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Thompson in Turn 5: A Successful Female NASCAR Driver Would Be… Oprah-Like

I would love to have a financial stake in the first woman driver in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series that performs at the high level of skill that IRL driver Danica Patrick does. There is no secret that the nation’s top automobile racing series is sponsor driven, and a successful female driver would have a host of new companies never before on the racing scene clamoring for her endorsement of their products. I can see it now: multiple companies, all attempting to outbid one another to have their brand name adorning her firesuit and the hood of her car. Quite simply, a winning female driver in NASCAR – particularly one with a winning personality as well – could become the biggest income earner on the American sports scene.

And owners know this to be true, as well. Here’s the problem: they just can’t find one. There has never been a legitimate candidate to fill such a role. Really, the closest NASCAR has ever come to having a star female driver on and off the track was the talented Janet Guthrie, who competed in NASCAR sporadically from 1976-1980. During Guthrie’s 33-race career, she recorded five top-10 finishes in second-tier equipment.

Guthrie never really captured the hearts of NASCAR fans of that era. Perhaps due to her fair-to-middling race results, but I have always believed that she was a victim of the times more than anything. NASCAR fans of the 1970s, conservative politically by nature, were not real keen on their sport becoming a centerpiece for the growing women’s movement that was coming to the forefront of social reform issues in the United States. Guthrie herself has spoken of the difficult time she received from not only outside the sport, but also from within. She has described how many drivers made their feelings obvious that they did not welcome her on-track participation, and at times showed their dislike of her presence during competitions.

However, things have changed. Patrick, winner of last weekend’s race at the Indy Japan 300 at Twin Ring Motegi has demonstrated that the nation is not only more tolerable of women in racing, but are willing to embrace a highly competent female driver. In 2005, Patrick became the “story” of the year in sports by qualifying fourth for the Indy 500 and then becoming the first female driver to lead the race, once the most popular American motorsports event before being supplanted by NASCAR’s Daytona 500. But not in 2005! Viewers with no previous interest in auto racing tuned into the race broadcast by the millions, and followed the newest media darling in what became know as “Danica Mania.”

GRADY: GIVING DANICA PATRICK HER DUE… AND NOTHING MORE

There is no doubt that the first driver of the feminine persuasion that equals or betters Patrick’s Indy exploits at the Daytona 500 extravaganza will exceed even the hype that has surrounded Patrick. The excessive media attention that will be sure to follow will be much to tantalizing to corporate America, and the team owner fortunate enough to have the driver under contract will be fielding sponsorship offers in dollar amounts heretofore unheard of in stock car racing. And offers from corporate America from companies not normally interested in spending their advertising dollars in the male-dominated sport. As an example, Guthrie had Kelly Services Inc. as a primary sponsor of her NASCAR venture at one time. Yes, that is correct: “Kelly Girls.” The list of potential sponsors who target female consumers that would like to hitch their wagon to an ultra-competitive lady driver would be long and eye-poppingly profitable.

And then, of course, there will be the lucrative personal endorsement deals. Potentially, they’re large enough to make even commercially successful Dale Earnhardt Jr. appear to be a second-rate Coney Island barker.

A Danica-like hype in the country’s most popular racing series would exceed the popularity that Patrick has enjoyed many times over. Whereas the IRL finds itself woefully behind the Sprint Cup Series in recognition and popularity, only having one race, the Indianapolis 500, that captures any measurable media interest, NASCAR has 38 big-time events a year. For instance, consider the media coverage that a woman would receive if she were to win, battle for the win or finish high in the event at Talladega this coming weekend; is it not safe to assume that it would receive considerably more media attention than Patrick’s win in Japan did?

So where will NASCAR’s version of Danica Patrick come from? I have no idea, and do not see one on the horizon. The fact is, Danica is one in a million… and a million to one is probably the odds of there being a winning female driver in the sport. The field of female drivers to choose from and develop just is not that large. It is doubtful that such a person would come from the local stock car racing ranks, as there are few female drivers that even participate regularly and competitive in the higher divisions at the local level.

Ray Evernham probably had the best idea at attempting to uncover a potential girl-star when he plucked Erin Crocker out of the sprint car ranks after she had managed to win a World of Outlaws race and had pretty good success manhandling the high-powered dirt-track machines, known to be physically challenging at the local level. Seemed like a smart move, as former sprint car drivers have enjoyed a lot of success the last few years in NASCAR. Crocker has not delivered, although Evernham and Crocker have become good buddies, and she has had some success in ARCA. Though in equipment considered superior to most in the field, she has never finished in the top 10 in her combined 39 starts in the Nationwide and Craftsman Truck divisions.

Likewise, NASCAR Sprint Cup team owner Richard Childress provided help to Sarah Fisher, the first women to qualify on the pole for an IRL-type open-wheel car and youngest women, at 19-years old to start the Indianapolis 500. Like Crocker, the Ohio native, who had success in midget and sprint car racing, never seemed to be able to excel in the heavier stock cars. Though she did win Rookie of the Year honors in 2005 with some good runs in the NASCAR Grand National Division, West Series, Fisher has returned to the IRL.

NASCAR is tough! The cars are difficult to drive and they are physically demanding. Yet I do not believe they are beyond the capabilities of a women to drive competitively. It is just a matter of finding the balance that one can from a small field of potential candidates. But when that lady does arrive, look out… she will receive Oprah-like fame and fortune.

And that’s my view from turn 5.

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