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On the brink of history

Shawna Robinson wants to become the next pioneer female driver.

By KEVIN KELLY

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 28, 2001


She is a wife, a mother of two and an accomplished interior designer.

But Shawna Robinson insists dipping her toes in the Winston Cup series is no publicity stunt.

"If it were easy," the 36-year-old driver said, "I would've done this a long time ago."

So snicker and point all you want, Robinson is all business when it comes to her long-awaited shot at success in NASCAR's top series.

"I'm not crawling into a Winston Cup car to make history or to be the first at something," she said. "I want to be something in this sport. I'm racing because I'm competitive, because I want to be a factor and because this is what I've wanted to do for such a long, long time."

Though she failed to qualify for Sunday's NAPA Auto Parts 500 when the rear end of her car broke during a warmup lap Friday, she will become the first female driver since Patty Moise in July 1989 to start a race if she qualifies in June at Michigan International Speedway. She would be the first since Janet Guthrie in 1980 to finish a race.

Michigan is one of five more events this season that Robinson plans on driving a car owned Michael Kranefuss, meaning she could become the first woman to drive more than one race in a season since Guthrie.

"I think the pioneers are Shirley Muldowney and Janet Guthrie," said Robinson, whose husband, Jeff Clark, is a mechanic on Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s race team.

"It's just like (Indy Racing League driver) Sarah Fisher. She's a race car driver and they don't necessarily look at her now as a pioneer. She's a competitive race car driver and that's what I've always wanted to be."

Kranefuss, a successful car owner with Jeremy Mayfield until he was bought out by Roger Penske last year, extended the opportunity to Robinson based on merit.

"Your level of expectation is different with a new driver," Kranefuss said. "If you had the next Jeff Gordon, you go into your first few races with a whole lot but then you're pretty sure you're going to win some races sometime soon. With Shawna, it's a little bit more of an open book."

She competed full time in the ARCA series last season and finished sixth in the points standings and has driven in three Busch Grand National races for Michael Waltrip this season.

A NASCAR Dash series rookie of the year in 1998, the first NASCAR touring series female race winner (Dash, 1988) and Busch series rookie of the year runner-up (1992), Robinson also was the first woman in NASCAR history to win a Busch pole position when she smashed the track qualifying record for Busch cars (174.330 mph) at Atlanta in 1994.

"The abilities are there on her part," Kranefuss said. "The question is how well will she be able to adjust. How much can she ignore a completely new environment that she may not perceive as totally in support of her."

Robinson will attempt to qualify for Winston Cup races June 10 at Michigan, July 15 at Chicago, Aug. 5 at Indianapolis, Sept. 30 at Kansas City, Kan., and Nov. 11 at Homestead.

"It's extremely difficult for women to make it in motorsports and there's no physical reason why the Winston Cup champion couldn't be a female," driver Mark Martin said. "There's absolutely no reason, but it is a difficult thing to break into."

Robinson's foray into Winston Cup comes when NASCAR's top series is more popular than ever.

Television ratings are at all-time highs and sponsor dollars are flowing into Winston Cup.

"Time frame-wise, I need to step up," Robinson said. "I need to get this done and it needs to happen now. This opportunity is here now and I need to take it because in two or three years there's not going to be a chance for me to do this."

Aaron's Sales and Lease, the company that sponsored the BGN car she drove, signed for four of the six Winston Cup races in which Robinson plans to compete.

"When I first met Shawna, I was so very intrigued not only because she is the only female driver at the upper levels of national stock car racing, but because she has proven that she would be here regardless of her gender," said Ken Butler, president of Aaron's. "She has worked her whole adult life to get to this level."

Kranefuss said sponsors never expressed any more worries about putting a mother of two young children inside a stock car than a father of two, despite four driver deaths in 11 months.

Robinson was one of the first drivers to wear a head and neck restraint device designed to prevent basal skull fractures, the injury to blame in all four deaths.

"It never came up, not once," Kranefuss said. "There are mothers that are climbing mountains and get killed or doing other extreme things. It shouldn't come up. It's her choice to drive.

"From the business point of view, the people that I've had the best response from and we're still talking to are outside our sport. They see tremendous potential with a respectable effort on her part. This is not a powder puff. She can drive. Otherwise she wouldn't be doing this."

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