Women Drive NASCAR's Fast Lane

There are motorsports, and then there's NASCAR. NASCAR has evolved into an industry, with 75 million fans who tune in and travel in throngs to watch stock car racing, identifying with drivers and their favorite front-engine, rear-wheel-drive V8s. NASCAR started off as a sport for the boys in 1948, but somewhere along the way, things changed. NASCAR reports that 40 percent of these 75 million fans are women. For women, NASCAR is the second-most-watched television sport, following football, according to Fox Sports Network.

What's drawing women of all age groups to NASCAR? The company will tell you it's because NASCAR is a family sport, and fans seem to agree, chiming in on the bonds built trackside.

Beth Coode is a 33-year-old junior high school history teacher who lives in Nashville, Tennessee, and has been following NASCAR for 10 years. "It's clean and the family can watch it. There's a camaraderie with the [drivers] and their families," she said.

"We have NASCAR parties and women come as much as men."

"Our sport has such crossover appeal to men and women," said Tish Sheets, NASCAR's director for diversity and special projects. "Forty percent of our fans are women. The speed, the sound, camaraderie, the competition and what we have on the track are what draws them in."

Gaining speedWhile NASCAR proclaims itself a family sport, most of the players behind the wheel, in the boardroom and in the pits are men. No women are currently competing in the most visible and highly touted Nextel Cup Series; however, women are slowly making their way through the ranks. Erin Crocker is making strides competing in both the NASCAR Busch and Craftsman Truck Series. Kelly Sutton is in the throes of her third full season with the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series, racing for Team Copaxone, the company that supplies her multiple sclerosis medicine.

Preempting this kind of coverage is Indy Racing League (IRL) driver Danica Patrick's success, and rumors are swirling at the suggestion that Patrick may join NASCAR. Patrick is not the first successful female racecar driver, but she stole headlines last year for top-five finishes and the massive number of fans that started watching Indy racing because of her high-profile presence.

Bringing women to NASCAR takes years of preparation that means getting drivers started as young as 5 years old. Pioneer Lyn St. James had 15 IndyCar starts in the 1980s and is now an advocate for training women to be top-notch contenders. She served as a mentor to many of the up-and-coming drivers, Patrick included. Her organization, the Lyn St. James Foundation, draws women from across the motorsports community to its annual Women in the Winner's Circle event honoring female drivers' accomplishments.

"It's always been a sport in which you earn the right to be on the track," St. James said, rejecting the notion that governing bodies sacrifice driver skill in order to get women on the track. "I think there was concern early on that was the direction people would go. Part of the goal of Women in the Winner's Circle is the depth and breadth of caliber of talent."

In an effort to train qualified drivers, NASCAR has two young women making their way through the driver development program, Drive for Diversity. The program is designed to get women and minorities involved in all aspects of motorsports, which primes them to compete in both regional and national series. "We have a lot of female drivers in the pipeline. It's not just one carrying the weight and the pressure," NASCAR's Sheets said.

Also hoping to field a woman in the Nextel Cup Series someday is Ken Lake, owner and president of Lake Motorsports. The Virginia-based company's raison d'être is to promote women in racing. Lake is an eight-year NASCAR veteran and former marketing director for the Craftsman Truck and Busch Series operation. Lake's team will start competing full time in NASCAR's 2007 Dodge Weekly Racing Series and work up through the different series, with the goal of reaching the Nextel Cup series in 2011.

"A few teams in the Nextel Cup, Busch and Craftsman Truck Series have looked into the 'female driver pool'; however, it's a big undertaking to bring up a new driver, be that male or female," Lake said. "Seat time is essential for success. Companies pay big bucks to sponsor a NASCAR team, and unfortunately they don't want to go through the learning curve, which is necessary with a new driver. We are fully committed and willing to take the time in developing these female drivers."

Lake is putting his marketing background to good use with a novel sponsorship idea: For a minimum of $25, fans or companies can purchase "sponsor tiles" that will appear on both the team car and the company's Web site. Sponsors will also have influence on which women will be picked to represent the team. The participation of everyday fans in supporting a team is a sharp departure from other NASCAR teams and should prove an interesting experiment in sponsorship and fan loyalty.

Some automakers are also keenly interested in the growth of women's motorsports. Ford Racing is at the forefront, pushing diversity through the Women's Driver Development Program, which includes both women and minorities. There are two female drivers in the program, teenagers Stephanie Mockler and Alison MacLeod, who race Ford Focus midget cars in the USAC series.

Dan Davis, director of Ford Racing, likens the program to a minor-league baseball farm team. "We want driver demographics to mirror our customers," he said. These efforts extend beyond NASCAR into drag racing, with drivers like Ashley Force making waves in the National Hot Rod Association (NHRA). Force is also the star of a new television show on the A&E Network, The Driving Force, along with her father John Force's famous racing team and her two racecar-driving sisters.

It's the pitsBecause of the growing opportunities for women in the racing field, a new — and young — generation of women is now looking at a career in racing as something achievable, even if it means they may not make it to the driver seat.

The unglamorous job but important role of tire changer for the pit crew was enough to motivate 23-year-old Nicole Addison of Davidson, North Carolina, to study at a NASCAR training school.

"I wanted to get involved in racing somehow and some way," she said. "Being a girl, the first main thing was getting a chance to do it. At first I had to prove I was capable."

Last year Addison demonstrated her skills in the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series, starting off as a rear tire changer. She is now PPC Racing's rear tire changer and tire specialist for the #10 Ford Power Stroke Diesel. Like the drivers, Addison has her eye on working her way up the pit crew ranks to the Nextel Cup, where the prestige and rewards sweeten.

Another example is Mauricia Grant, an African-American who worked as a technical staff member at Irwindale Speedway last year. She is now a traveling NASCAR Busch Series technical inspector, assisting in Nextel Cup and Craftsman Truck Series inspection work when the Busch series is idle.

Issue is top of mindSt. James, often considered the patron saint of women's racing (no pun intended), is positive about the sport's recent change compared to past decades. "It was not on people's radar screen [before]," she said. "Now it is a top-of-mind issue for sanctioning bodies, track promoters and team owners."

That presence is trickling down to fans and aspiring drivers, which are often one and the same. "I went to go-kart track and I couldn't believe how many girls were in there," St. James continued. "It's changing the perception and landscape."

That's what NASCAR's banking on. "I think there will be a huge impact on attracting fans," said NASCAR's Sheets. "When you see more drivers on the racetrack full-time and eventually getting into the Cup, the fan base gravitates to who and what they are like." And with 75 million fans and growing, they're obviously on the fast track to success.

For more information, see The Women of NASCAR.

Also see Edmunds' coverage of women in Motorsports in The Driving Woman blog.