Ashley Parlett aspires to be crew chief
ROSSBURG, Ohio -- Ashley Parlett wants to be the one. But it probably won't be anytime soon, she said.
So the former stock car driver-turned-mechanic-turned-brake specialist-turned-car chief hones her skills in NASCAR's developmental K&N Pro Series East, hoping that effort and desire overcome her admitted shortcoming -- the lack of an engineering degree -- as she attempts to become a full-time NASCAR crew chief.
"That's obviously what I'm working for, but I've also been doing this for 10 years, and I think I'm a few years out from having that opportunity just based on my knowledge," said Parlett, who is assisting on Kyle Larson's truck team for Turner Scott Motorsports at Eldora Speedway this week.
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"I think the focus is on it more now than ever because I think there are women that are [working in racing], but I also don't think it'll be next season. I'm in the garage, and I don't see a whole lot of other females working in that direction."
Women in increasing numbers are driving NASCAR as a business, as a competitive endeavor as engineers and officials and in a literal sense as racers, but they have yet to take command of the pit box. The highest, most pressurized rung on the leadership ladder remains a male bastion.
Aspiring crew chiefs typically work their way up from mechanics to various specialties to car chief, who is in charge of the daily construction and preparation of the car.
Parlett, 30, headed in that direction when her career as a driver peaked with two starts in the grassroots ARCA series in 2006. Though admittedly regretful she did not attain an engineering degree, which she thinks is the more sound path to the pit box in the modern, data-driven NASCAR, she became a mechanic, and, in 2007, a car chief for a then-struggling Nationwide Series team. That put her one step from becoming the first female to run a Sprint Cup, Nationwide or Trucks team full-time in NASCAR's modern era.
Parlett said she "felt like I was close in that situation" at RAB Racing, and it was "absolutely a possibility" she might have earned a shot as a crew chief on the understaffed team. If the opportunity had come, however, she said she wouldn't have been ready yet.
Parlett quit midway through the 2010 season, she said, frustrated by the team's digression into a start-and-park operation, where cars retire early from races to earn purse money but before damaging or putting wear on costly equipment.
After working as a brake specialist at a vendor and a social media producer at Speed TV, she was hired by Turner Scott Motorsports, which also fields teams in the Nationwide Series. Young by crew chief standards, she theoretically has plenty of time to attain her goal. She is unaware of any female being groomed for the job.
"We would almost have to see her coming," Parlett said. "I don't think she can be off crew chiefing a weekend series and all of a sudden pop up on the grid like a driver can. I think you would have to see her in the sport, in the garage working her way up the ladder because so much is shop-relative. All these crew chiefs are guys who have been in the garage for 15 years, been mechanics and car chiefs and then got the opportunity to crew chief."
Women making inroads
Although females have not reached parity in terms of the number of positions held within racing in general and in NASCAR specifically, women permeate the sport from boardrooms to inspection lines.
Lesa France Kennedy directs the colossal International Speedway Corporation that owns Daytona International Speedway and several other tracks that host NASCAR and other motorsports events. Mari Hulman George is the chairman of Indianapolis Motor Speedway, site of the Indianapolis 500 and the Sprint Cup event this weekend. Kelley Earnhardt Miller is president of JR Motorsports and mother of a little girl who aspires to be a driver like her uncle, Dale Jr.
As NASCAR Sprint Cup program manager for Chevrolet, Alba Colon oversees the efforts of the most successful manufacturer in NASCAR history. A younger generation of female engineers have followed her into the sport on various teams, and women are gradually filling jobs as mechanics and NASCAR inspectors.
Females have made inroads in NASCAR behind the wheel since Janet Guthrie became the first woman to race on a superspeedway, continuing with Danica Patrick this year undertaking the first full season by a female in the series' history.
In 2011, Leena Gade became the first female race engineer -- the equivalent of crew chief -- to win the 24 Hours of Le Mans and repeated with Audi last year. Formula One has two female team bosses.
But NASCAR, and for that matter IndyCar and the NHRA, remains behind.
"That is something I would like to see, a female crew chief," Colon said. "I would really like that. Being a driver is not the only opportunity."
According to NASCAR research, Nadine Poor was a mechanic, crewman and crew chief for her husband, Bill, in the Convertible Series in the late 1950s, making her the only woman to hold the job full-time.
Cindy Woosley became the first female to be credited as crew chief in a modern-era top-three series NASCAR race when on March 1, 2008, the mechanic and fabricator at JD Motorsports replaced Gene Allnut -- who had been suspended for rules violations -- in the Nationwide Series race at Las Vegas.
It was a compelling story, but her new responsibility, owner Johnny Davis said, was purely nominal. Davis couldn't list himself as crew chief during the suspension process and had so few employees that Woosley became the de facto team leader.
"That was kind of a fluke," Davis said. "She didn't do anything. She didn't call no shots or nothing. I was up on the pit box with her. I was calling the shots.''
Woosley largely spurned interviews, and after three races, Allnut returned.
Veteran NASCAR crew chief Tony Gibson, who runs Patrick's program at Stewart-Haas Racing, surmises there will be a female crew chief in a modern top-three series but agrees with Parlett that "it could be next year, it could be 10 years."
"We do some stuff at the NASCAR Institute and every time we go in there there's four or five females going through the mechanical racing body work, or mechanical ... something," he said. "One of those females will eventually stand out enough to be placed in our sport. Whether you are a female or male doesn't matter. If you're smart, you can do it. Hopefully, that happens one day. It would be great for our sport."
Tina Miller, director of communications for Universal Technical Institute, which administers the program Gibson referred to, said females have comprised between 3 percent and 5 percent of overall student enrollment consistently for at least five years. Although just 2 percent are in the "NASCAR Tech" regimen, "female students tend to excel faster and go further in their careers,'' Miller said.
"It could be due to the fact that they have to work harder to prove themselves because they are in a nontraditional training program that is dominated by men, but it's also because they are attentive, good listeners and motivated to succeed."
According to John Dodson, Community/NASCAR team relations director for NASCAR Technical Institute, the program has seeded females at high-profile positions within the NASCAR Research and Development Center and Roush Yates Racing.
Publicity stunt? No, thanks
Davis, who still runs his team just out of NASCAR's Charlotte-area orbit in Gaffney, S.C., holds two NASCAR records, having utilized the oldest driver -- James Hylton, at age 76 in 2011 -- and the only female crew chief in a modern top-three series NASCAR event. He would cherish both feats considerably more if they could be parlayed into sponsorship for his two cars in the Nationwide Series.
"If it would get a lot of publicity, I would hire [another female crew chief] next week, and we'll train her because we need all the publicity we could get," he said.
Turns out, he tried. Davis approached Parlett this week about sitting atop the box for the Nationwide race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. She refused. If she gets there, she said, she won't be taking her cues from someone sitting next to her.
"It is a publicity stunt," she said. "There's so much of that that goes on with females in racing that I didn't take it as an insult because I expect that crap. But just for what I stand for, I do this because I love what I do, not because I want to be the first female anything in a man's world. I really hate that persona. I would never consider doing that because I do want to call the shots and I would hate that it just be a stunt. Good for whoever is willing to do that, but it's not for me."