Is NASCAR Fair To The Fairer Sex?

SpeedReading

By DAVE MOODY

Barre/Montpelier (VT) Times-Argus

 

In this age of political correctness, it’s dangerous to suggest that there is not a single woman driver out there deserving of a Winston Cup ride. Unfortunately, that may be the case.

Now, before you begin licking the stamps on that letter bomb, let’s be clear. I think it's high time NASCAR had a female driver. And I think it's coming, sooner or later. However, I don’t see anyone ready to fill the bill just yet. Past history - Janet Guthrie, Patty Moise, to name just two -- proves that women can obtain rides in Winston Cup and Busch Series racing. Keeping them has been a bit more difficult, however.

Less than a year ago, amid considerable hoopla, Shawna Robinson signed a contract to drive the BAM Racing Winston Cup Dodges. At the time, team-owner Beth Ann Morgenthau pegged Robinson as a NASCAR star in the making, pointing to her past success in Goody’s Dash and ARCA racing. She said she looked forward to giving Robinson a shot at the big time, and promised to do whatever it took to put her in a position to win. Unfortunately, Winston Cup success proved easier said than done. Robinson finished 24th - 13 laps down -- in the season-opening Daytona 500, and was 36th or worse in six of her seven starts.

Soon after, Robinson found herself on the outside, looking in. She was replaced by a series of substitute drivers, and while apparently still under contract to BAM Racing, Robinson has not made a Winston Cup start since Daytona in July. Initially, team spokespersons said she had been “temporarily replaced,” as her team sought feedback from more experienced drivers, in an effort to improve the program on her behalf. That claim held water when veterans Ron Hornaday, Derrike Cope, Kevin Lepage, and Stacy Compton all took turns in the BAM Dodge. But when unheralded youngster Stuart Kirby was tapped to drive the car on a one-race basis, it became clear that Morgenthau was less interested in obtaining feedback than she was in finding a new driver. To that end, BAM openly began interviewing prospective drivers late in the season, with Cope driving the final three races at Atlanta, Phoenix, and Homestead. Morgenthau was quoted as saying Cope’s feedback “will help us get ready for a strong charge next season," leading most observers to believe Robinson will not drive for the team again.

Just as Robinson’s star began to fade, another female driver leapt into NASCAR’s headlights. Deborah Renshaw, a Late Model driver at the Nashville USA Speedway, made national headlines when some of her male competitors banded together to protest her car following a top finish. The incident was criticized - rightly - as a case of gender-based harassment, and NASCAR was outspoken in its condemnation. Not long afterward, NASCAR Busch Series team owner Rick Goodwin announced that he will field a full-time team for Renshaw in 2003. Those plans have not changed, despite the injuries Renshaw suffered in a late-season ARCA crash at Lowe’s Motor Speedway that killed driver Eric Martin.

Renshaw’s resume includes more than two years in the NASCAR Weekly Racing Series Late Model division at Nashville and Riverview (TN) Speedways. In 45 starts, she accumulated nine top-five finishes, 14 top-10s, and three poles. Renshaw also competed in a limited slate of ARCA/ReMAX Series races with Bob Schacht Motorsports this season, finishing among the top-10 in three of her four starts.

Clearly, Renshaw is a talented driver. Her record in ARCA competition - where she drove for an experienced and well-financed team - indicates that she has the makings of a fine Winston Cup or Busch Series driver someday. In my opinion, however, a winless Late Model career does not qualify a driver -- male or female -- to advance to the next level. There are a number of ARCA drivers right now with records superior to hers, plus previous experience at the Winston Cup and Busch Series level. Why then, do they remain in ARCA, while Renshaw gets a full-time Busch ride?

Simple. Because of her gender.

