The Last Frontier: Getting Women in Nascar

The UConn women just capped off a historically dominating dynasty with their fourth straight national title. The WNBA’s ratings grow year after year. US Women’s Soccer has reached greater heights than the men’s team. For years, women’s sports have been relegated to an afterthought, marginalized by large segments of society. Now, however, as they continue a slow and steady march into prominence, the sports where women lack representation face greater scrutiny. Nowhere have women been less able to break down the gender barrier than in motorsports. A look at NASCAR, America’s most popular form of auto racing, can help us learn why.

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NASCAR has exactly one prominent female driver, Danica Patrick, and the amount of criticism she has faced has been disproportionate to her driving ability. A look at the comments on any Facebook post about her makes that evident–there’s a consistent chorus of complaints that Danica is unqualified, that she’s only in her car because she’s a woman. However, when you look at her racing stats, she’s been driving fine.

Her racing pedigree is solid–she’s raced go-karts since she was 10 and placed top 10 overall in the IndyCar Series 6 times. Danica hasn’t exactly lit the world on fire since she switched to NASCAR, but in 2015 she finished ahead of 2-time Nationwide Series champ Ricky Stenhouse, former Daytona 500 winner Trevor Bayne, and her boss, 3-time champion Tony Stewart. None of these other drivers have faced the same level of criticism Danica has–Bayne and Stenhouse have been similarly underwhelming, but no one says they have their rides “only because they’re men.” Danica Patrick faces an excessive amount of criticism from the fans, but the problem doesn’t lie just with them–it’s part of NASCAR’s overall culture.

RIDGEWAY, VA - APRIL 07: Danica Patrick, driver of the #10 GoDaddy.com Chevrolet, leads a group of cars out of turn four during the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series STP Gas Booster 500 on April 7, 2013 at Martinsville Speedway in Ridgeway, Virginia. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/NASCAR via Getty Images)

(Photo by Jared C. Tilton/NASCAR via Getty Images)

NASCAR has a demographic problem which has been long overlooked by the sport’s leaders. Most NASCAR viewers tend to be older, white men–while most sports make their bread and butter from attracting 18-45 year olds, NASCAR’s viewers are dominated by 46-65 year olds. An influx of younger, more diverse followers will make the fanbase more accepting of women and minority drivers in NASCAR. While older fans who grew up watching the sport in the 1980’s and 1990’s are accustomed to the all white and male racers, younger fans would respond to a more diverse group with more enthusiasm.

However, for there to be female drivers at NASCAR’s highest levels, there have to be girls racing at its lowest. Most NASCAR drivers get their start racing go-karts or sprint cars around dirt tracks–many begin when they’re just 6,7, or 8 years old. However, if you attend these races today, the vast majority of the kids racing are boys. It’s tough for girls to break into a sport dominated by boys.

This is where NASCAR, which has often been criticized for being behind the times, has made significant progress. NASCAR’s Drive for Diversity program has begun to develop a crop of very capable women and minority drivers. It trains and publicizes female racers across the nation. It’s gotten women’s organizations and minority community leaders involved in the sport. Most importantly, it’s begun to change the culture of the sport, opening it up to new participants and fans. NASCAR has a very long way to go to get women in the sport, but when it does, it will be better for it.

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Casey Mears’ Quiet Career Year

Casey Mears is not exactly a high-profile guy. He has a reputation for being clean-cut, nice, and unassuming. His only win is a fuel mileage race. His sponsor isn’t an energy drink or a big-box store–it’s an insurance company. A fist fight with Marcos Ambrose this year was his most controversial incident since he entered the sport. His team, Germain Racing, is regarded in the same way Mears is. Quiet. Normal. Out of the way. Founded in 2007, Germain Racing has fielded backmarkers for most of its life. Germain’s first top 15 at an oval came in 2011. Its next one came 2 years later, in 2013. But since then, especially this year, the little team that no one knows about has quietly put up some big numbers.

Mears at Bristol (AP)

Germain Racing is not in the top echelon of Nascar teams, but Casey Mears and his crew have driven the #13 Geico Chevy to some impressive results this season. Mears currently sits 24th in Nascar points, ahead of some big-name drivers. First, he is one spot ahead of the #78 of Martin Truex Jr. Truex’s team has performed poorly this year, allowing Mears to overtake him in points. Perhaps more surprisingly, Mears is 3 spots ahead of Ricky Stenhouse Jr.  Last year’s Rookie of the Year is driving top-level Roush cars, but has fallen well behind this year. Mears is also outperforming Danica Patrick, David Ragan (last year’s Talladega winner) and rookie Justin Allgaier, whom many thought had an outside shot at being this year’s top rookie. Clearly, Germain Racing has stepped it up compared to their competitors.

