Danica spurs women to try racing

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Danica Patrick said she now recognizes that it's an honor to have so many female fans looking up to her.

It is Friday night at Charlotte Motor Speedway and Danica Patrick is making her way to the starting grid the way she always does, with punctuated speed. All athletes who reach the top level of their sport learn quickly that they must stay in perpetual motion. The more famous, the more speed they must carry. Smile, speak, sign autographs, but do it all on the move, lest you never arrive at your destination.

Patrick is seemingly always surrounded. On days like this, the impact she's had at big tracks is obvious. The less visible -- but perhaps more important -- effect of Patrick's popularity can be seen at smaller tracks and in youth racing. Girls and young women have a bigger presence than ever at the grassroots level, with much of that attributed to Patrick's popularity.

The crowd is particularly large on this night, despite its being merely a race-in event for the next night's NASCAR All-Star Race. Tonight, though, there is a buzz around Patrick. She is just six days removed from a seventh-place run at Kansas Speedway, the best finish of her two-year Sprint Cup career. Still, she can't help but pause, as she almost always does, when she hears one particular sound: the voices of little girls.

There are two, both around 9 years old and dressed in matching pink GoDaddy.com T-shirts. "Danica! Danica!"

She can't stop. There's no time. But she does slow down to turn and wave. "Hey, girls!" she shouted. "Nice shirts!" The girls squeal, they high-five and Patrick disappears toward pit road.

When Carl Edwards' daughter turned 3, she said what she wanted was to meet Danica Patrick. Same for Jimmie Johnson's daughter. When Jeff Gordon qualified on the outside front row for the 2013 Daytona 500, Patrick was the pole-sitter. As they accepted congratulations in Victory Lane, Gordon's daughter Ella, then 5 years old, tugged on her father's fire suit and asked if she could have her picture taken -- with Danica.

What began as a bit of an annoyance for Patrick as a 20-something Indy 500 sensation has become an enjoyment during this second career stanza as a 32-year-old full-time stock car racer.

"I'm getting a little bit older now and recognizing what an honor it is to be in that position, to be looked up to," she had explained earlier that same day. "It's a responsibility to have them cheer for me, or even more, if they want to grow up to be like me."

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Kenzie Ruston, who competes in NASCAR's K&N Pro East, is one of the few graduates of NASCAR's Drive For Diversity program who has a regular ride.

It's not just Danica, either. Similar scenes and stories unfold wherever women are racing at the highest levels. On Sunday afternoon, Pippa Mann qualified for her third Indianapolis 500, chased throughout the Indianapolis Motor Speedway by girls with die-cast versions of her pink Susan G. Komen Foundation Dallara. Nearly 600 miles to the south, at the Atlanta Dragway, Alexis DeJoria raced as the top qualifier in the NHRA's Top Fuel division while Erica Enders-Stevens did the same in Pro Stock. Their autograph lines were beaten only by those of the Force sisters, Courtney and Brittany.

There is no doubt that the army of little girls that surround each of them want to be like their racing heroes. But is it happening? Are they working toward that goal? More important, are they being given the opportunities to do so? What exactly has been the effect of Danica and her kindred racing spirits on the present and future of women behind the wheel?

"I don't think there's any question about it," a South Carolina short track owner/operator said via telephone this week. "I can't give you hard numbers, but I know what I see. The eyeball test and the entry lists for our weekend shows proves it."

That's a common refrain among those throughout the racing community. Multiple sales outlets of entry-level karts, quarter midgets and Legends/Bandalero machines all claim that more families are shopping for racing equipment for their daughters, but none is willing to produce sales data.

The NASCAR licensing process doesn't require that the applicant self-identify gender or race, so there isn't the data to track a marked increase in female participation. However, the sanctioning body also cites anecdotal evidence, pointing toward an increase in applications to its Drive For Diversity program (D4D), and a shift in the quality of applications. They aren't just hoping to be a race car driver, they have already been doing it. NASCAR also points to D4D graduates who are currently racing in NASCAR Touring and Regional Series, including Kenzie Ruston and MacKena Bell, both of whom race in NASCAR's K&N Pro East (think Double-A baseball), and Annabeth Barnes, who runs one rung lower, but on some of the sport's classic old Carolina tracks in the Whelen All-American Late Model Series.

"I've been doing this a long time and I've never seen women and girls like I've seen now," NASCAR Nationwide Series champion-turned-short track safety advocate Randy LaJoie said earlier this year. As part of his Safer Racer program, he visits dozens of lower-level tracks and divisions throughout the year. "And we get calls from parents wanting to purchase our Joie of Seating youth racing seats that are asking questions about not just their sons, but their daughters, too."

When you put your helmet on, if you perform, then man or woman doesn't matter. You know, there's no reason why we can't compete at this level. We just need to be given a chance and then, when we are given that chance, we need to win.
Erica Enders-Stevens

Despite all the evidence of a flood of female interest at the grassroots level, those numbers have yet to trickle up the racing ladder. Ruston, Bell and Barnes are just three of the 17 women to have participated in the D4D program since it was created in 2007. One, Sarah Fisher, came over from IndyCar and is currently a team owner in that series. But the other 13 are either struggling for rides or out of the sport completely.

Aside from Patrick, there are no women racing full-time in NASCAR's top three national series. In 2007, three women were in the Indy 500 starting field. One year ago there were a record four. This year that count has dropped to one. The best of that quartet, Simona de Silvestro, is in Europe as an "affiliated driver" (test/development driver) with the Sauber Formula One team.

So, where is the logjam?

"I think the last hurdle is still right there at the top, with sponsors and car owners, at the gateways to the top series," said Lyn St. James, a former racer who made seven Indianapolis 500 starts. Since 1994 she has championed the cause of helping young female racers achieve their dreams, first by starting a driver development academy and now through the Women's Sports Foundation's Project Podium scholarship fund. Among her former pupils is Danica Patrick. "The corporation executive who ultimately has to make the decision to sponsor a female driver, or the team owner who has to decide to put her in his equipment.

"And I think that with a lot of those decision-makers, the problem is instinctual. There is still a lot of built-in paternal need to protect a woman. To not put her in danger. They might not even know they're doing it. But if she has made the decision to want to do this, then hopefully they can make the decision to support it."

OK, so then how does the racer go about convincing those gatekeepers to buy in?

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"Oh, that's the easiest answer of them all," St. James said. "They have to win races."

That's how St. James got to Indianapolis, winning the 12 Hours of Sebring and 24 Hours of Daytona sports car events. Patrick's 2008 victory at Motegi, Japan, ultimately greased the rails for her move from IndyCar to NASCAR. And the most female-packed paddock of them all became that way because of the winner who came before them.

"Women having success is nothing new here in drag racing," explained John Force, a 16-time NHRA Funny Car champion who has competed with and lost to two of his own daughters, Ashley and Courtney. "What year did Shirley Muldowney win her first championship? Because I know for a fact that the following year this place was packed with women holding helmets."

It was in 1977 that Muldowney won the first of her three national titles. This year alone there are eight women racing across the NHRA's top four national divisions. The next to win at the end of a weekend will have earned the 100th series victory for a female driver.

"When you put your helmet on, if you perform, then man or woman doesn't matter," said Enders-Stevens, who leads the Pro Stock Division standings. "You know, there's no reason why we can't compete at this level. We just need to be given a chance and then, when we are given that chance, we need to win."

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