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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Looking back on Tony Stewart’s Career

Tony Stewart, one of Nascar’s most popular and accomplished drivers, will be retiring after the 2016 season. Here, we take a look back on his career.

Because of Stewart’s incredible accomplishments in Nascar, his work in other series is sometimes lost to history. Stewart, who began his racing career driving go-karts and midget cars in the USAC, boasts an IndyCar championship in addition to his 3 Nascar trophies. Stewart accomplished all if this before ever entering the top level of Nascar, driving double duty in IndyCars and the Busch Series. Stewart is an avid racer, driving Sprint Cars on dirt as well as his Sprint Cup ride.

Tony’s drive to race has led to insane accomplishments within the sport. He made a splash as soon as he entered Nascar, winning 3 races his rookie year en route to a 4th place finish overall. He is tied for 5th all-time with 3 Nascar championships, and is tied for 13th all-time with 48 wins.  Smoke is the only driver to take home the title under the old Winston Cup format and the new Sprint Cup format, a testament to his incredible versatility as a driver. Stewart’s 2011 Chase run is considered one of the greatest ever–after a slow start to the season, the veteran won 5 times during the last 10 races, overcoming Carl Edwards’ consistency to take home the championship.

Stewart has proved his status time and time again as one of the sports greatest drivers. His 2011 championship marked the first by an owner-driver since Alan Kulwicki’s 1992 ring. In 2009, Stewart, unhappy with his role at Joe Gibbs Racing and the team;s switch to Toyota, joined forces with Gene Haas at Haas CNC Racing and began driving his #14 Chevy alongside Ryan Newman. Now, Stewart-Haas, which receives technical support from Hendrick Motorsports, boasts 2 championships and 30 race wins to its name and will be around long after Stewart retires.

Stewart’s retirement won’t stop him from being involved in the sport. Smoke loves racing, and continues to compete hard day in and day out despite his struggles the past few years. Expect to see him take an active role in the garage when working with his team. Stewart also owns Eldora Speedway, which hosts an annual dirt race for the Craftsman Truck Series. Stewart’s retirement could open up the possibility of racing Sprint Cup cars at Eldora, a move fans and drivers would love to see. Whatever Tony Stewart does after he hangs up his helmet, he’ll approach it with the same passion and intensity that has defined his racing career.

 

2016 in Preview

We’re just 42 days from the 2016 Daytona 500 as we count down the top stories of the new year.

Legendary racer Tony Stewart announced his impending retirement near the end of the 2015 season. Stewart’s career is long and storied–his impressive resume includes 48 wins, three Nascar championships, and a 1997 IndyCar championship to boot. Stewart, the first owner-driver to win a championship since Alan Kulwicki in 1992, is expected to retain his stake in Stewart-Haas Racing while giving up his ride to Clint Bowyer in 2017.  Beset by a broken leg in 2013 and the tragic Sprint Car accident which killed Kevin Ward, Jr in 2014, Stewart has failed to win a race in 2.5 years, finishing 25th or lower in points each of the last 3 seasons. While it’s unlikely that Smoke will go out racing for a championship, look for him to try and capture his first ever Daytona 500 victory when he suits up for his last season.

After the 2014 season, which produced some of the best racing in recent memory, Nascar tweaked its rules package for 2015. The result? The quality of racing dropped–fans and drivers complained that the new cars were hard to pass with and led to boring follow-the-leader races. Thankfully, Nascar listened. It modified the rules package again for the upcoming 2016 season, creating low-downforce parts that will cause the cars to slide around more on the track, making them harder to drive and easier to pass. The package’s test at Kentucky produced record numbers of green-flag passes. Look for more of the same in 2016.

Nascar’s 2015 rookie class was, to put it lightly, weak. After a strong group in 2014, 2015 featured little-known drivers such as Brett Moffitt, who captured the Rookie of the Year award despite finishing in the top 30 just twice throughout the season. 2016 promises to feature an exciting battle. Chase Elliott will move up from the XFINITY series to replace Jeff Gordon in the #24 car, while Ryan Blaney will take over the Wood Brothers #21 Chevy and XFINITY series champion Chris Buescher will drive for Front Row Motorsports. These three young drivers have all run very strong in Nascar’s lower levels. It’ll be exciting to see them try and take their talent to the big leagues.

Jeff Gordon Retired: Who’s Next?

With Jeff Gordon making his final start yesterday, Nascar closed the books on an era. Gordon was Nascar’s first superstar–he helped the sport grow from a regional event to a household name. Gordon is the last driver from the early 1990’s who competed full time, and with his retirement, others may start to follow suit. Tony Stewart, who began racing in 1999. Stewart will follow Gordon out of the sport after the 2016 season. Here’s some drivers who could be headed with them in the next few years.

