Auto Racing's Women to Watch: A Primer

Clueless but Curious About Auto Racing? This One's for You


  • Sarah Fisher

    Sarah Fisher

    Sarah Fisher drives a Chevy prepared by Bill McAnally. | March 18, 2010

5 Photos

Although Danica Patrick is auto racing's new "It" girl, she's not the only talented woman tearing up the speedways these days, and the Indy Racing League isn't the only race series worth watching.

If you're clueless about auto racing, but eager to educate yourself about this increasingly popular sport, the following primer will get you up to speed on the whats, whos and wheres of auto racing. Think of it as a starter kit. No, it won't make you fluent in "racer-speak," but it will make you conversant enough to hold your own at an after-race cocktail party.

In the interest of simplicity, this primer covers only the major (read: most popular, most televised) racing series, and divides them into categories: stock car racing, open-wheel racing, sports car racing, and drag racing. We've also provided a plethora of pertinent Web links.

Stock Car Racing

In the original sense of the word, a stock car is an unmodified passenger car. The term was used to differentiate this type of car from a racecar, which is a special custom-built car designed exclusively for racing, with no intention for use in regular transportation.

Modern stock cars, however, are anything but "stock." While their exteriors resemble standard American sedans, they are purpose-built for racing.

The largest governing body of stock car racing in the U.S. (and in all the auto kingdom) is NASCAR (the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing). NASCAR oversees the most prominent stock car racing championship in the world — the Nextel Cup (formerly known as the Winston Cup). It also governs the NASCAR Busch Series, a stock car junior league; the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series, a junior league featuring pickup trucks; and several regional series.

Other stock car organizations include the American Race Car Association (ARCA), American Speed Association (ASA), and United States Auto Racing (USAR). Young drivers from these series often aspire to move to the NASCAR Busch Series or Craftsman Truck Series.

NASCAR Nextel Cup and Busch Series

Together, the Nextel Cup and Busch Series earn the second highest TV ratings of any professional sport in the U.S., trailing only NFL Football. An American series in every sense, NASCAR only holds races on North American tracks — high-speed ovals, short ovals and road courses (racetracks with left and right turns) — and limits competition to U.S.-built cars. The Big Three field cars whose only resemblance to their production counterparts is their name — the Chevy Monte Carlo, Dodge Charger and Ford Taurus.

The cars are high-powered, low-tech American specials powered by 5.8-liter, carbureted, cast-iron engines capable of producing up to 800 hp and propelling cars to speeds exceeding 200 mph. NASCAR's must-see races are the Daytona 500, the Brickyard 400 and the Charlotte 600.

Top contenders: The top three drivers in the 2005 Nextel Cup chase

  • Tony Stewart, #20, in an orange-and-white Home Depot-sponsored Chevy
  • Jimmie Johnson, #48, in a dark blue Lowes-sponsored Chevy
  • Greg Biffle, #16, in a red-white-and-blue National Guard-sponsored Ford

Women to watch: They're not in the big leagues yet, but they're the up-and-comers to keep your eye on.

Erin Crocker — "I don't compare myself to other women drivers; I compare myself to all drivers," says Crocker, the only woman ever to win a World of Outlaws (sprint car) race. The 24-year-old Wilbraham, Massachusetts, native made her NASCAR Busch Series debut September 9 at Richmond, Virginia, International Raceway.

Allison Duncan — Duncan said that during the first NASCAR race she attended, "I was completely hooked from the moment the first car rolled onto the track." The Chevy-driving Duncan (24) won her debut NASCAR Late Model series race and is in contention to win the 2005 championship.

Sarah Fisher — Voted "Most Popular Driver" in each of her three years as an Indy Racing League regular (see "Open-Wheel Racing, below), Fisher (24) is making the switch to NASCAR.

www.arcaracing.com
www.erincrocker.com
www.insideracingnews.com
www.nascar.com
www.sarahfisher.com

NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series

In this, the pickup-truck equivalent of stock car racing, modified trucks race on oval tracks and road courses throughout the U.S. Only American-built trucks are allowed to compete. Currently, the Chevrolet Silverado, Dodge Ram, Ford F-150 and the Toyota Tundra (now built in the U.S.) namesakes are used. The Speed Channel broadcasts the entire Craftsman Truck Series.

