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Williams: Danica To Have Things Others Did Not

Deb Williams | Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Monday, August 29 2011

Danica Patrick has had no trouble finding help and friendship in the NASCAR garages. (RacinToday/HHP photo by Harold Hinson)

BRISTOL, Tenn. – Danica Patrick enters NASCAR full time in 2012 with support from top drivers, teams and substantial financial backing, all of which none of her female predecessors possessed.

With the exception of the three women who drove in NASCAR in its formative years, the few who attempted to carve out a career in the sanctioning body’s top two touring series in the 1970s through the 1990s didn’t really find a welcome mat.

They had trouble finding crewmen willing to work for a team with a female driver, because the men didn’t want to take the ribbing from their buddies. Detroit’s auto manufacturers didn’t want to support them, because they figured they would lose their “investment” to marriage and pregnancy.

The drivers didn’t want them either. First, they didn’t think a woman should be driving a race car. And they certainly didn’t want to get beaten by one. In their minds, that would be extremely degrading. After all, if they had participated in stick-and-ball sports, their coaches had told them on numerous occasions, in an effort to get them to step up their performance – “You play like a girl.”

However, NASCAR founder Bill France Sr. understood the promotional value of a female driver. He recruited Louise Smith for a race in Greenville, S.C., when she didn’t even know a checkered flag ended a race. Smith later focused on Modifieds, but she did compete in 11 Strictly Stock [now Sprint Cup] events with her best finish – 16th – coming in September 1949 at Langhorne, Pa., in a 200-lap race on a 1-mile dirt track.

France used Smith to promote races along the East Coast and into Canada, but when he tried to get

Former driver Johnny Benson has been helping Danica Patrick adjust to stock cars. (RacinToday/HHP photo by Harold Hinson)

Indianapolis Motor Speedway officials to let her take a few laps on the Brickyard, his request was denied. She was a woman and no women were allowed to drive at Indianapolis. Smith drove into the 1950s and later helped NASCAR driver Ronnie Thomas financially, as well as competitors in NASCAR’s Dash Series.

Sara Christian competed in the first-ever Strictly Stock race in June 1949 and finished 14th. In eight races that year she produced one top-5, two top-10s and finished 13th in the standings, the highest ever by a woman in NASCAR’s top three national series.

Her husband, Frank, was her car owner and crew chief in an era when there were no roll cages, no power steering, no driver uniform, no full-faced helmet, no special seat or other safety equipment, and a stock car’s door was held shut by a leather belt. Christian’s fifth-place finish at Heidelberg Raceway in Pittsburgh came in a 200-lap race on a half-mile dirt track in October 1949. Until Patrick’s fourth-place finish earlier this year in the Nationwide Series race at Las Vegas, Christian’s was the best by a woman in NASCAR’s top three series.

The other woman from that era was Ethel Flock Mobley, a sister to the famous Flock brothers – Bob, Tim and Fonty. She competed in only two races in 1949 with her best finish being 11th on Daytona’s beach in a Cadillac.

However, it was a time when society couldn’t phantom that a woman could enjoy race cars and the sport with the same passion as a man. Those attitudes, unfortunately, remained way too long and had it not been for women who were willing to fight for their right to compete in the profession they loved Patrick might not have her 2012 opportunity. Women racing in the 21st century owe a tremendous amount of gratitude to drag racing’s Shirley Muldowney, Indy Car racing’s Janet Guthrie, Indy Car and sports car racing’s Lyn St. James, and in NASCAR Robin McCall Dallenbach, Shawna Robinson and Patty Moise.

My hope is that Patrick will be successful so that a woman driver in one of NASCAR’s top two national series will no longer be a major story. Instead, just like with a male driver, it’s her accomplishments that will grab the headlines.

– Deb Williams can be reached at dwilliams@racintoday.com

Deb Williams | Senior Writer, RacinToday.com Monday, August 29 2011
12 Comments

12 Comments »

  • john says:

    Terry: I think they had power steering by the time the mid-70s rolled around? I could be wrong.

    Anyway if cool suits, power steering and sponsorships make you “less of a woman” than Janet Guthrie, I guess that’s the entire garage.

    • Terry says:

      A Hendrick built spaceship is not a stock full size MONTE CARLO stripped for the track……..
      They did not run powersteering because of the horsepower cut. You must be a Neo-NASCAR ESPN semi-fan. I have been watching when all you could get was a once a week replay of highlights and Bristol wasn’t even built yet. Danica will be starting with big bucks and a career in greased grooves…….Janet, Shirley, Lyn, and many women before them……started from scratch.
      You rose colored spec’s can’t rewrite history……
      for those old enough to know better.

