Monday, May 12, 2008

The NHRA's Suffrage

Recently, there have been a few milestone reached for women in modern day motorsports. Danica Patrick won her first Indy Racing League race and Ashley Force in the NHRA assured her continued point lead, after winning her first national event.

But while the milestones may seem somewhat similar, there are many differences that should be noted. Most importantly, while Danica's success is ground breaking to an extent, it must be observed that the real issue of women in motorsport is a choice of two possibilities. On the one hand, females may be predisposed (for whatever reason) to not wanting to race. On the other hand, females may be steered away from anything that racing in general, or certain types of racing, because of our own established gender roles.

If females are predisposed to racing, or not racing, then we will have to deal with it because there is currently little we can do about genetics. But what about our own ideas of gender roles? What about the ways in which one raises their children?

For me, here is the real question: Why does the NHRA have considerably more women drivers, and other forms of motor racing do not? I posed this question to an outside NHRA expert, and was treated to the usual, "ratings and advertising" answer. And while that response might suffice normally, it does not answer the real issue regarding why the NHRA has so many more women participating than other forms of motorsport.

This is where it gets a bit saucy. But we’ll get to the unpleasant consequences of my theory’s holes later.

I want the average person out there, you, your mother, your neighbor, anyone to go out to a drag racing track one weekend, and a karting event the next. I want you to look at the gender make up of who is racing those junior classes. What you will find will be…well, it won’t be startling, honestly, but it will prove my point, and show where my logic comes from.

In my two seasons of observation I have found that the junior dragsters have a considerable amount more female racers than the karting participants. Why? How could, at such a young age, girls develop a preference for dragsters over karts?

Posit for a moment that maybe this has something to do with the parents getting their kids into dragsters over karts. Why? Possibly, for the reason that it seems safer to go drag racing than karting. At a young age, junior dragsters are speed limited, whereas the karting limitations don’t make much of a difference because most accidents occur at corners with kart on kart, wheel to wheel incidents. In junior drag racing, there are only two cars on track at a time, and they each have one huge lane to travel, and little to no steering is involved relatively compared to karting.

In fact, I’ll be honest with you. If I had a child and someone told me to put them in the safer motor sport, I’m going straight to junior drag racing. (Ironically enough, in the professional ranks, when these dragsters are set free of limitations they often exceed them and can easily get out of control.)

In the end, this theory has some repercussions. First of which, is that parents may be encouraging their little girls to go drag racing rather than karting because it may be safer, or at least seems that way. So, if that is true, there’s a bit of sexism from those parenting decisions, which means that the females that make it through to the NHRA are actually a part of sexism, not some repudiation of it. Crazy, I know, right? Although considering the recent deaths in professional drag racing, the women who are there surely know of the risks, and sexism in that sense is non existent.

Here is another crux of the issue. If my theory is wrong, and it most assuredly is, then that doesn’t help the NHRA either. The reason is because women’s entry into the NHRA has other possible connotations, which few are good.

One of those reasons is the publicity that my friend described. Ratings? Good looks? So, what kind of “talent” are we talking about then? If you then tell me that it’s a family affair (“my father was a drag racing king”) then all that does is alienate everyone else who climbed through the ranks as many of the other drivers have.

In the end, this is about an honest discussion regarding talented drivers, and proper teams. Why anyone even has to wonder how Sarah Fisher struggled through the Indy Racing League while Danica Patrick has not is simply, sad. Patrick has the team to win now, while Fisher never did. In fact, this year Fisher - committed to the Indy Racing League - has started her own team (aptly named Sarah Fisher Racing) to compete at the Indianapolis 500.

Englishwoman, Katherine Legge, has all but given up racing in America, and has started competing in the German Touring Car Series (DTM). And she is just as accomplished, if not more so, as Danica Patrick.

If women get attention in racing solely from assets that have nothing to do with their driving, then most women will continue to find it hard to break through. But, if my theory is right, then maybe we have the ability to change how women’s capabilities are perceived generally, and their possibilities in varying forms of motor racing.

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