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.

He chose a woman.

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.

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.

"My father passed away when I was in high school, and at that time my brother lost his drive. I continued to go to races by myself and get in cars here and there. At one point I really wanted to be a professional ski racer. I wanted to go to the Olympics. I trained like crazy and sometime in the middle of college I had the opportunity to drive this guy's Sprint Car. To me, at the time, it was a huge opportunity. Literally from that day on, I have used most of my time to try and make it work."

Crocker remains the only woman in history to win a World of Outlaws Sprint Car race.

In the spring of 2003, Crocker graduated from the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York, earning a bachelor's degree in industrial and management engineering.

Duncan grew up in the backyard of the Infineon Raceway, formerly known as Sears Point, in San Rafael, California, and has fond memories of the first time her father took her to the racetrack.

"It was the very first race that NASCAR had at Sears Point," Duncan says. "That is about 15 or 20 miles from my house where I grew up. I was this little kid up against the fence, and I was absolutely enthralled by it. From the second the first car rolled out on the racetrack, I was immediately hooked on racing. The feeling in the air, the excitement, the speed, the adrenaline, the smells, just everything about racing immediately hooked me."

At the age of 17, Duncan began her career in motorsports by racing in series such as the Sports Car Club of America, Late Model Stocks division, and the Women's Global GT Championship.

Duncan earned her bachelor's degree in mechanical engineering from California Polytechnic University.

"One of my biggest role models has always been Alan Kulwicki," Duncan says. "He is one of the people who inspired me to go to school and get my engineering degree.

"I think my degree helps me tremendously every day when it comes to driving the car, when it comes to relating to the crew, and when it comes to understanding the changes we are making to the car and how that is going to affect the setup and the handling of the car. I think that is one of the things most people don't typically expect a female driver to have-a strong technical background. I think it just makes me a better, well-rounded driver."

On June 11, 2005, Duncan became the first woman to win in the Western Late Model Series when she won a NASCAR-sanctioned race at Stockton 99 Speedway in California.

Sarah Fisher's mom and dad actually met while racing go-karts in Ohio when Sarah's mom took the checkered flag. Fisher couldn't escape racing-it's in her blood.

"I have been racing since I was 5 years old, so that is all I know," Fisher says. "It was a very competitive environment I was raised in. Racing was one hundred percent of all the time I had. My parents were very strict with the grade point average that I carried. They wouldn't let me drop anything below a B or we wouldn't go racing. The time I had to work on the race cars while my dad was running his fabrication business and the time I had to do schoolwork and go to school was all the time I had, period."

Like Crocker and Duncan, Fisher regards a college degree as very important. Currently, Fisher is pursuing a marketing degree at Ellis College.

"I have a year to go," says Fisher. "I am in an online program similar to the University of Phoenix. I really love school, and both of my parents are college educated and it is very important for me to do that."

Fisher's career highlights include being the youngest driver in IRL IndyCar Series history to race (at the age of 19 in 1999), and in 2000 she became the third woman to qualify for the Indy 500. She was also voted the "Most Popular Driver" in each of her three years as an open-wheel racer in the Indy Racing League.

All of these high-profile drivers agree they have received many benefits from the Drive for Diversity program.

"Well, I don't think Richard Childress would know who I was if it weren't for the Drive for Diversity Program," Duncan says. "We had been going and testing for the Drive for Diversity program a week or so ago, and I was there driving a car in front of and getting a chance to talk to representatives from a lot of top Nextel Cup teams. That is huge to get your name out there. If it weren't for the Drive for Diversity program, I don't think I would have a couple of years of Late Model racing under my belt."

"It has provided me with an audience, more or less in NASCAR," Fisher explains. "For myself, I am the enemy. I came from a series they were not a part of. I had to back down to learn a lot of techniques required to drive these cars. The program just gave me an audience I could talk to and ask questions."

Each driver's attempt to progress into the Cup Series will be gradual, learning from the ground up. Duncan, 26, and Crocker, 24, understand the importance of persistence.

"One of the big things is seat time," says Childress, who has avoided moving up too soon with either driver.

"Especially in stock cars, you get in a Late Model and you get out there and beat and bang and take your Saturday night licks," he adds. "Then you move up to the next bigger track, then the next bigger track, and then you take a look at how far you want to go."

