Opinion: for motorsport gender equality, look at drag racing
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New motor racing series have rarely provoked as much discussion as the female-only W Series that will run on the support programme at six rounds of the DTM Series in Europe from May-Augustnext year.
There’s roughly equal parts support and criticism for the concept with valid points argued on both sides.
If the racing is competitive and the driving standards are high, I’ll be taking an interest in W Series and look forward to watching its successful drivers advance to other categories above the Formula 3 performance level being offered by W Series.
One question mark hangs over the W Series and it isn’t gender-related. Just the cautionary mention that single-seater categories launched with great fanfare and based on a unique selling point — such as the nations format of A1GP, the football club-based Superleague Formula and the GP Masters series for retired F1 drivers — haven’t exactly enjoyed longevity.
I’ve also found it interesting that, for many commentators, it’s the process of racing through the ranks of single-seaters and reaching Formula 1 that is considered the yardstick of success or failure in motorsport.
I think it’s worth widening the scope of motorsport and looking at series where women already achieve success. Top-level GT racing for example where Denmark’s Christina Nielsen is a back-to-back (2016 and 2017) IMSA WeatherTech Sports Car Championship GT Daytona champ and the same series saw Katherine Legge finish runner-up this year.
In recent weeks, Flick Haigh has been crowned British GT champion and motorcycle racing now has its first female world champion with Spain’s Ana Carrasco clinching the World SuperSport 300 title.
Widen the terms of motorsport reference even further and drag racing leads the way for gender-neutral competition.
A 10,000-horsepower nitro-burning Top Fuel dragster is the pinnacle of extreme motorsport performance. They are the fastest racing cars on the planet and accelerate from 0-500km/h in under 3.7secs.
A unique situation exists in Top Fuel racing at the moment. For at least another week or so (until the 2018 title is decided) the reigning NHRA Top Fuel champion is Brittany Force. Australia’s 400 Thunder Top Fuel title was won earlier this year by rookie sensation Kelly Bettes. And a milestone “Queen of Speed” triple crown was completed in September when Finland’s Anita Makela clinched her third FIA European Top Fuel title.
It’s the first time all three global regions of modern Top Fuel dragster competition have had female champions at the same time. Also, in the main category for front-engine nostalgia Top Fuel cars the newly crowned world champion is Mendy Fry.
It’s not just the champions. There are a significant number of winning female Top Fuel, Funny Car, Pro Stock Car and Pro Stock Motorcycle racers in professional drag racing classes and other categories including Top Alcohol Dragster and Top Alcohol Funny Car.
In many discussions about women in motorsport the name Lella Lombardi becomes part of the conversation. In 1975 the Italian racer became the first — and she remains the only — woman to gain a points finish in a F1 World Championship race. There hasn’t been another woman start an F1 race since the last of Lombardi’s 12 appearances in 1976.
The time scale is almost identical since Shirley Muldowney became the first woman to win an NHRA Top Fuel national event in 1976 and went on to win three championships. Just over 40 years later Top Fuel racing can’t boast a major series male champion anywhere in the world.
If the W Series can get careers started for more female racing drivers, it’s a great thing. But there’s much more to motorsport than a single-seater ladder and Formula 1 ambitions and some spotlight is deserved for the equal opportunity competition that already exists at the elite level of drag racing.