Mears passing Martin Truex at Daytona (Getty)

But Mears is not doing well simply because of poorly-performing competitors. He’s been reeling off strong finishes as well. A quick glance at his stats is unimpressive–Mears only has two top 10 finishes on the year. However, the Germain Racing team has been very consistent in finishing 11-20th. The team has 12 top-20’s and 8 top 15’s, including a 4th place finish in the Pepsi 400. The team also has no DNF’s, a feat among full-time competitors shared only by Jeff Gordon. Germain Racing, despite its limited recognition, has been the most successful single-car team this year. The organization has quietly improved year after year since entering the sport, and under Casey, looks to have its best season so far. Germain and Casey are quietly proving that a single-car team can succeed in Nascar.

The Saga of Josh Wise: How Reddit Made Nascar History

Josh Wise is an unassuming guy. He keeps a low profile, quietly showing up week in and week out to compete in Phil Parsons’ #98 Ford. He usually finishes around 30th place in his races. He isn’t swarmed by starstruck fans eager to grab his autograph or take a picture. In sum, Wise isn’t the kind of guy you’d expect to be a part of Nascar history. But he is. Driving for an underfunded team, Wise secured sponsorship for the Aaron’s 499 at Talladega with the backing of Nascar fans on Reddit, a popular content aggregating site. This event made headlines across the country and introduced thousands of new fans to the sport. How did this happen? Read on to find out.

1. Josh Wise

Wise got his start in Southern California, racing quarter midget cars. At 16, he won the USAC 3/4 Midget championship, making him the youngest winner in the history of the series. Once he reached Nascar’s national series, however, Wise flamed out. After a few promising years driving for Darrell Waltrip aJosh Wisend Dale Earnhardt Jr in the Nationwide Series, Wise was let go. He bounced around between underfunded Sprint Cup teams for several years after that, never once in contention for a good finish. His best result was 19th place at Talladega in 2013. In 2014, Wise signed with Phil Parsons Racing, another perennial backmarker. He started the season of the same as usual, posting finishes in the 30’s. One race at Bristol, however, caught the attention of many. Wise, about to go a lap down, drove the wheels of off his Ford, holding off leader Kyle Busch for over 50 laps. This impressive driving performance did not go unnoticed, especially by members of the online community Reddit.

2. Reddit

Reddit was founded in 2005. Calling itself  “The Front Page of The Internet”, Reddit is basically a giant message board. It contains containing thousands of communities (called subreddits) where members post articles, pictures, and hold discussions on topics ranging from travelling to maps to science to Nascar. It was here, in the official Nascar subreddit, that the movement to fund Josh Wise was started. Reddit user Denis Pavel posted about Josh Wise in the Nascar subreddit, asking if there was any way they could sponsor Wise and give him some money. With the support of fellow Nascar fans, Pavel started the process of looking for sponsorship for Wise. He needed money, however. Pavel would find help from an unlikely source–DogeCoin.

3. Backing an UnderDoge

Much Doge. Wow.

Doge, the Shiba Inu Dog which inspired an internet meme as well as Dogecoin

DogeCoin, similar to BitCoin, is an internet cryptocurrency.  Both are being used more and more often for online transactions–they are untraceable, unhackable, and unregulated by the US government. Unlike the more popular BitCoin, DogeCoin was started as a joke and is far less valuable. While one BitCoin sells for $580, it takes about 2,500 DogeCoins to equal one US dollar.

DogeCoin, however, has its backers and users–many of them congregate on Reddit in the official DogeCoin subreddit. When one user suggested that DogeCoins could be used to help fund Wise, the entire community got on board. They contacted Wise and his owner Phil Parsons, and they agreed to the fundraiser. Wise’s fans raised around 9 million DogeCoins ($50,000), and in exchange got to design the paint scheme on the #98. While the events going on made national news, Wise and his team buckled down and prepared for Talladega.

4. Race Day

TALLADEGA, AL - MAY 02: Josh Wise, driver of the #98 Dogecoin / Reddit.com Ford, on track during practice for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Aaron's 499 at Talladega Superspeedway on May 2, 2014 in Talladega, Alabama.  (Photo by Brian Lawdermilk/Getty Images)

Wise’s 98 on the race track (Photo by Brian Lawdermilk/Getty Images)

Wise rolled off 36th for the Aaron’s 499. At first, his weekend wasn’t shaping up too good–he had failed to rank higher than 25th during either of the practice sessions before the race. However, that wouldn’t stop him during the race. Talladega is a unique track–drivers run flat out all the way around, and have to line up in order to draft with each other, making their cars more aerodynamic and 3-5 mph faster. Because of this, small cars are able to hang with big teams and run near the front, something they don’t get to experience at most tracks on the Nascar circuit.

