In The World Of Auto Racing, Guys Vs. Girls Is A Touchy Subject
Racing is about reflex and concentration and calculated feats of abandon. But some women drivers say it's also about gender. Not in terms of whether they possess the skill set to race, because they can, and do, in increasing numbers from the grass roots to the big leagues. It's about the playground mentality of boys versus girls. When the visor comes down, Erica Enders-Stevens says, nothing hones a male driver's focus or intensity like facing a woman on the track.
I absolutely believe when these guys line up next to me, they go up there and they don't make mistakes like they do against other drivers.Erica Enders-Stevens
"For every one person who has a chauvinistic, ignorant outlook there are a million people who are so supportive, but as far as on-track competition goes, I absolutely believe when these guys line up next to me, they go up there and they don't make mistakes like they do against other drivers," she said. "But that just makes it that much sweeter when you do beat them, because you completely earned it."
If there is a genuine fear of losing to women among the guys in NHRA, their concerns are legitimate, as it happens more in drag racing than in other forms of motorsports.
Alexia DeJoria beat 16-time NHRA champion John Force in the U.S. Nationals on Monday, becoming the first woman to win three Funny Car races in a season and the fourth in a 60-year history to win at nationals. Enders-Stevens has won four times this season in Pro Stock -- and 10 times in her career -- and stands second in points. And Courtney Force, the all-time leader for women in Funny Car with five wins, collected the 100th all-time victory for a woman in NHRA earlier this year.
Across racing, men and women acknowledge a stigma remains if a guy loses to a woman -- even as they say gender doesn't matter to them personally. Three-time IndyCar champion and current NASCAR Nationwide Series driver Sam Hornish Jr. -- who raced against Danica Patrick in go-karts as a child, in IndyCar and in NASCAR -- was typical in responding, "I hate losing to everybody." Many women drivers claim they have no opinion on the subject or dismiss it as another facet of doing business.
Robert Hight, the 2009 NHRA Funny Car champion who currently is second in a division with two women in the top six in points, said successful drivers cannot afford to be concerned with such trivial thoughts.
"Our class is so competitive top to bottom anyone can win," said Hight, who races for and against his father-in-law at John Force Racing. "You should be able to dig down deep for everybody, no matter what gender they are and do your best, and that's the only way you're going to win in this sport today."
Does it happen to some people, racing the women? Yeah, because nobody, since we were kids in school, nobody wants to be beaten by a girl.John Force
But Force -- whose daughter Brittany also races in the series and who has another daughter, Ashley, who won four Funny Car races before retiring to raise a family in 2010 -- said some drivers are especially bothered by losing to a woman.
"Does it happen to some people, racing the women? Yeah, because nobody, since we were kids in school, nobody wants to be beaten by a girl," he said. "I don't have any problem with it. But if I really did have a problem with women, to be honest, I sure wouldn't have you print it in the paper.''
Patrick's father, T.J., has been making mental notes of the phenomena since his daughter's career began. IndyCar drivers, he said, "made it real hard" when she attempted to pass. He understands it. But it still annoys him.
"I mean, you sit at a stoplight next to a girl and she takes off faster, are you gonna gas it?" he asked. "But if it's a guy, you just let them go. When she was passing, they raced her a little harder. And it's always been that way. I think people forget that. It's that male ego in them that doesn't want her to beat them. So she has to race harder than anybody else out there, put it that way."
Patrick, in her second year in Sprint Cup, was openly frustrated by a deviation from decorum by lapped cars at Bristol Motor Speedway this spring.
"You've got cars that are laps down and I'm racing trying to get by and they race me like we're for position on the last lap of the race," she said after finishing 18th. "And then other cars come up behind them and they move over, so you've got a--holes that don't treat everyone the same."
Granted, those drivers could have myriad reasons for treating Patrick differently. But as the only woman racing full-time in a top-three NASCAR series, her most distinctive trait is her gender.
"I would never go so far as to say that being a girl is the reason for anything, because I think that can be overcome, for sure," Patrick said. "But I can only make observations to what happens to me versus someone else.''
K&N East Series driver Kenzie Ruston said that while the phenomenon was more pronounced in her formative racing days, there remain vestiges. Professional driver decorum, she said, helps mitigate the problem.
"I think definitely when I was younger, when I started racing Bandoleros and Legend cars, I felt like I was racing boys," she said. "I felt like little boys didn't want to get beat by a little girl. I feel like that was a huge thing then, but I feel like the more I have moved up, the more people have this respect thing.
"You just have that respect for each other. But I feel like some guys just don't respect women."
In drag racing, the structure could heighten anxiety for men concerned about losing to a woman. Whereas a circuit racer could spend an entire event without coming within proximity of a driver who unnerves him, and results are impacted, in the case of Sprint Cup, by up to 42 others, drag racers line up next to each other in a much more personal, decisive display of skill and power. It is a playground standoff at high volume and high horsepower. And it can affect those with weakness of concentration.
"If you try to change the way you race because you're emotional, you're going to fail," John Force said. "One of the hardest things for me is racing my daughters because we're family.
"When it's your kid or son-in-law, you've got to watch your emotion. If you're looking out that window and you see her, you're going to care more about what she feels than what happens. But you know you've got to win, so you've got to turn off that switch."
With women participating more and advancing to higher levels of professional series, the phenomena may eventually vanish as they become more commonplace on the track. But for now, it festers, said 21-year-old Paige Decker, a member of NASCAR's diversity initiative who grew up racing middle-aged men in Midwestern stock car series.
"No guy wants to get beat by a girl, when it comes down to it," she said. "In my mind, it pushes me harder. I think we drive harder. When I beat 38-, 42-year-old guys out there, to me it's that much better than a 38-year-old girl."