Women in Racing: in the establishment

{this is the second in a three part editorial series on Women in Racing here at F1B, which will cover the status of women in racing from the fan’s perspective, women in the racing establishment, and women in racing media, both as journalists and how the sport portrays women. See part one: the fan perspective here at F1B}

Frankly, before researching for this series I felt a bit hopeless about the status of women within the racing establishment. All too often one has to dig to find the presence of feminine authority in the racing community.

Perhaps this has something to do with the way these women seem to simply want to get things done and move forward as their males peers have done, or perhaps there is still a bit of sexism left in the more public faces of the sport. It certainly is easier to play to the traditional demographic by slowing the cameras down and panning over the grid girls than to dig into the quieter upper echelons of racing.

From within the establishment, one rarely hears women complaining that men treat them differently. Either they refuse to do so publicly or the racing establishment has the far more important chores of developing cars and winning races and championships to attend to instead of bothering to discriminate based on gender. There are plenty of other ways to knock one’s rivals down a peg, and winning seems to work far better.

Though women historically did not often see other women in positions of power or acclaim within the racing community, the situation is changing. There are racing drivers, though we’ve not had a woman F1 race starter in quite some time, there are team principals, there are crew and team members, and there are women hard at work in the semi-obscurity of the factories.

The FIA has even gotten on board, establishing both a Women in Motorsport Commission and a newly minted Auto+ Women in Motorsport newsletter with two whole editions released so far: July and August. T he FIA WMC announced the first WMC Ambassadors last June: Susie Wolff (a DTM driver and development driver for Williams), Maria de Villota (returning to health after her testing accident with Marussia), Monisha Kaltenborn (CEO of Sauber), Michèle Mouton (a former rally car driver and an Honorary Ambassador), and Katherine Legge (currently an occasional IndyCar driver).

Claire Williams is also in the mix in F1, recently taking over the Deputy Team Principal position at Williams and serving as the Williams family delegate whenever her father Sir Frank Williams, the team founder, does not attend races or meetings. She had previously been in various positions of power within Williams on the communications and investor fronts.

Neither Williams not Kaltenborn seem fussed by their status as singular women in the racing community. Williams said in an interview for the official F1 website, “as Formula One has always been a part of my life I have become so desensitized to that male-female cliché that I have never thought about it. I am working in a very male-dominated industry, so you don’t think about such things. I represent my team and it doesn’t make any difference to me that there is another woman in the room.”

Kaltenborn is equally unfocused on her gender in her own interview with the F1 site, “Professionally I’m sure gender plays no role. And as I’ve been around for such a long time, I don’t think I’ll be seen more in terms of a woman than a boss. People who are new to the scene might just do a double-take at first, but that will soon settle down.”

It all sounds quite rosy. It feels as through the racing community is on the cusp of an explosion of women within the establishment. Except, every time Wolff is mentioned it seems to be required that her husband, Toto Wolff, part owner of Williams and the executive director of Mercedes F1 also be mentioned (look: I did it too).

Meanwhile, the largest social media mention of Legge during the coverage of the Indianapolis 500 this May seemed to revolve around NCBSN’s F1 pit reporter Will Buxton chatting animatedly, as is his wont, with her in an interview for the network. Immediately, he was said to be flirting and speculation abounded about their individual and collective personal lives. No one seems ready to cause a stir when Buxton geeks out over meeting another driver or an actor on the F1 grid when that person is a man.

Legge has, however, developed a following in her current IndyCar stint, alongside other women drivers including Simona de Silvestro, Ana Beatriz, and Pippa Mann. They made the largest contingent of women drivers to start the Indianapolis 500 this year. Along with Sarah Fisher Hartman, a woman who drove in the series and now owns her own team, these women and others show the IndyCar establishment in an improving light for the equal advancement of women.

This could well be because of the longstanding presence of Mari Hulman George in the ownership and management of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. As the current chairman of IMS, which has been owned by her family’s Hulman & Company since 1945, Hulman George wields a considerable amount of power both at the circuit and symbolically within the IndyCar series. She inherited the chairmanship from her mother, who had done the same on the death of her husband (Mari’s father) in 1977, and is quite the dominant figure in the management of the Speedway.

Speaking of IndyCar, one cannot talk about women in racing and not mention Danica Patrick. She became the first woman to win an IndyCar race in 2008 and the first woman to win a NASCAR premier series pole this year at the Daytona 500. Patrick is also a controversial figure, to put things mildly. All too often the media focuses on her to the exclusion of other drivers with better records.

Simply put, Patrick drives ratings as well as race cars. Though she regularly contends that she wants to be seen as a driver first and a woman second, she also takes advantage of her situation as a woman driver to better her sponsorship opportunities.

As much as her actions belie her words, Patrick has benefited in this world of pay drivers and the need to bring at least sponsors to a team to win a drive in winning drives in top teams in both NASCAR and IndyCar. With drivers needing to have sponsors lined up before they even get in a car, any small difference could be the difference necessary to climb in and race instead of sitting in the garage or in front of a tv at home.

At the end of the day, women are becoming a more visible force in the racing community. They have moved beyond just trophy girlfriends and umbrella girls (though, alas, the latter still exist) to drivers, team principals, and valued crew and design staff on the teams. There is hope, especially as young girls see women working and driving alongside men during races. Those of us who are women may now continue to struggle for acceptance from outside and from certain elements within the racing community, but the establishment itself seems far more focused on winning than on the gender of the person who wins. This is just as it should be.

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