      • john says:

        Race short track stockcars myself, truck class at a 1/2 mile oval, and have raced since I was 14. I’m not old enough to have watched in the 70s, but have watched the sport since 1988. I’m a student of the game and a huge racing history buff. I’ve probably forgotten more about racing history than you’ve known.

        My racetruck has power steering though, so I guess I don’t count. :(

        I’ll end this right now so I don’t get banned for some flaming war with a crotchety old hater. There’s lots, LOTS of things wrong with modern NASCAR. Giving a proven talent a shot at racing with competitive equipment is not one of them, power steering or not. Go shake your cane at something useful.

  • Terry says:

    Danica should not be put in the same sentence with Janet Guthrie…
    Guthrie had to MAN HANDLE….. a Monte Carlo… that Danica could not see over the dash…..
    Guthrie had Petty and Pearson both saying they felt better racing next to her than half the men drivers on the track….
    She didn’t have power steering…cool suit…or brakes like little Miss GoDaddy…..
    But she had TALENT and GUTS……if not media and bucks…
    No Danica…..is not half the driver or woman Janet Guthrie was.

  • john says:

    Really? 2 days and the title of the article still says “Dancia” ? Really?

    Responding to the haters…

    Yes her one win was fuel mileage. So what? Watched much IRL lately? This season has been slightly different, in that a few other drivers are actually winning some races, but let’s look at the facts:

    1. Danica drives for Andretti-Green. The season she won, AGR was somewhat competitive. TK also won a race, and they finished 3rd and 6th in the standings. In that season, almost every race was won by Ganassi or Penske drivers, as was the championship.

    2. The following year begins an even more ridiculous level of domination for Penske and Ganassi, winning every single race but one (Justin Wilson at the Glen, winning on pit strategy). Every other race is won by Ganassi or Penske drivers. Danica is the highest finishing NON-”Big 2″ driver in the point standings, beating Tony Kanaan and Marco Andretti.

    3. 2010, Penske and Ganassi drivers win every single race and the championship, except for a pit strategy win for RHR at Long Beach, and an admittedly legit, badass win by TK at Iowa. Danica runs kinda poorly.

    And this year, thankfully, we’re seeing a handful of drivers who are somewhat competitive against The Big 2. Danica’s inconsistent, but is no doubt distracted by racing Nationwide too.

    My point in all this? Last time I checked, there are only four “fast guys” in Indycar, and the other 20-some drivers can’t beat them at all either, so why aren’t Danica haters also whining about Marco Andretti, Oriol Servia, Ed Carpenter and EJ Viso never winning anything?

    Jenson Button had something like 10 years of a disaster of a career, going nowhere (other than one strategy win in the wet–interesting parallel) with crap team after crap team, and then finally got put in a good car, won races and a championship, and now he drives for one of the best teams and is proving to be as good or better than anyone. Were there Jenson Haters too?

    And as far as her NASCAR performances, last time I checked she had a handful of top 10s and she’s done, what, maybe 20 races? There’s plenty of drivers in Nationwide who’ve run way more races and done way worse, and THOSE drivers had stockcar experience. For god sake at least give her a full season before you begin the hate. I thought her performance in Montreal in particular was great, lots of good passes getting her up into the top 10, until her brakes boiled and she dropped out. What does that mean? It means she’s got speed and driving skill, and just needs to learn how to pace herself and keep the wheels under a big heavy stockcar. Time will tell.

  • Chris Fiegler says:

    Do you think that Tony Stewart will have 2 Women drive in the same car in 2012 Danica Patrick & probably Shawna Robinson?

    • Dick says:

      TSR is also bring along the career of Jessica Zemken who is in one of his sprint cars! Turning out Tony’s crew of drivers is looking more like a “harem”, huh?

  • Stephen says:

    I liked Shawna Robinson. I do not like Danica. She is style over substance – a swimsuit model. NASCAR needs a female driver who has talent, not a pretty face

    • J says:

      Just because Danica is a model and has good PR people don’t think for a moment that she can’t drive or that she isn’t a fierce competitor. I started watching her race in the barber pro series and she has a fire burning inside her. She used to race against AJ Allmendinger there ironically enough.

    • joe says:

      Hate to bust your bubble Stephen but she has talent and a pretty face

    • Robby says:

      Johanna Long is a better talent and a decade younger and already won a race with several NASCAR drivers in it.

      She’s just not as pretty. Someone would be smart to get her some good equipment and get this hack out of NASCAR.