Gimmick…I hate that word

International Women’s Day 2020 really shouldn’t be a time to celebrate gender equality, rather, it should provide a moment to reflect on how unfairly even today women in motorsports are treated. You really haven’t come a long way, baby.

The motorsports community nearly broke it’s arm patting itself on the back when the FIA eliminated “grid girls” yet old attitudes about women behind the wheel persist. Drivers like Jamie Chadwick aren’t even considered for an F1 seat unless it’s part of a marketing gimmick for a financially struggling team.

There’s also women, who in their relentless pursuit of racing glory, set back the cause of women in motorsports. Danica Patrick was ona top tier IndyCar team (winning at Twin Ring Motegi and leading the Indy 500) before cashing out in Nascar. Her photo spreads with FHM Magazine and Sport Illustrated swimsuit editions don’t diminish her accomplishments, but did she help the advancement of women in motorsports?

Folks today tend to think that ‘pioneers’ in motorsports only exist in black and white photographs. But a recent NY Times article by Roy Furchgott showed that there are women who will stop at nothing in their quest for racing glory, will take on the challenge with integrity, and will bring strong women with them on the journey.

Behind the Wheel, Behind the Eight Ball

Jackie Heinricher built an all-star team of female racecar drivers. Then the money ran out. Simona De Silvestro, left, and  Katherine Legge were members of the most accomplished team of female drivers ever assembled.  Jackie Heinricher, a professional racecar driver and a biotech executive, set out a few years ago to create an all-star team of female drivers. She knew it would take millions of dollars to run a team properly, but she said she felt confident that companies owned by women, or run by women, or interested in marketing their products to women, would quickly deliver all the sponsorships her team would need.

“By now I would have thought the car would be covered in tampon ads and Massengill and whatever,” she said. “I didn’t get any bites.”

Instead, the team found its main support from Caterpillar, the construction equipment manufacturer.That financing was enough to get her dream rolling, and in late January 2019, Heinricher Racing made its debut in the GT Daytona Class of sports car racing in the International Motor Sports Association. In the association’s 50 years of racing, the team was the first to complete a season using exclusively female drivers — and it finished the season in October in the top 10.

When Heinricher visited Caterpillar in September to discuss plans for this season, however, she was told the company had decided it would no longer bankroll her team. As the 2020 season got underway, Heinricher raced the clock to find a sponsor to keep her team together.

But another owner wooed away her drivers, leaving Heinricher to affect change as the only woman team owner and, at least this season, not from behind the wheel.

Auto racing has come a long way since the 1970s, when men threatened to boycott races if women were allowed to compete. There are highly qualified women behind the wheel, in the pits and on engineering teams, in numbers as never before. But finding sponsors for the necessary $3 million to $6 million in financing for teams, always a difficult part of racing, has been a barrier for women, who are often treated as marketing gimmicks rather than serious competitors.

“Gimmick,” Heinricher said. “I hate that word.”

In the article, Furchgott goes on to explain that Heinricher put together all-star all-female race team to prove that women can compete against male counterparts when given an equal opportunity and racing equipment. But the dream collapsed only a year later, once sponsors could no longer capitalize on the gimmick.

The motor sports industry has made efforts to battle the perception it isn’t female-friendly — creating commissions and diversity programs — but tangible change has been harder to come by. In June, for example, when Heinricher Racing applied for a spot in 24 Hours of Le Mans, one of sport’s most prestigious events, it was turned down.

Asked why in a BBC interview, Michelle Mouton, president of the Women’s Commission for the racing governing body, said she had been told one female team was the limit. “It was the answer I got,” she said. “‘We can have only one.’”

The chosen team, Kessel Racing, was held up as an example of how egalitarian racing had become. An article on the LeMans website carried the headline, “Kessel Racing Proves That Motorsport Isn’t Just for Men.”

Caterpillar later told Heinricher in an email that one of its reasons for parting ways with her team was her inability to get its car into LeMans. “An all-female team has been invited and raced in the LeMans, so now it is not a first that we can promote,” the email said.

While Heinricher remains the only female car owner in IMSA, it’s a bitter irony that her team now has a full roster of male drivers. Just something to think about on International Women’s Day


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