New initiative is giving female drivers a chance
Ashley Freiberg was signing away in a Star Mazda Championship autograph session at Barber Motorsports Park this spring when the question, innocent enough, but redundant, wafted from the crowd.
"Somebody asked me if I was the next Danica," Freiberg, 20, recalled of yet another Danica Patrick association. "And I said, 'No, I am the first Ashley.'
"And they said, 'Oh, you're the next Ashley Force?' ... Just because I'm a girl, you don't have to relate me to someone. To me a driver is a driver."
Not yet. Not to fans who still see female car drivers as oddities, to some obtuse competitors, to corporations that have yet to find value in leveraging females -- with the exception of Patrick and Force Hood, a retired NHRA star -- in national motorsports marketing campaigns.
And that's where Scott Painter sees an entry point. The founder and CEO of TrueCar.com, an entrepreneur, investor, auto industry blogger, father of a five-month-old named Indy -- "My wife tries to resist as much as possible the Indy reference only being car related," he confided -- has underwritten a marketing/sponsorship platform that could revolutionize opportunity for females in racing. Through the so-called "Women Empowered" initiative, Painter said his company has pledged more than $10-million to fully fund the racing seasons of six female drivers, including Freiberg, for two seasons.
"We're the 'Money Ball' of car racing," Painter said. "The return on investment of a woman winning a race is actually much bigger than even an A-list race car driver that's a man. A man wins a race, it's sort of a tree falling in the forest. We believe it's going to take a multi-year, long-term commitment to build enough support where women can win at the same level as men, but it's one of the few sports where they have an almost-equal physical chance of winning.
"If you look at the amount of money that is invested globally in male race car driver versus female race car drivers, women win a higher percentage of the time. It is fascinating."
And overdue, said Lyn St. James, a former sports car and open wheel driver who made seven starts in the Indianapolis 500.
"It demonstrates, I think, how companies could really step up and make a difference for them and women in the sport," she said. "There would be so many companies, be it a cosmetics company or a retail brand, I think, that could just make a huge splash not choosing models, but using real women."
The TrueCar initiative, while underscored by a desire to effect social change, is justified by a market Painter hopes to capture with his 4-year-old car-buying website. Painter asserts that 80 percent of all car purchases are made either directly by females or are influenced by them. TrueCar wants to serve that market by simplifying the buying process and, he said, that "women in car racing are very much in the same exact position as consumers who feel that they aren't empowered when they go in to buy a car.
"I think one of the most powerful things to me as the founder of the company is to be able to go to the race track and see fathers with daughters and not only are the girls excited and they feel as though they can identify, the fathers thank us for something they can really showcase with their daughters and not just their sons. It's not just a testosterone-driven environment, there seems to be a beautiful symmetry between the concept of a father helping his daughter buy her first car that I think is a big driver in this, and it works well."
Sponsorship dollars are scarce. Full-season deals are rare. Two-year deals are virtually non-existent, especially for drivers as inexperienced as many in the TrueCar group. And it doesn't matter that St. James considers them collectively "promising." Each of the drivers -- Freiberg, Shea Holbrook (Pirelli World Challenge),Katherine Legge (IndyCar), Shannon McIntosh (USF2000), Verena Mei (Rally America) and Emilee Tominovich (MX5 Cup) -- had scant full-time possibilities for this year otherwise. Each driver was given a sum to fund a competitive team in their respective series and told to shop for their best option, which landed several with teams that have won championships.
It was an expensive venture. A fully funded IndyCar program requires $6-7 million; Star Mazda, $450,000; MX5, $100,000; Rally America, $100,000.
There was no trepidation, Freiberg said, in joining a gender-specific sponsor initiative that could be fodder for skeptics and a source of jealousy for other qualified, unfunded peers.
"What works for me works for me, and maybe it won't work for you," she said. "One of the IndyCar drivers (Charlie Kimball) is diabetic, and if he gets a sponsor because he's diabetic [which he did], someone shouldn't be jealous about that. It's what the sponsors like, what they are looking for. If you don't have what that sponsor wants, then maybe another sponsor will like that part of your brand."
