Erin Crocker, with her focus...
Erin Crocker, with her focus now on NASCAR, has raced since age 7. She became the first woman to win a World of Outlaws race when she won at Thunderbowl Raceway in Tulare, California, on October 29, 2004. Photo by Sam Sharpe
In 1946, three years before he started NASCAR, Bill France Sr. needed a novelty driver to promote a race at the Greenville-Pickens Speedway in Greenville, South Carolina.
Louise Smith had never been to the racetrack or driven a race car, but her credentials were highly regarded in the Greenville community. She was rumored to have "outrun every lawman and highway patrol" in the area. They labeled her "crazy."
Smith's fearless and aggressive style of driving earned her a Third-Place finish that day in 1946. Although Smith was only chosen as a publicity stunt for one race, she made a name for herself in the racing world by recording 38 minor-league victories over an 11-year span. Along with those wins came broken bones and one horrendous crash that left her with 48 stitches and four pins in her knee. In 1999, Smith was inducted into the International Motorsports Hall of Fame.
Sixty years later, female drivers continue to make small strides to earn recognition and respect on the track. Allison Duncan, Sarah Fisher, and Erin Crocker, three popular female drivers in NASCAR's development program, share many common attributes. They each have a strong work ethic and a desire to be a competitive Cup driver, but they also have possibly the most needed trait for women in motorsports-patience.
It was a trait that served Janet Guthrie well during her career, as she moved into areas women had never been. Guthrie became the first woman to compete in the Indianapolis 500 and the Daytona 500. She holds the title of being the only woman to lead a Cup race, and her Sixth-Place finish at Bristol Motor Speedway in 1977 remains a record for a female driver in NASCAR. In addition to her accomplishments in NASCAR, she also achieved many "firsts" in the IRL series.
Two years after her last competition in 1988, Guthrie said, "The thing women don't have that men do have is money. Without money, the best race driver in the world is nothing."
The exceptional aspect about the sport of racing is, once a driver gets a ride, it's a playing field in which both male and female drivers can compete equally. Every car begins at the start/finish line, makes the same turns, and follows the same rules, but peer approval and corporate sponsorship are hurdles that female drivers have had to overcome in the past.
Crocker will run the full...
Crocker will run the full Craftsman Truck Series schedule this season. Photo by Sam Sharpe
Sponsored by BAM Racing in 2002, Shawna Robinson was scheduled to compete in 24 races. Even though Robinson had success in previous years in ARCA and the lower ranks of NASCAR, lack of sponsorship monies and faulty equipment cut her debut in Cup racing short.
As in the early years, some of the same struggles still remain for women in the motorsports industry, but thanks to some strong-willed ladies who refuse to lose heart, they will continue on their mission to add diversity in racing despite the problems and the setbacks that have marked previous efforts.
"What it is going to take is a car owner, like a Rick Hendrick or a Jack Roush or a Joe Gibbs, or someone who is well known and knows the equipment to put a female in a car and bring her up the same way Jimmie Johnson or Ryan Newman or Jeff Gordon has been brought up," Robinson said in a 2002 interview. "Then that is when you are going to see it happen, and it is probably going to be past my time when something like that happens, [but] I think eventually there will be one put in that position."
When open-wheel driver Danica Patrick burst on the scene with a Fourth-Place finish in the Indianapolis 500 last summer, the Indy 500 television ratings jumped 40 percent, and the IRL Web site had a 265 percent increase in hits.
The media then went into a frenzy searching for NASCAR's version of Danica. Ironically, NASCAR began its search for the next female driver in 2002 when the driver development program, Drive for Diversity, was created.
Duncan, Fisher, and Crocker are involved in the Drive for Diversity program. Duncan and Fisher drive for the Bill McAnally/Richard Childress Development program, and Crocker is a member of the Ray Evernham Racing Development program.
Crocker grew up in Massachusetts, and at the age of 7 began racing Quarter Midgets.
"I knew when I was small I wanted to be somebody, and I guess all small children think that at some point," says Crocker. "My brother was very successful when he was racing, and he was going to be the star of the family, which was understandable.