Secret Diary of a Female Petrolhead: the Swimsuit Edition
One day whilst sat at the side of the racetrack, I asked a fellow motorsport aficionado why there were so few women racing drivers. Actually, I’d sort of thought that maybe the female competitors had their own events like women’s 100m or women’s football, which involved precisely the same conditions and effort, but with added frills on their flame-proof suits. This lasted until the first multi-car pile-up, and I noticed that one of the cars freshly turned into car-putty had a woman’s name emblazoned on the bodywork.
So, if women compete in the same events as men – and why not, given that it is just as much about the cars as it is about the drivers – why are there so few women racing drivers? After all, there’s an entire association out there promoting women in motorsport with handy lists of everything you’ll need to buy to get started, and it’s not like lack of body mass would be a disadvantage in what is essentially a test of lightness and speed. OK, at the top ends you’re going to need some neck muscles to prevent you being spontaneously decapitated by your own car as you hit maximum G, but no more so than a female bodybuilder needs to achieve, surely. So why the lack?
To the internet! The wonders of googling “female racing drivers” yielded this pertinent thread where I didn’t learn much other than the names of four female drivers in the history of the entire sport. Thanks, guys, that totally answers my question.
Anyway, I decided to do a little more research. How do you become a racing driver? Surely you can’t just turn up outside Ferrari’s headquarters and demand to join their team? (Why hasn’t anyone tried this?) Silverstone’s driver testimonials are unsurprisingly all by men. They do have one thing in common, though: they all started young. The official site for the Ginetta Challenge, one of the many races I’d watched that day, has a helpful flowchart showing what it takes to get to the top of the league, as well as a price list. The Independent interviewed a young Porsche driver and explained the top wage (£60k) and the likely costs (thousands of pounds if you don’t get sponsorship).
So, to summarise: this is a sport where you have to start investing hundreds, if not thousands, of pounds into a pre-teen child, shepherding them along and making them practise every waking hour until, in their mid-teens, they get signed up to a racing team that then commandeers their careers until they’re 35, at which point they’re expected to retire.
This is all well and good, and we can assume that no families on income support are ever going to produce the next Monaco GP winner. However, there is more to it than that. Starting that young, a child has to show a pretty strong preference for the sport, and the parents have to be supportive/pushy enough (delete as appropriate) to pour their savings into karting and rallying and fire extinguishers. They have to want it just as much as the child.
So there you are, eight years old, going up to mummy and daddy and saying, “I want to be a racing driver! Will you sign my permission slip?” And mummy and daddy look down on their precious little one and say, “Why don’t we buy you a new dolly instead?”
Maybe that’s not what happens to every little girl. Some undoubtedly come from racing families, and just as much effort is poured into their motorsport careers as would have been done for a male child. In some circles, with the right family emphasis, girls in motorsport can flourish. I’m guessing that this is about the same ratio as male ballet dancers.
To answer my own question, there are female racing drivers. Sabine Schmitz is queen of the Nurburgring. Danica Patrick rocks IndyCar and NASCAR. Amanda Whitaker won the National Formula Ford Championship. Wiki has a list of five – five! A veritable cornucopia of choice! – Formula 1 female drivers, including Desiré Wilson, the only female F1 driver to actually win anything in Formula 1. You can see an entire bevy of them in this poll listing the “10 Sexiest Women in Motoring and Motorsport“. Now not only am I armed with names, I also have cup-sizes. MY QUEST IS COMPLETE, GUYS.
I will leave you with the baffling sight of Top Gear – not precisely the bastion of political correctness – pointing out that this is insulting and patronising in the extreme:
Actually, I think it starts a lot earlier than that, but the sex kitten perception is unlikely to encourage any parent to finance his or her daughter’s racing dream.
My point is this: it takes a pretty determined kind of little girl to decide that she wants to go into motorsport when the whole world is insisting that she should be playing dress-up. And it takes a pretty supportive kind of family to encourage her, rather than simply buy her something frilly to shut her up. Maybe the tide is turning. Maybe the little girl with the need to go faster faster faster only needs to ask. But if it’s not turning fast enough, we will have an entire generation of little girls with no female motoring heroes to look to.
And I can promise you that no one ever tried to talk Jenson Button or Lewis Hamilton into playing with their dollies.