Top contenders: In the hunt for the drivers' championship

  • Dennis Setzer, #46, in a black Chevy Silverado-sponsored Chevy Silverado
  • Ted Musgrave, #1, in a black-and-white Mopar-sponsored Dodge Ram
  • Bobby Hamilton, #4, in a blue-and-orange Bailey's-sponsored Dodge

Woman to watch:

Deborah Renshaw — The first woman to lead the point standings in a NASCAR-sanctioned series, Renshaw (28) caught the racing bug as a kid by hanging around racetracks with her race team manager dad. After proving herself in several NASCAR stock car series, she moved into truck competition. She pilots a red Heritage/Food City-sponsored Dodge Ram.

www.deborahrenshaw.com
www.nascar.com/series/truck/

Open-Wheel Racing

Unlike stock cars, which resemble street cars, open-wheel racecars look like racecars. An open-wheel car is distinguished by a single seat, an open cockpit (no roof), and the absence of fenders over the tires, hence the term "open-wheel."

The top open-wheel race series are Formula One, Indy Racing League and Champ Car, but the sport also includes sprint cars, midgets and many others.

Formula One (F1)

The highest echelon of open-wheel racing (and all auto racing) is Formula One (F1), also known as Grand Prix racing. F1 is a worldwide series featuring an international cast of drivers and manufacturers, and its governing body is the FIA (Fédération Internationale de l'Automobile). While F1 teams decline to divulge their horsepower output, the top teams squeeze more than 300 hp per liter out of their engines for a total of 1,000 hp. If you can travel to only one F1 race, go to the Grand Prix of Monaco. Bring your swimsuit and rent a yacht. If you can't make it there, you can catch F1 racing on the Speed Channel and CBS.

Top contenders: The leading drivers and teams in the drivers' and constructors' championships

  • Fernando Alonso in a blue-and-yellow Mild Seven Renault
  • Kimi Raikkonnen in a black-and-silver West McLaren Mercedes
  • Michael Schumacher in a red Scuderia Marlboro Ferrari

www.f1db.com
www.formula1.com
www.newsonf1.com

Indy Racing League (IRL)

In 1994 Indianapolis Motor Speedway owner Tony George created the IRL as a lower-cost alternative to CART (now known as Champ Car; see below), which had governed Indy car racing since 1979. IRL races are held on oval tracks and a few road courses throughout the U.S., with its signature race being the Indianapolis 500.

IRL cars use normally aspirated, 3.0-liter V8s that run on methanol and produce an average of 650 hp. (The IRL announced it will begin using more environmentally friendly ethanol-blended fuels in 2006.) You can catch IRL races on the ESPN, NBC and ABC (check listings).

Top contenders: Leading the series

  • Dan Wheldon, #26, in a red-and-white Klein Tools/Jim Beam-sponsored Dallara/Honda
  • Tony Kanaan, #11, in a green-and-white 7-Eleven-sponsored Dallara/Honda
  • Sam Hornish, #6, in a red-and-white Marlboro-sponsored Dallara/Toyota

Woman to watch:

Danica Patrick — The first woman ever to lead the field at the Indy 500, Patrick (23) finished fourth this year — the highest finish ever for a woman in the Indy 500. "It's only a matter of time before she wins a race; she has fantastic equipment, and she knows how to use it," said former Indy 500 driver Sarah Fisher. "When she wins, it will be good for all women who want to race." The Phoenix, Arizona, resident drives a red-white-and-blue Argent/Pioneer-sponsored Honda.

www.danicaracing.com www.indy500.com
www.indycar.com
www.speedtv.com

Champ Car

Champ Car is the open-wheel alternative to IRL. Races are held in Australia, Canada, Mexico and the U.S. All Champ Cars are powered by turbocharged, methanol-fueled, 2.65-liter Ford Cosworth V8s capable of producing 850 hp and speeds up to 240 mph. Races are televised on the Speed Channel, CBS, and NBC. The signature race is the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach.

Top contenders: Battling it out in the drivers' championship

  • Sebastien Bourdais, #1, in a red-and-yellow McDonald's-sponsored Lola
  • Oriol Servia, #2, in a white PacifiCare-sponsored Lola
  • Paul Tracy, #3, in a blue-and-white Indeck-sponsored Lola

Women to watch:

Katherine Legge — The first woman ever to win an open-wheel race in America, Legge (24) won her debut race in the 2005 Toyota Atlantic Championship series (a feeder series for Champ Car), and followed that up with two more victories to conclude the season in third place in drivers' points. Legge pilots the red-and-white PKV Racing-sponsored car. Legge aims to move up to Champ Car within the next two years. But her ultimate dream? To race in Formula One.

www.champcarworldseries.com
www.gokatherine.com

Drag Racing

The goal in drag racing is to drive a very short straight distance in a very short time. The sport's origins lie in illegal street racing in the U.S. (think American Graffiti). Most drag racing involves two cars racing each other to the end of a measured distance (e.g., a quarter-mile), but some races are performed solo, against the clock.