Wise took full advantage of this quirk near the end of the race, using the draft to move up near the leaders. With 20 laps to go, Wise was running 4th and in a position to challenge for the lead. It was an amazing moment for the 31 year old driver, whose career best finish in the Sprint Cup series is 19th. Unfortunately for Wise, he had to check up while racing for the lead in order not to wreck Kyle Busch. This slowed his momentum and shuffled him back to 20th place, where he finished the race.

5. The All-Star Race

At first, after Talladega, it seemed as though Josh Wise’s run in the Dogecoin car was done, a nice little story that would become a footnote to Nascar history. Then the All-Star Race came up. Nascar fans on Reddit began a campaign to vote Wise into the All-Star Race through the Nascar fan vote. Reddit users began developing bots, software applications which would vote hundreds of times a day for Wise. After Nascar instituted protections to stop these automated bots, Wise’s fans started voting by hand–some voted over a 1,000 times a day. Ultimately, Wise made it in to the All-Star Race through the fan vote, getting twice as many votes as second place Danica Patrick. Wise ended up finishing 15th in the race.

Much votes. Very win. Wow.

Wise celebrates being voted into the All-Star Race

6. The Aftermath

Reddit’s campaign to help Wise is still ongoing–he plans to run the Dogecoin car again later this year. Although some of the buzz has died down, this episode in Nascar’s history is certainly one which will be long remembered.

Changing of the Guard

Nascar, after struggling for so many years to bring any rookies up into the Sprint Cup series, is now welcoming in an influx of them. In 2013, 3 drivers competed for rookie of the yearDanica Patrick, Ricky Stenhouse Jr, and the little mentioned Timmy Hill. Next season, even more new drivers are expected to move up to the Sprint Cup series, including RCR driver Austin Dillon and the young  Japanese-American phenom Kyle Larson. MWR driver Brian Vickers is also expected to make his return to the Sprint Cup series after a long battle with blood clots. But as these young drivers come up through the ranks, others have to step aside to make room. Mark Martin, Bobby Labonte, and Jeff Burton will all be stepping out of their rides at the end of the season. Here’s a look at what could happen to them.

1. Mark Martin

A couple days before Nascar’s penultimate race at Phoenix, Mark Martin made headlines by announcing that he would stop driving after the end of the 2013 season.  Many might be suspicious–Martin, after all, said the same thing in 2006, before accepting a ride with Ginn racing for the 2007 season. But, all indications point to this being Martin’s last season before he moves into an advisory role with Stewart-Haas racing in 2014. Although Martin won’t be racing next year, don’t be surprised if you see him get back behind the wheel in the future.

2. Jeff Burton

The Mayor of Nascar’s garage, Jeff Burton has been a respected competitor in the series for the past 25 years. He used to be a contender for a win week-in and week-out, fighting for wins and top five finishes. In the late 1990’s, he was one of Jeff Gordon’s biggest rivals. However, those days have passed. Driving for RCR, Burton has failed to record a win since 2008, and has failed to finish in the top 10 in points. Even though Burton had a year left on his contract, Childress let him go in favor of Ryan Newman and up and coming driver Austin Dillon. Burton has announced that he will drive part-time in 2014, but has not yet said where he will go. There was speculation that he would move the the 78 of Furniture Row Racing, but that ride was snapped up by Martin Truex, Jr. Although Burton has not announced his decision, possible candidates include a part-time ride at Michael Waltrip Racing as well as in the 30 car at Swan Racing.

3. Bobby Labonte

Labonte, a former series champion and once one of Nascar’s greatest drivers, is in the twilight of his career. He has not had a competitive ride since he left Joe Gibbs Racing in 2005. Since then, he has driven for teams such as Richard Petty Motorsports, the now defunct Hall of Fame Racing, and TRG Motorsports, which has since moved on to sport’s car racing. Labonte moved to JTG Daugherty Racing for the 2011 season, but has struggled since then. It has been announced that in 2014 Labonte will be replaced by AJ Allmendinger, who will have a full-time ride in the Sprint Cup series for the first time since serving a suspension for drug use in 2012. Labonte has not announced plans for 2014, and with most teams already announcing their drivers for the next season, it is likely that, if he chooses to compete, Labonte will be able to, at most, find a ride at a team such as Front Row Motorsports or BK Racing. Even if Labonte does hang up his helmet at the end of this season, Nascar will always remember him as one of its greatest competitors.