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.
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.
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.