Greg Biffle

The oldest driver in the Nascar garage isn’t Jeff Gordon or Tony Stewart–it’s Greg Biffle, who clocks in at 45 years old. Most people would expect Biffle to be much younger, but that’s because he only started racing in the Sprint Cup Series in 2002. Biffle’s late start and his historically good Roush cars have masked the fact that he’s getting up there in age. With Roush-Fenway Racing on the decline and a lack of new rides opening up in the Sprint Cup,  don’t be surprised to see Biffle be the next driver to make an exit after Stewart.

Matt Kenseth

Kenseth, the 2003 champion and Biffle’s former teammate at Roush, is also getting up there in age. He’s 43 years old and has been racing in the Sprint Cup for 15 years, and is only signed with Joe Gibbs Racing through the end of 2016. Although Kenseth continues to run strong, a two race suspension for taking out Joey Logano dropped him to 15th in the points standings this year. With developmental drivers Daniel Suarez and Erik Jones waiting in the wings, don’t be surprised to see Kenseth bow out in the near future.

Brian Vickers

At first glance, Brian Vickers doesn’t look like a racer ready to hang up his helmet. He’s just 32 years old and recently signed a multi-year contract with Michael Waltrip Racing. However, as MWR closes its doors in the offseason, Vickers will be left without a ride, and more importantly, may be unable to get back on the track. Vickers has battled blood clots since 2010, when clots in his lungs forced him out of the driver’s seat at Red Bull Racing. He battled his medical issues for a long time, and only recently secured a full-time ride with now defunct MWR. However, before the 2015 season began, Vickers announced that he would miss time due to issues fixing a hole in his heart. He ended up driving just 2 races; instead, he spent time working as an analyst for NBC while he recovered. With no ride lined up and no timetable to return to the track, we might have already seen Brian Vickers’ last race.

Offseason Wrap-Up

With the Sprint Unlimited happening yesterday at Daytona, Nascar’s offseason has officially drawn to a close. Here’s a look at some of the biggest stories from the 2014-2015 offseason.

First up, Jeff Gordon’s retirement shocked the Nascar world. On January 22, Gordon announced that the 2015 Nascar season would be his last. The news created an outpouring of emotion from Nascar drivers, fans, and sportscasters as well as a host of opportunities, including a chance for Gordon to race in the Indy 500. In more practical news, the decision opens up a seat for XFINITY series champion Chase Elliot to move to the Sprint Cup series in 2016. While Jeff might be leaving the sport, Chase’s journey is just beginning.

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Second, Kurt Busch’s slow climb back into respectability was suddenly halted. The Stewart-Haas driver was embroiled in a domestic violence scandal, as ex-girlfriend Patricia Driscoll claimed that Busch attacked her after a race at Dover. Busch’s defense team didn’t do itself any favors when it allowed the driver to take the stand during the court hearing. Kurt testified under oath that he believed his girlfriend was a “trained assassin” and was trying to kill him. While the jury’s still out on Busch’s outlandish claim, a decision on whether or not to charge the driver with assault is nowhere in sight.

Brian Vickers, the #2 driver at Michael Waltrip Racing, announced that he would miss the first two races of the 2015 season after undergoing corrective heart surgery. Vickers, who has battled blood clots since 2010, will be granted a waiver by Nascar to compete for a berth in the Chase for the Sprint Cup.

In more positive news, Sam Hornish Jr will be returning to the Sprint Cup series. Hornish, the former Indy-Car star, has not driven a full slate of Sprint Cup races since 2010. After racing and improving in Nationwide for the past 4 years, Hornish will get a second chance on Nascar’s biggest stage, replacing Marcos Ambrose in the Richard Petty Motorsports Ford.

Finally, and thankfully, Tony Stewart failed to make waves in the offseason. Smoke, who has a reputation for being outspoken and blunt, stayed out of the spotlight after a tumultuous season during which he hit and killed Kevin Ward Jr during a sprint car race. Don’t worry though–Tony’s still the same old person. Stewart, who famously lost Subway’s sponsorship for being too fat, cursed out Nascar officials after being black-flagged during Daytona practice for not weighing himself beforehand. Despite all the changes happening this offseason, some things never change.

Return to the Top: The Life and Times of Mad Max Papis

On Monday, August 5th, Tony Stewart broke his leg while racing in a Sprint Car race hosted at the Southern Iowa Speedway in Oskaloosa, Iowa.  Although Smoke underwent two successful surgeries to fix his damaged leg, he will be out for a minimum of six weeks, including this week’s race, the Cheez-It 355 at the Glen. The driver replacing him? Well that would be Max Papis.

Max Papis will run Nationwide Series races at Iowa, Road America and Mid-Ohio.

