Dan­ica Pa­trick’s chal­lenge

Rac­ing vet Janet Guthrie’s ad­vice for to­day’s 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 ninth­place 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 myNASCARcrewfromthe 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 an­in­fe­rior 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 Ra­halLet­ter­man 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 IndyCar starts. She is the au­thor of “Janet Guthrie: A Life at Full Throt­tle.”

AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Janet Guthrie pre­pared for a prac­tice run at the Day­tona Speed­way in Florida on July 1, 1976. On her way to top-10 fin­ishes in sev­eral races, she en­dured sexist taunts from fans and fel­low drivers. Even­tu­ally, she ran out of money to com­pete.

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