon the mega-dollars necessary to field a front-running car, and last Sunday she made the most of it.

I’m often asked about the prejudice female drivers face, and it’s true that it was highly visible when I got my shot at the top. In 1976, when team owner Rolla Vollstedt announced our intention to try for the Indianapolis 500, the blowback was astonishing. Established drivers complained loudly, publicly and at length. "Indy racing is too demanding physically for women," said Billy Vukovich, who had finished second at Indianapolis three years earlier. "After 40 laps, Guthrie won’t be able to steer a car." (Vukovich had never even seen me drive.)

When I raced at Charlotte that year, the grandstands reverberated with calls of "Get the tits out of the pits."

On the track, I had to prove myself to the fans and other drivers. Off the track, I had to prove myself to my team. In motor sports, team chemistry is important, and this is one area where women may have a higher hurdle to overcome than men do. In my case, it helped that I had a background in engineering and had spent more than a decade building Jaguar engines and doing all my own mechanical work. I could often detect an engine or transmission malfunction before we were in trouble.

The guys assigned to my car at Indianapolis soon picked up on that. In a pinch I could, and did, help them change an engine. That made a difference. In 1978, when I formed and managed my own team for the Indianapolis 500, I was deeply touched that my NASCAR crew from the second half of 1977 wanted to join me.

Of course, the country’s attitudes toward women have changed since then. And NASCAR’s attitudes have changed, too. The chauvinism hasn’t gone away; you can see it in Internet comments about Patrick — a favorite epithet is "Danicant." But my sense is that it isn’t as bad as it was.

At the same time, it may have gotten harder to navigate the world of money and sponsorships.

Top-level racing is a sport of enormous complexity. Teams with any hope of winning have vast shops that include, for example, computerized dynamometers on which an engine can be run through an entire simulated race for any track in the series. And that’s just the beginning. Fielding a competitive NASCAR team for a single year requires tens of millions of dollars.

Attracting sponsors to cover those costs is difficult. And it’s been especially hard for women.

The toughest choice for any driver is whether to accept a ride in an inferior car in the hope that she can make it go faster than it has any right to go — and that someone will take notice and offer her a better ride next time. Or should she turn down such a ride and take the chance that she may never get access to good equipment?

I watched Swiss IndyCar racer Simona De Silvestro struggle all last year with a hopelessly uncompetitive Lotus. She kept on smiling, was gracious, had her feet on the ground — and this year she has a more competitive car. De Silvestro is an excellent driver, and I have high hopes for her. However, she is still not with one of the dominant teams.

Patrick has been luckier. Her parents spent six figures a year on her go-kart racing at the beginning of her career, according to news reports. Subsequently, she was taken under the wing of Texas oil magnate John Mecom for a foray to England, and then by Indianapolis 500 winner Bobby Rahal’s formidable Rahal-Letterman team. Her willingness to pose for racy photos in the girlie magazine FHM apparently didn’t hurt, either.

But even Patrick’s position isn’t assured. As recently as October, when she wasn’t having much success on the track, there were questions about whether her primary sponsor, GoDaddy, would continue to use her in its ads. USA Today reported: "Patrick’s Q Score, which tracks likability, has recently been heading south, falling from 29 in 2010 to 19 in 2012." Interestingly, the average Q Score for all racecar drivers is only 13. And sponsors have tended to be forgiving of male drivers who have lackluster seasons.

How many years will it be before another female driver starts from the pole position at Daytona? What will it take for more than a token woman to be accepted by a winning team? To be honest, I’m not sure. If Patrick races well this year, it may help - or not. All I know is that I long to see it happen.

 

Janet Guthrie, the first woman to compete in the Indianapolis 500 and the Daytona 500, drove in 33 NASCAR races and had 11 Indy Car starts. She is the author of Janet Guthrie: A Life at Full Throttle.

 

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