Max Papis has run two Nationwide races this year for Richard Childress Racing.
Image Credit: LAT Photographic

Max Papis is a 43-year old native of Como Italy, who has driven in every series from the Sprint Cup to Formula One to American Le Mans. The son-in-law of F1 great Emerson Fittipaldi, Papis has spent most of his life competing in American racing series. From the late 1990’s to the early 2000’s, Papis raced in the now-defunct CART open-wheel series, while also dabbling in the Indy Racing League.

Papis’s first Nascar start came in 2006, in a Nationwide Series Race for McGill Motorsports. He would continue to drive part-time in the Nationwide and Sprint Cup series for the next three years, until landing a full-time ride at Nascar’s highest level. In 2010, Papis took over the #13 GEICO Toyota for Germain Racing. In his first full Sprint Cup season Papis showed flashes of potential, running in the top 10 at Talladega, qualifying 15th at Fontana, and finishing 8th at Watkins Glen until accidents took him out of contention. However, at the end of 2010, Papis was released from his Sprint Cup ride. He hasn’t been back since.

Neither age nor lack of a full-time ride has slowed Mad Max. He has driven partial schedules in the Camping World Truck Series for Germain Racing as well as in the Nationwide Series for Richard Childress. He has put together decent results on the ovals of the Truck Series, and is always a threat to win on Nascar’s road courses. Papis currently works for RCR, coaching and mentoring the organization’s developmental drivers, while occasionally driving in various Sports Car series.

As we wrap up this profile of Max Papis, it is important to discuss how he got his nickname, Mad Max. In the 1996 24 Hours of Daytona, Papis pulled out onto the track near the end of the race in second-place. His Ferrari had been battered throughout the race. Its body panels were dented, and some of its bodywork was held together by tape. Most drivers would have been content to finish second in such a beaten-up car, but not Max. In one of the most inspiring performances of his racing career, Papis refused to quit. He pushed his car to the limit, flying past the race’s leader to put himself back on the lead lap. Papis was flying, and it looked like he might just complete the improbable and win the 24 Hours of Daytona. Although a pit stop for fuel eventually cost Max Papis the win, that race and his go-for-broke, never give up style of racing earned him the respect of drivers and fans alike.

Papis has driven hard during his entire career. He has shown that when driving in quality equipment, he will stop at nothing to secure a great finish or even a win. His driving style is comparable to Tony Stewart. Both men love racing, and go hard regardless of where they’re racing, whether it is the Sprint Cup Series, the 24 Hours of Daytona, or a dirt-track race at a small speedway in Iowa. Maybe that’s why Stewart-Haas Racing tabbed Mad Max Papis to take over Tony Stewart’s ride at the Glen.

 

Nascar Returns To Indy, But Does Anyone Care?

On Sunday, Nascar made its annual sojourn to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, hosting the memorably named Crown Royal Presents the Samuel Deeds 400 at the Brickyard Powered by BigMachineRecords.com. Wow. The person who came up with that name needs to take a serious look at what he’s doing with his life. Anyway, the race was won by Indiana native Ryan Newman, who beat Jimmie Johnson not by passing him on the race track, but by having a faster green-flag pit stop. Indeed, there was very little passing on the race track. There was just one on-track lead change during the race, the rest coming during green-flag pit stops.

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The race featured no side-by-side action and virtually no passing, as it has been since 2008. The track was repaved that year, eliminating the outside groove on the track, and along with it, much of the interest in the race. Tony Stewart was vocal in his defense of Indy, saying, “It doesn’t have to be two- and three-wide racing all day long to be good racing. If you want to see passing, we can head out to Interstate 465.’ Fans, however, appeared to disagree with Stewart, and in large numbers. Barely half of the seats at Indy were filled. The backstretch grandstands were closed off completely.

Indeed, the race stood in stark contrast to the Camping World Truck Series race at Eldora. The Nascar return to dirt was one of the most exciting races of the season, featuring beating and banging as well as exciting passes for the lead. At the Brickyard, no one so much as scraped the wall. There were only 3 cautions in the 160 lap race. Two were for mechanical problems concerning Timmy Hill‘s OxyWater Ford, and the other one was for drive-line issues in the 31 car of Jeff Burton. The Mayor would finish last, falling 3 spots in the standings. The end of Burton’s Chase hopes? It might be, especially considering how he’s performed so far this season. Meanwhile, Ryan Newman gained three places in the standings with his win. He is now only 20 points behind Martin Truex, Jr., and could be poised to make a Case run. Meanwhile, the Chase standings shuffled. Brad Keselowski‘s 21st place finish dropped him out of the top 10, and Jeff Gordon moved in. Gordon is currently only 1 point ahead of 11th place Stewart. Unlike the racing at Indy, the battle for the Chase is heating up.