Women battle for ERA (equal ride access)

Published July 30, 2005

Janet Guthrie has seen this all before.

Personal and financial obstacles lay before her when she launched a racing career in 1977 and became the first woman to qualify for the Daytona 500 and Indianapolis 500. Despite nearly three decades of advances for women in all areas of society, she knows the racetrack still remains a largely male realm.

That's why it did not surprise Guthrie when three members of the Indy Racing League's Andretti Green Racing team boycotted an autograph session in Milwaukee crowd came to see her, the highest-finishing woman (fourth) in the Indy 500. (The IRL fined Andretti Green an undisclosed amount.)

"I expected there would be a bit of backlash. It was inevitable, I believe," said Guthrie, 67, by telephone from her Colorado home.

Guthrie once experienced what Patrick now goes through since becoming a media darling and fan sensation as a 23-year-old rookie with the Rahal Letterman team. Both came to accept, or at least tolerate, that their fame was initially derived from their novelty, all the while hoping performance would become the story.

"Certainly, I got a lot more exposure than did the male drivers, but I think that's inevitable when there's one woman and everybody else is male," Guthrie said. "It's something that feeds on itself, really."

The first time Guthrie qualified for a NASCAR race, in 1976 in Charlotte, attendance rose to around 103,000, overwhelming the track's infrastructure, especially its water supply. Though Guthrie contends the crowd was proportional, it has been implied that the women who came to see Guthrie used up the water because they went to the restroom so much.

H.A. "Humpy" Wheeler, track president and raconteur, recounts the events of that day with glee, partly because it paints him as a great promoter and problem-solver (he hired local fire departments to rush in more water), and partly because it is a good yarn.

"Humpy blamed it on all the women," Guthrie said of Wheeler, "though perhaps it was just because they had a record crowd. I think they got 10, 12, 14 percent more fans than they ever had before. Half an hour after the start of the race, there were still cars lined up a mile or two outside trying to get in the racetrack."

By the end of that season, in which she made five NASCAR starts, Guthrie knew how big of commodity she was - "I did put a lot of money in promoters' pockets that year," she said - but she struggled to find a sponsor to help her run more than a part-time schedule in either NASCAR or open-wheel racing.

Guthrie doesn't know why those same problems have lingered, at least before Patrick proved how much publicity a woman can generate.

"You'll have to ask the sponsors," Guthrie said. "You'll probably get the same answer I got years and years ago.

"Oh, yes we can see what a great job you're doing; you're qualifying and finishing in the top 10. A year ago everybody said you couldn't even make the field and we see how much exposure you bring to a sponsor, but our budget is just completely committed. . Come back and see us in 2010 or so.' It was awful, just completely awful. Even though I did some things I believe I'm right to be proud of, I did not accomplish what I hoped and expected I would."

Almost there

Sarah Fisher knows the feeling. It seemed she would be the one to break through.

A product of the same midget tracks that sent Ryan Newman to fame and glory in NASCAR, the 24-year-old Ohioan rose to the Indy Racing League as a teenager.

While Patrick was slogging through the minor leagues in Europe, Fisher was repeatedly voted the IRL's most popular driver. She performed. Though it's unfair to compare Fisher's six partial seasons with Patrick's 10 races, it can be argued that she drove well enough to deserve the same kind of hype Patrick has received. Fisher, who debuted in 1999 at age 19, was the third woman and one of the youngest to compete in the Indy 500. She became the first woman to qualify fastest for a major North American open-wheel race in 2002 and finished second in 2001 at Homestead.

"Danica hasn't caught up to that yet," Guthrie said. "I feel that (Fisher) got a raw deal. She absolutely had the talent to win races and would have done so had she gotten her hands on good equipment with a good team."

Fisher should have been a recipe for success. Sponsors should have clamored for her, but she faded out of the series after finishing 21st in an unsponsored car in the 2004 Indy 500.

"You know, I don't know why I didn't get the chance," said Fisher, who said she is pleased with the overall progress women have made. "I did everything I thought was right and I'm proud of what I did. I ran up front when I had good cars."

Now Fisher bides her time in the NASCAR driver development program at Richard Childress Racing, running a limited schedule in the Grand National Division, West Series and clamoring for more chances to get behind the wheel. Team plans have her making a Busch series start in September.

The fact that Patrick - who in fairness performed well in developmental series - got the backing of media-conscious sponsors invariably leads to the topic of her good looks and willingness to use them. She has posed for magazine layouts and provocative promotional posters for the IRL and has become a visible and marketable persona.

Her counterparts assert that Patrick has the right to do whatever she wishes - "If she is comfortable with it and it helps her career, she should do it," said sports car driver Milka Duno, who also has done magazine layouts - and her results have proved she is more than a pretty face.

"She can pull it off," said Erin Crocker, who drives in the Evernham Motorsports driver development program. "She's got the body and the attitude to do it and she seems to be backing it up. ... It's definitely not the route I want to take. I'm just a race car driver and if people think I'm pretty and want to take a picture, sure, but it's just not me. I don't want to be different."

The next big thing

Crocker is a keen-witted individual. She doesn't need to show anyone her industrial and management engineering degree to prove that. Even without that parchment from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, the 24-year-old was smart enough to know what she was getting herself into. She graduated from the World of Outlaws series - where last year she became the first woman to win an event - to the Evernham program in which she is racing stock cars for the first time in select ARCA events.

Crocker is scheduled to make a Busch series start in September. That will generate a frenzy. NASCAR and its teams are clamoring for a female face to counter Patrick and the IRL's dominance on the gender issue, and sponsors seem eager for a woman to mainstream their products.

If one day this leads to a Nextel Cup ride, Crocker can hardly imagine the frenzy. But she says she's ready.

"I've thought about it, and really I'm all for it," said Crocker, who has two top fives and three top 10s in four ARCA starts. "Really, I just want to be successful and win races. I can't wait for that. And I'm sure it's going to be huge if I can do that and I'm willing to put up with all of it.

"Dale (Earnhardt) Jr. has to do the same thing. If I didn't want to have to deal with that, I certainly wouldn't be working toward this goal."