Williams: Danica To Have Things Others Did Not
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
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 firstname.lastname@example.org Comments