The National Hot Rod Association (NHRA) and the International Hot Rod Association (IHRA) govern drag racing in the U.S. While there are literally hundreds of different classes in drag racing, there are only five professional classes: Top Fuel, Funny Car, Pro Modified, Pro Stock, and Pro Stock Bikes. The most popular classes are:

Top Fuel: The fastest class, with "rail" dragsters producing an awe-inspiring 7,000 hp and reaching speeds over 330 mph in the quarter-mile. Top Fuel vehicles are powered with a mix of alcohol and nitromethane (essentially rocket fuel) and have greater acceleration than the Saturn 5 rocket.

Funny Car: Nearly as fast as the rails, funny cars resemble actual production cars after undergoing a Monster Garage makeover. The name originated in the '60s; the cars looked "funny" because they featured stylized bodies wrapped around top-fuel chassis.

The biggest drag racing event is the NHRA U.S. Nationals, where all the top contenders go wheel-to-wheel for championship honors. You can catch drag racing on the tube on ESPN2.

Top contenders: Burning rubber in Top Fuel

  • Doug Kalitta in a red-and-black Mac Tools-sponsored dragster
  • Tony Schumacher in a black-and-yellow U.S. Army-sponsored dragster
And in Funny Car
  • Robert Hight in a blue-and-white Ford Mustang
  • Ron Capps in a green-and-black Brut-sponsored Dodge Stratus

Women to watch:

Erica Enders — The Texas native started drag racing in a junior league at 9 years old, and has dreamed of becoming a Top Fuel racer ever since. National Dragster writers dubbed her "Wunderkid" following her semifinal finish at the prestigious NHRA Nationals at Indy, and NHRA officials named her Rookie of the Year for 2000. Disney based its movie Right on Track on her life. Enders (21) moved up to NHRA Pro Stock in 2005.

Rhonda Hartman-Smith — Named the "Quickest Female on Earth" by the NHRA in 2003, Hartman-Smith (31) says, "My youth was more of a challenge than my gender" when she entered pro drag racing at age 18. With 13 years of Top Fuel under her belt, the Anderson, South Carolina, resident is taking a hiatus from driving this year to care for her baby, born August, 2005.

Angelle Sampey — She left her job as an intensive-care nurse to become a Pro Stock Bike racer in 1996. In 2002 she became the second rider ever to win three consecutive NHRA titles, and tied Shirley Muldowney for most NHRA titles won by a female competitor. Today she's the winningest woman in motorsports.

www.angellesampey.net
www.endersracing.com
www.ihra.com
www.nhra.com
www.rhondatf747.com

Sports Car Racing Sports car racing features purpose-built cars with enclosed wheelwells and closed cockpits competing on road courses. While this type of racing is commonly associated with the 24 Hours of Le Mans endurance race — one of the oldest auto races still in existence — the sport encompasses everything from the professional American Le Mans Series (ALMS) and the Rolex Sports Car Series to amateur Sports Car Club of America (SCCA) series. The ALMS, arguably the most prestigious sports car series in America, doesn't feature any women…at least, not yet.

Woman to watch:

Milka Duno — Named "Venezuelan Auto Racing Driver of the Year" in 2000, and "American Le Mans Series 2001 Vice Champion Driver," Duno is now in her second year of competition in the Rolex Sports Car Series (similar to the ALMS), where she drives a CITGO-sponsored Pontiac Crawford Daytona Prototype. In September she tested a Champ Car at Sebring International Raceway for HVM Racing. So who knows where she'll end up in 2006?

www.americanlemans.com
www.imsaracing.net

Still not satisfied? To learn more, check out the following Web sites:
www.racerchicks.com
www.speedtv.com
www.thatsracin.com

Can't make it to the races? Tune in on the tube.

Racing Series TV Network
NASCAR NEXTEL Cup/& Busch Series Fox/FX and NBC/TNT
NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series Speed Channel
F1 Speed Channel
Champ Car Speed Channel
Indy Racing League Speed Channel, CBS and NBC
NHRA/IHRA Drag Racing ESPN2
ALMS Speed Channel and CBS

Special TV Series!
The Biography Channel presents Girl Racers, a four-part documentary series about leading women race drivers, including Danica Patrick, Milka Duno and several up-and-comers. The series airs September 15, 22, 29 and October 4 at 10 p.m. ET.

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