Craig Murto: We need more women in racing

As Danica Patrick prepares to compete in the final Monster Energy NASCAR Cup race of her career, it becomes evident that we need more women in motorsports.

Without a doubt, Patrick has been the most successful woman racer in history. When she leaves, she will leave a void.

It’s scientifically factual that men and women are physically different. Those differences, particularly the difference in upper-body strength, may prevent women from being competitive in motocross motorcycle racing. But there is no reason a woman couldn’t race and win in motorcycle road racing, and Shayna Texter has been competitive and won on dirt in motorcycle flat track racing.

In auto racing, women have raced since the beginning. In 1949 there was a race on the beach course in Daytona, Florida, which featured three women racers. Ethel Mobley, Sara Christian and Louise Smith all competed in that event, as well as a race at Langley Speedway in Virginia. Smith actually won 38 races in her career driving Late Models, Modifieds, Sportsman cars and Midgets.

Women seemed to disappear from the scene in the 1960s. There were tracks that did not allow women to even enter the pits. In the late ’60s, ’70s and ’80s it took racers such as Janet Guthrie and Lynn St. James to start breaking boundaries. They had some success.

But now the physical differences between men and women should not be an issue in auto racing. Power steering takes most, if not all, of the upper-body-strength issue out of the equation.

And women prove they can race. Tammy Jo Kirk was not only the first women to earn a national number in motorcycle flat track racing, in 1994 she was the first woman to win in a car in the Snowball Derby Late Model race in Pensacola, Florida, and became the first woman to race in NASCAR’s truck series. Johanna Long won the Snowball Derby in 2010, and ran for a few years in the Xfinity Series.

Usually about 100 top Late Models from around the country compete just to earn a starting spot in the Snowball Derby. So why was Johanna Long unable to find herself in a top ride in NASCAR after her victory?

The answer is lack of funding, which is what forced Patrick out of her ride.

There are plenty of women in the grandstands at racetracks. When Patrick was running up front in IndyCar on a regular basis, it garnered attention. She practically put GoDaddy.com on the map, especially when she got her IndyCar victory.

And there are plenty of products in this world that are meant for female consumers. There are plenty of up-and-coming female drivers in stock car racing, open-wheel racing and road racing. Why do these products not sponsor a female driver?

Those potential sponsors are missing the boat. Danica Patrick made plenty of young girls and women feel they could be successful and empowered. There are plenty of young female drivers at the grassroots level around the country with the potential to have just as much impact, such as 18-year-old Brittney Zamora, who won the 2017 Northwest Super Late Model Series championship. Sponsors need to wake up; those young women could be reaching their targeted demographic.

But not every form of racing is lacking female participants. The National Hot Rod Association (NHRA) has plenty of winning female racers.

Drag racing isn’t easy. It’s fast – it doesn’t take very long – but a racer’s reflexes have to be sharp, and they have to be able to take a lot of violent punishment in the cockpit as G-forces and vibrations are off the charts.

In a recent test, Leah Pritchett unofficially ran the fastest Top Fuel pass at NHRA Nitro Spring Training at Wild Horse Pass Motorsports Park, located outside of Phoenix, Arizona. She made a pass of 3.664 seconds at 334.73 mph. Current Top Fuel world champion Brittany Force ran second quickest with a 3.692-second pass at 327.43 mph. This is NHRA’s top division; women are well represented.

And it’s not just Top Fuel in which women are represented. Courtney Force is a star in the Funny Car division. In Pro Stock, Erica Enders often wins.

Hopefully soon sponsors will wake up and fund more women outside of drag racing. The talented racers are out there, just waiting to fill the void.

Veteran motorsports columnist Craig Murto is a Linden resident.