"I think it will test my patience," says Duncan. "I know that it is going to be very important that I am prepared before I make each next step up the ladder toward Nextel Cup. I don't want to jump into a bigger or faster car that I am not ready for. I have won races in just about everything I have ever driven, so I have the confidence to know in myself that I will be able to do this; it will just take time. I want to be racing every week. I want to be running Busch races. I want to be doing all that, but I have to be realistic about it. And Richard Childress is the one who keeps me tied to the ground. He doesn't let me get too high up in the air thinking I am ready to go. He is a voice of reason, that's for sure."

"I ran six ARCA races [last] year and three Busch races," says Crocker. "Ray [Evernham] had the confidence I was ready, and General Mills came along as a sponsor and everything seemed to be great. We went out for the first two Busch races and it didn't go well.

"I think this made Ray step back and think, Why push something if we don't have to? At first we talked about doing the Craftsman Truck Series [this] year as opposed to the Busch Series. I was a little bit disappointed. I started asking myself questions: Does he not believe in me anymore? What's happening?

"We had a long sitdown chat. Ray asked, 'How do you feel about going to Daytona in January and then to California-and then he named about the first five tracks-before ever seeing the place? How comfortable would you be?'

"I would do it, but do I think I could run a Top-5 or Top-10? Before this year, I had run dirt for five years. Why rush it? Why go out there and run in the back of the Busch Series? Sure I would get some good experience, but it could ruin my confidence and kill my reputation. The plans are to run 40 races-the Truck Series full-time, some Busch to move myself up the ladder, and go back and run a few ARCA races to help my confidence. I think it was a wise decision."

Every year the number of female racers increases, and on any given Saturday night they can be seen behind the wheel at tracks across the country. In spite of past struggles, female drivers are very optimistic about their opportunities to make it to NASCAR's top levels.

"In the past year, myself, Sarah, and Erin have gotten opportunities to get in really good equipment," Duncan says. "I always go back to Shawna Robinson. I think Shawna is a very talented race car driver. I don't think that Shawna was ever in a car capable of winning a race. She has never been in RCR equipment, or Evernham equipment, or Hendrick equipment.

"I think women are finally getting opportunities in top-notch equipment, and that makes a difference. You need to be in good equipment to win races. It's a very exciting time to be a female in motorsports because the opportunities are becoming available to us. Now we just need to go out and put them to good use."

Fisher agrees with Duncan and paraphrases Ryan Newman on what it takes for any driver, male or female, to be successful on the track. "To be successful and win in the sport of racing, you have to have every single element, every single part of your team," says Fisher. "Ryan Newman said it the best the other day on TV-every variable has to be right, and without every variable being right you are not going to win.

"That is true no matter if you are a female or a male. That is a very tough thing to do and very admirable to those who achieve it."

The USAC Focus Midget Series, which uses full-up Midget race cars and stock Ford Focus engines, provides an excellent learning environment for young racers. Drivers age 16 and up have learned to drive a full-sized race car with reduced power in this series, which is run nationwide. There are a number of female drivers doing well, and four of the best are as follows:

Stephanie Mockler
Westfield, Indiana
The daughter of former USAC racer Warren Mockler, Stephanie excelled in Quarter Midgets and Micro Sprints earlier in her career. She has continued her excellence in Focus Midgets, where she finished Second in the Midwest Series points and was Third in the Focus Nationals event. She'd like to give stock cars a try in the future, starting with a series like USAR Hooters Pro Cup.

Stephanie Stevens
Phillipsburg, New Jersey
This 21-year-old driver won five Kart titles. She was also a strong Micro Sprint driver, finishing Third and Fourth in points at Lake Moc-A-Tek Speedway. A college senior majoring in chemical engineering, Stephanie wants to make racing her career. "I want to use the Focus Midgets as a stepping stone to the next level," she says. "Stock cars are a goal of mine. I have tested in a stock car at South Boston Speedway." She also attended both the Race Ridz NASCAR Late Model Driving School and the Dave Blaney Sprint Car Experience.