Shannon McIntosh understands the tricky balance of marketing and motorsports success so endemic to female drivers. Patrick is pilloried for the fact that her might as an endorser/influencer/curiosity has to this point surpassed her on-track accomplishments. As one of the most recognizable and influential spokespersons in sports, she likely will never be able to level the ledger, which is more a credit to her off-track efforts than an affront to her racing performance. The same could be said about NASCAR driver Dale Earnhardt Jr.
McIntosh, a midget car and USAC standout in her second year of a trying transition to open wheel, is comfortable in front of a camera as both subject or interviewer. One of five finalists for a 2011 cover of Seventeen magazine, dubbed one of Mashable.com's "Must -Follow Athletes on Social Media,'' and with TAG Heuer in her sponsor portfolio, she arguably has accomplished as much off-track by 22 as Patrick. And that worries her sometimes.
"I struggle with that, because it's kind of a double-edge sword," said McIntosh, who was eighth in USF 2000 points last season, lowest among full-timers. "You've got to do all of this marketing to further your career and get more money for next year, but you've got to be able to establish yourself in racing.
"Obviously, the results I didn't expect to be there right away. So it's really tough for me having always been competitive all my life until last year, and then getting all this national exposure when I haven't even been performing on the race track. … It's essential that I continue to learn and to keep coming up this curve as best I can because I don't want to be that person that is a celebrity before they're a race car driver."
McIntosh, now with Pabst Racing, has a best finish of 11th this season at St. Petersburg.
Verena Mei's Internet Movie Database filmography lists her as "Beautiful Girl in Skyline #1" in The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift, "Hooker" in Carolina and "Red Dragon Waitress" in Rush Hour 2.
Now she's auditioning as a rally driver.
A former actress and model -- her entry into motorsports was a Toyo tires model -- Mei's driving resume is lengthy. She has at various times held NHRA, rally, Formula Drift, and club licenses, trained at the Bondurant school and earned a stunt driving school diploma. Now she is undertaking her first campaign in Rally America, with an ultimate goal of RallyCross, the small-venue, big-rush iteration growing in popularity because of its inclusion in X Games.
Like many of her TrueCar teammates, Mei was recruited by former motorsports director Charles Kim. Like all of her teammates, she struggles with perceptions, but as a former model, she said there are additional prejudices.
"It was very hard for me to come from modeling and have people take me seriously," Mei said. "That was when I kind of had to put the blinders on and just focus. It was very difficult. Everything you hear is negative. "Why is she doing this? She sucks,' or whatever, and my answer to that was, 'I'm doing this because I love to.'"
Modeling anything but blue and white fire suits for TrueCar is not in his plan, Painter said. He said his team selection was "based on a deep understanding of the data about how they drive," before he saw their photographs.
"It was very clearly not about trying to be sexy," he said. "It is not our goal at all to position these girls as cute or sexy and that's why we're doing this, and it's not a stunt. It was about the numbers and the return and what it says about us as a company. We are really focused on empowerment, not exploitation."
Mei and co-driver Leanne Junnila earned their best finish of the season on May 9 when they placed first in the Factory B-Spec Class, fourth in the 2WD division and 10th overall at Oregon Trail Rally. Mei is 16th in total points with three national events remaining.
Emilee Tominovich was admittedly surprised when she learned on a conference call that she was being considered for the TrueCar program. At 19, and racing competitively only since October 2010, the Clarksville, Md., native had planned to race a few events with her family until something came along.
"All my other teammates had been working so hard to find a partnership like this and I got super lucky with the fact I've only been racing a year and a half and I got this opportunity," she said. "I was lucky and really surprised."
Now she's 11th in points after four races in the MX5 Series Cup.
