I had the pleasure of recently appearing as a guest on ESPN 1070 The Fan’s ‘Trackside’ blogger night–and my topic is appearing to be more and more relevant. Although that appearance happened before Katherine Legge and Dragon Racing had their ugly breakup, the number of women in racing should be a serious concern for IndyCar and Mazda Road to Indy officials. Let me get one thing straight: I do not, repeat, DO NOT believe that a female should be given a ride in any series just because she is a female. I am a firm believer that talent should rule over gender. That being said, why does it appear that women have hit the glass ceiling in open wheel racing?
Just 3 years ago, IndyCar had 5 female drivers–Simona de Silvestro, Ana Beatriz, Danica Patrick, Sarah Fisher, and Milka Duno. Since then, we have lost Milka Duno and Danica Patrick to other racing venues, Sarah Fisher to retirement, and Ana Beatriz to lack of funding. We added Pippa Mann and Katherine Legge, but both have also lost their full-time rides. This leaves us with just one full-time female driver in 2013: Simona de Silvestro. Why the decrease in just 3 years? We can easily set Milka Duno, Sarah Fisher, and Danica Patrick aside–none of them would be around in 2013 no matter what happened. But what impact does the loss of the others have on IndyCar?
I have seen several fans argue that IndyCar doesn’t need women racers, that the series can do fine without them. I say they’re wrong, for several reasons. First, the loss of females at the upper echelons of racing does eventually trickle down to the lower levels. If racing is seen as a boys club, you’re going to get fewer females attempting to work their way up the ladder, resulting in fewer females at the highest levels. Racing should be balanced, including by gender. Another reason that IndyCar can’t survive without women racers is because you run the risk of having a lopsided fan base, with female fans finding it difficult to relate to an all-male series. I’m not saying female fans will flock to the series just because there’s female drivers, but it helps. It’s not 1965 anymore, and a lack of gender diversity is no longer acceptable.
Part of the reason why females have had difficulty maintaining full-time rides is a series-wide problem: funding. The return on investment, or ROI, just isn’t high enough to motivate companies to jump feet first into IndyCar. That being said, I think the ROI for a sponsor putting money into a successful female driver is higher than one putting money into an average male driver. As much as it sounds sexist, male drivers are ‘old news,’ they’ve been around for ages. But a woman winning the Indy 500? A woman competing week in and week out? That’s something you can hang your hat on. That’s why you need to keep women in the series and moving up the ladder–you can’t find that future champion if she heads to greener pastures.
So, you ask, if I have so many opinions on why women matter in IndyCar, what’s my plan for getting more of them? Simple: start from the ground and move up. First, offer incentives for female drivers at the local and lower levels–half off entry fees, things like that. These are the levels at which drivers are starting to cut their teeth, and you need to support them. If you can get females into the pipeline earlier, and they start to love the sport, they are less likely to quit later when some of those incentives are removed. Next, promote your most successful women drivers at the same level you do successful male drivers, and don’t play up the ‘female’ angle. Danica Patrick’s sponsor, GoDaddy, isn’t what you want for your future female stars. Find sponsors for females who are supportive, not exploitive. Finally, get female drivers in their own ‘development program’ of sorts. Get them hooked up with great female mentors–think Sarah Fisher and Lyn St. James, great PR people, and great engineers. Make IndyCar the place to be for developing female drivers who want to win the greatest race on Earth.