As women, Renshaw and Robinson attract more media attention than their male colleagues. As a result, they are of interest to potential sponsors, and in turn, to car owners. Unfortunately, there’s a flip side to the coin. While Robinson’s back-of-the-pack start in the Daytona 500 received as much media play as fellow rookie Jimmie Johnson’s pole-position start, it also forced her to hit the ground running - literally. There was no time for her and her fledgling team to get to know each other, fine-tune their program, and gradually become competitive in Winston Cup racing. They had to run well right out of the gate, or deal with the withering glare of NASCAR’s national spotlight.

That’s a tough row to hoe for any driver, male or female.

I respect Robinson's efforts, and believe that anyone would have struggled in the cars BAM Racing put under her this season. In fact, the drivers that replaced her did not fare much better than she did. In seven starts with Robinson at the wheel, BAM posted an average starting position of 33.0, and an average finish of 37.1. In seven “replacement driver” events, the BAM Dodge’s average start was 32.5, with an average finish of 35.8. Simply put, it appears that the problem is with the cars, not the driver. I wonder, though. Would any male driver with Robinson’s 2002 stats have kept his job? I think not.

 

I am all for Shawna Robinson, Deborah Renshaw, or any other qualified woman making her mark in motorsports. On the local level, Tracie Bellerose proved two years ago that with the proper equipment and organization behind her, a woman can compete with -- and beat -- her male competition. With that said, however, there are thousands of male drivers out there with credentials every bit as good as Shawna Robinson's, who have never driven a Winston Cup car, and never will. She received her opportunity at BAM -- by her own admission - largely because of her sex.

Robinson, Renshaw, Patty Moise, and Angie Wilson -- who ran a limited NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series schedule this season -- have all said that being women opened doors for them in this sport; doors that might not have opened otherwise. As females in a predominantly male sport, they were quick to capitalize on what salespeople call a "point of difference;" the one thing that makes them stand out above the crowd. After willingly exploiting that difference, however, they have no right to complain when the spotlight shines too brightly.

While Renshaw and Robinson may not have fully earned the opportunities they have been given, you can’t blame them for trying to make the most of it. If I were Deborah Renshaw, I would gladly spend Rick Goodwin’s Busch Series bucks next year. I doubt she’ll succeed, however, simply because she has not been given sufficient time to polish her skills at lower levels of the sport. More likely, she will become the latest woman to "flame out" under the pressure and high expectations of big-league racing. And when that happens, she’ll be in the same boat as literally hundreds of men -- many with better resumes than hers -- who have tried and failed to make their mark in NASCAR.

After all, for every Kevin Harvick, there are a hundred Chad Chaffins.

I hope to see a woman win a Winston Cup race one day. And ultimately, I'm sure it will happen. But it should only happen when that woman, like the men she competes against, earns her chance on the basis of skill, not gender. For in a truly equal society, women should have to climb the ladder just like men; one rung at a time, with only the best advancing to the next level.

rrrr

 

Here’s an ambitious venture, for you. Pro All Stars Series President Tom Mayberry announced this week that his series will sanction the “Big Dawg Challenge,” a 400-lap Pro Stock race next October at Maine’s Wiscasset Raceway. The “Big Dawg Challenge” will post awards in excess of $195,000, with a possible $100,000 to the winner.

“Over 150 Pro Stock teams attempted to qualify for a PASS-sanctioned event in 2002,” said Mayberry, who will promote Wiscasset next season, in addition to his duties with the traveling PASS Series. “The `Big Dawg Challenge’ is our way of thanking the grassroots racers that have supported PASS during our first two seasons.”

The race will reportedly feature a two-day format, with time trials, qualifying races and a “C” main on Saturday. Sunday’s schedule includes a “B” main and the 400-lap “Big Dawg Challenge”.

A $195,000 purse is ambitious for any promoter, and having been to Wiscasset Raceway a time or two in the past two decades, this writer can only wonder how Mayberry plans to pay it. Assuming a combined grandstand/pit crowd of 7,000 people - far beyond Wiscasset’s seating capacity, if memory serves -- at an average of $30 a head, Mayberry’s $195,000 “Big Dawg” payout is just $15,000 less than his gross. Factor in insurance, operating expenses and payroll, and Mayberry will have to hit a home run just to break even, unless he’s got a yet-to-be-announced monster sponsor hiding out there somewhere.