Shea Holbrook had won multiple national water skiing championships by the time she was urged by her physician to undergo surgery to repair two discs herniated in a ramp jump. She declined. Surgery would be for her geriatric years, she said. Able to endure chronic pain, she could have skied right into a Central Florida sunset as a performer in the shows that once captivated tourists at places like Silver Springs.
But skiing lost its romance, if not its thrill, when Holbrooke accompanied her father to a Richard Petty Driving Experience session at Daytona International Speedway. She assumed her father was partaking in a midlife crisis by attempting to earn a racing license, but he actually was setting the scene for the next act of his 16-year-old's life.
"My dad got in a car and was on grid going out for his last session of the day, and it would determine whether he got his license or not," recalled Holbrook, now 21. "I looked at him and I was like, 'Why are you doing this?' and he didn't even give me a reason. And he said, 'Well, what do you think about it?' I said, 'Well, I want to do it if you're going to do it,' and he said, 'OK, just don't tell your mom until after Christmas.' "
Erin Holbrook finally consented and her daughter quickly transitioned to sports car, and endurance racing -- her ultimate goal is the 24 Hours of Le Mans -- and finally the Pirelli World Challenge. She enters her third season after finishing sixth in points in 2010 and eighth last year despite winning her first pro race at the Grand Prix of Long Beach.
"I understand why race car drivers are really nuts now," she said, "because once you win a pro race for the first time ... when I wake up in the morning, I think of that. We want that all the time."
With five top-5 finishes and a sixth-place points standing in the PWC touring car division, Holbrook is currently TrueCar's most successful driver.
Ashley Freiberg could be the next in line. But it's going to take a while.
For the first time since 2000, when St. James made her final start in the Indianapolis 500, no American female will start the premier open wheel race in North America. St. James, 65, has since become an advocate and mentor to other hopeful female drivers through her foundation and academy. Of her successors, Sarah Fisher has become a car owner and Patrick has left for a full-time NASCAR career.
Freiberg's potential, if cultivated, could one day put her on the Indianapolis 500 grid, St. James said. That her background is in road racing as IndyCar has moved away from an oval-dominated schedule makes her a more viable full-time driver prospect. As a Star Mazda driver, she is three rungs from IndyCar in the sport's "Road to Indy" development program.
Not bad for a would-be college student who never quite got around to it after she moved from suburban Chicago to Vermont, paid the bills working as a gardener, driving instructor and making coffees as she awaited the next opportunity.
Now down to one job, a driver in the Star Mazda Series, she's 11th in points with the help of a ninth-place finish in the season-opener at St. Petersburg.
The mother hen
Katherine Legge leads TrueCar in nicknames and by example.
"Mother hen" (in a good way).
At 31, the British IndyCar driver is the similarly attired embodiment of what each of her teammates wishes to attain, even if open wheel racing is not their ultimate goal. She is a big-leaguer, a winner -- becoming the first female to win a professional North American open wheel race in the developmental Atlantics series in 2005 – and, after losing her Champ Car ride in 2007 and slogging through three seasons in the German DTM sports car circuit, a fighter.
"Katherine is damned good," said Dragon Racing teammate Sebastien Bourdais, a four-time Champ Car titlist. "She can turn a wheel."
She fielded "next Danica" questions when it wasn't even cliché yet, and although she admits she didn't always handle it well, she has returned to North American open wheel racing, she says "more mature physically and mentally."
The mental toughness has been tested as her team labored with their balky Lotus engines until finally suing the British company for negligence and successfully lobbying IndyCar to switch to Chevrolets beginning with the Indianapolis 500. She'll make her first start in the race this season.
"I don't know if you'd call it stupidity, but I've chased this dream my whole life, and it's like there is nothing outside of that dream," she said. "So even last year when I came back and I was looking for sponsorship, I was talking to people, it wasn't an option not to make it happen. I had to find a way to make it happen.
"Believe you me, I've worked harder than most people believe, or know, to make it happen."
And now she, like her five teammates, has been empowered. The next step is theirs.