Women in Racing: the fan perspective

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{this is the first 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}

I am a race fan. I am a race blogger (perhaps you’ve seen all the F1B race and qualifying recaps? the Prime & Option week in review series?). I do not remember not liking racing, though my interest in its two and four wheeled forms has ebbed and flowed over the years. My dad got me interested, and family lore says I used to “ride” the arm of our couch while watching MotoGP, aping the outstretched knees and lean angles of the riders. My attendance at the inaugural Indianapolis MotoGP race in 2008 will always remain in my mind as filled with the wafting scent of oil from the 125s and 250s, carried through damp, rain-leaden air and withstanding remnants of a hurricane at the Turn 1 catch fence.

I am twenty-nine years old this month, and the first image from F1 that truly sticks in my mind as a clear photograph is of Michael Schumacher’s red Ferrari sweeping along the stone-walled harbor at Monaco in 1998 (it was clear, so my metal image could not come from his first two races there for Ferrari in 1996 or 1997).

Though he would manage only a lonely tenth in that race, the cameras still focused on Schumacher and the combination of Ferrari red, grey stone, glittering white yacht, and the blue of the harbor remains etched in my mind in ways other fleeting images of dicing meld into one another. My earlier F1 memories have faded, especially with our lack of a broadcast source for the series.

It all sounds fairly typical, no? Nearly every race fan has some such similar story to tell. “Dad took me to the track, and I fell in love with the excitement.” “The smells of gasoline and burning rubber and oil conjure first freedoms and wonderful memories.” “The drivers seemed so cool and their cars so sexy.”

I am a race fan. I am also a woman. By virtue of the latter, I seemed forced to prove the former every time I speak with a fellow race fan at the track, online, mention my blogging hobby. I am not suggesting that every single female race fan is forced to prove that she’s at the track or watching at home by her own choice and for her own love of the sport to every other race fan.

I am, however, suggesting that we as race fans collectively need to discuss this disconnect between our fellow race fans. Being a race fan is becoming a citizen of a glorious global community, one with its own language and shorthand, one where shared feelings often need no explanation in conversations with other fans. We all get it, we’ve all felt it, it is a fabulous synergy.

Why is it, then, that women race fans tend to be immediately viewed with suspicion that we are just at the track to drool over the drivers, that we don’t know the trivia, that we are only there because some father/boyfriend/man made us go? It is as though women must first pass a citizenship test before our entry into the community.

Alicia Prevost, a twenty-eight year old Canadian sportscar, IndyCar, and F1 fan, explains, “From a pure fan stand point, most male race fans I’ve spoken to seem to be more than accepting to have women cheering along with them. They’re welcoming as a whole…I just think it’s a shame that I always need to prove I know my stuff, instead of it just being assumed that I do. Men don’t have to deal with it and neither should women.”

She continued, noting that some fellow fans “seem to look at my chest, and my Dempsey Racing t shirt (or my Dario [Franchitti] hat as the case may be) and assume I must only be there to drool over the men.”

Prevost shared a most recent example, that while relaxing near the garages at the Grand-Am race at Mosport “a guy walked by, offered to take our picture with Patrick [Dempsey, a Grand-Am and Le Mans driver, team owner, and actor]. I said I had plenty, and we were just relaxing and without warning he said ‘Oh yeah, I see the puddles of drool’ and walked away before I could respond.”

Her postscript is most telling: “I wish he hadn’t left, I would have loved to own him at race trivia.”

In contract to Prevost’s attitude, Alex Loucel, a twenty-four year old from Austin, Texas, sometimes feels the need to hide her knowledge of racing trivia in order to stay out of arguments when interacting with her fellow race fans, “I struck up a conversation with two older gentlemen at the MotoGP race in Austin earlier this year as we were waiting in the autograph line…They asked me if I was a fan because I thought a particular racer was cute or because he was one of the more popular ones.”

Loucel continued, “I had to pull out the facts and statistics of why I preferred some over others. I had to keep correcting them over who was on what team and certain racers’ history…Long story short, I had to keep proving my race knowledge to them through our conversation and even hold back at some points just so they would speak to me as another fellow fan.”

Loucel follows MotoGP carefully and attended the inaugural Formula 1 Grand Prix at the Circuit of the Americas last season. “The stereotype comes that we can’t respect the racers or drivers for their craft but instead [are fans only of] who is the most physically attractive or who it is that we are told to like by our male counterparts. We have to have a full knowledge of facts and statistics in order to prove why we are fans,” she told me in an email.

Loucel continued, “but when the helmets, gloves, and leathers or fire proofs go on, you can’t see looks.” What does it matter if a driver or rider is attractive? We just want to watch them race.

Both women, and I, are quick to point out that these citizenship tests of sorts rarely devolve into rude behavior, that they do not come from all race fans, and they are generally subtle. The insidiousness is key, though. At every race track, every event, every woman has to prove herself to another race fan. Even if she only has to do so one time at each event she attends, it is still one time too many.

Civility and decorum are key here at Formula1Blog, and I have never felt the need to prove myself to our readers or the rest of the F1B staff. That sort of welcoming attitude is not, however, displayed so often at the track. There is a sort of armor women fans are forced to develop, one a bit tougher than in everyday life. We carry it around the track with our cameras and team hats, forced to be prepared to enter a trivia game at a moment’s notice. We are forced to prove our right to be there, not necessarily by you, but by other fans that should be prepared to accept our fitness as race fans at face value.

Being a race fan is becoming a citizen in a global community, one which like many countries talks often and loudly about its welcoming nature. All too often, fellow citizens subtly tell new or even long standing members that they are not actually all that welcome without a citizenship test. It is time to let go of that thought process and remind ourselves that self declaration as a race fan is passport enough.

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