And what about that $100,000 to win? Apparently, there are a couple of strings attached. In order to receive the full payoff, the winning driver must have qualified for at least six events on either the PASS Series, or at Wiscasset. Otherwise, it’s $75,000.

Wish Mayberry luck, though. He has put his heart and soul (not to mention his life savings) into solidifying Pro Stock racing in the northeastern United States and eastern Canada. A second high-dollar Pro Stock race - joining the “True Value 250” at Oxford Plains Speedway - would go a long way toward ensuring the survival of both PASS and Pro Stock racing in general.

rrrr

 

Andy Santerre will defend his NASCAR Busch North Series championship in 2003, but not as a car owner. The Cherryfield, Maine, native commuted from his home in Harrisburg, NC to each series race last season, in addition to owning and maintaining all his equipment, and driving the transporter. Next year, while continuing to base his effort out of North Carolina, Santerre will drive for former NASCAR Winston Cup Team owner Joe Bessey, who will field a full-time Busch North team for Santerre, sponsored by Aubuchon Hardware.

"Not a whole lot is changing," said Santerre. "I’ll be working on the car just like I did this year, and I’ll be in charge of making sure all the parts get bought. But we’re going to hire someone to work full time in the shop with me -- something I didn’t have this year - and we’reo going to have someone to drive the truck, maintain the transporter, that kind of stuff. There will be three of us in the shop everyday next year.”

Bessey said he will be the “absentee owner” of the team, after returning home to his native Maine following the closing if his Winston Cup team three years ago.

rrrr

 

Short (Track) Subjects…

…Busch North driver Martin Truex, Jr., has been chosen to drive Dale Earnhardt, Jr.’s, Busch Series entry in up to seven events next season. Truex, son of New Jersey modified veteran Martin Truex, Sr., will be the third driver in a three-man rotation, with Earnhardt driving the car in a handful of Busch Series races, and Steve Park steering the car in another five or six events.

Truex recorded six top-five and 11 top-10 finishes in 19 Busch North starts this season, en route to an 11th place finish in the final point standings, and led the series with six Bud Poles. Truex ran in the season-ending “Ford 300” NASCAR Busch Series race at Homestead-Miami Speedway earlier this month, finishing 23rd, two laps down to winner Scott Wimmer.

…Todd Bodine underwent successful endoscopic back surgery late last week, to repair the ruptured disc that sidelined him from the NASCAR Winston Cup Series season finale at Homestead. The 45-minute outpatient procedure took place Friday, and a six to eight-week recovery period is expected.

Bodine, who struggled with back pain through much of the past season, was replaced by his brother, Geoffrey, at Homestead, after reportedly being unable to get out of bed following the previous day’s Busch Series race.

…David Green will reportedly not return to the Hendrick Motorsports, GMAC-sponsored Busch Series entry next season. Green took over the ride when Ricky Hendrick, son of team owner Rick Hendrick, retired after suffering shoulder injuries in a midseason crash. Rick Hendrick is reportedly looking to put a younger driver in the seat next season, possibly Casey Mears.

Mears’ current Busch team laid off all but a handful of its employees this week, after being unable to land a 2003 sponsor.

…Casey Atwood’s future will also remain in limbo for least another week. The 22-year old Atwood has a year remaining on his three-year deal with Evernham Motorsports, but was demoted by team-owner Ray Evernham to Jim Smith’s Sirius Satellite Radio Dodge after a less-than-impressive 2002 season. Smith soon dumped Atwood, as well, replacing him with NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series driver Jason Leffler, and leaving Atwood’s future in serious doubt.

''Ray told Casey he wanted to wait until after Thanksgiving, then get together,'' said Atwood’s father and chief cheerleader, Terry Atwood this week. ''Right now, Casey doesn't know a thing.''