Ginny Quinones
Pen Argyl, Pennsylvania
Ginny has excellent racing credentials, having had success in Karts and Quarter Midgets. Later, she moved to the 270cc Micro Sprints where she also ran up front. More recently, she ran the Focus Midget Series on the East Coast. She also had a strong showing in the Ford Focus Nationals, where she finished Eighth out of 41 drivers competing.

Lindsay Trausch
Charlotte, North Carolina
Lindsay Trausch has a passion for racing on the track, and it's even evident in her job. She works for National Speed Sport News, a leading racing weekly. Her racing career started in 1995 when she drove a Competition Eliminator Dragster. She has also driven ThunderCar-style stock cars and has three Second-Place finishes to show for the effort. She has competed during the '04 and '05 seasons in the Focus Midgets. "I'd love to give the stock cars a shot," she says. "Heck, living here in Charlotte, is there a better place to give it a try?"

- Bill Holder

This much can be learned from the Danica Patrick phenomenon of last year: The motorsports world is ripe for the acceptance of a successful female driver.

Patrick's performance-she led 19 laps and finished Fourth in the Indianapolis 500-set in motion a bona fide media frenzy in the weeks subsequent to the historic open-wheel race. From the cover of Sports Illustrated to network talk shows, Danica became all the rage.

A similar run in the Daytona 500 by a female would generate the same reaction, according to Richard Childress, who has drivers Allison Duncan and Sarah Fisher as members of his NASCAR development program.

"I think it could open a whole new avenue for people, and I think there are some ladies out there who have the potential of doing it," says Childress. "Right now, the biggest thing any of them need-even Danica if she came down here to race-is seat time. That's what we're trying to get for Sarah and for Allison. It just takes a lot of seat time in a stock car. You learn something every time they go out, and they just keep getting better.

"I think it would be huge if a lady would come down here [and excel]. Just our demographics, which show us with [a fan base of] 44 percent women, is huge, as are the sponsoring opportunities and the media opportunities. But at the end of the day, they still have to be successful to bring sponsors."

Judging from the marketing success of Patrick, the corporate world appears ready to support a female at the top of the sport, as sponsorship dollars are almost certain to flow to the female driver who can consistently and successfully compete with stock car racing's top names. Several companies would likely jump at the chance to support a winning female driver in the top levels of NASCAR.

"We've had a couple of companies talk to us about that, but what we do is basically say that we don't have anybody ready to move to that level," says Childress. "And the worst thing you could do with either of the ladies we work with is move them up even to Busch too soon. It's a whole different world when you get into Busch racing, and the water really gets deep when you step into Nextel Cup racing. We don't want to rush them. I want to see them be successful and be able to stand up to the guys."

Ultimately, the trait that marks most successful drivers-dogged determination-may determine just how far a female driver will go in the sport someday.

"I think both these girls who drive for us want it, and they want to be winners and be successful," says Childress. "They don't want it just because they can say, Hey, I'm a lady, I need a break. They'll go out there and race hard with the guys, and that's what you've got to have."

- Larry Cothren

She blazed the trail for women in big-league racing, but she certainly didn't fight her way into the male-dominated sport for the sake of the women's movement.

When the world first heard of Janet Guthrie, she was already an experienced racer with a desperate need to advance.

"I was a racer right through to my bone marrow," says Guthrie, who is being inducted April 27 into the International Motorsports Hall of Fame (IMHOF) in Talladega. "I was a racing driver who happened to be a woman. I knew that didn't make any difference, [but] nobody else seemed to at the time."

Guthrie's big break-an invitation to make a qualification attempt for the 1976 Indianapolis 500-came in late 1975, after she'd already competed in 120 sports car races over 13 years. The quiet young lady with a wide smile, a former aerospace engineer with a degree in physics, was a good driver; she had won her class twice in the 12 Hours of Sebring, but she was also dead broke.

"I had no house, no jewelry, no insurance, no husband, no savings. I was in debt," she says. "I had one used-up race car, and I was saying to myself, You really must come to your senses and make some provisions for your old age."

Then the phone rang. It was Indy team owner Rolla Vollstedt, whom Guthrie had never heard of. He asked her if she'd like to take a shot at the Indianapolis 500.

"All that followed was due to Rolla Vollstedt," Guthrie says. In fact, her fabulous autobiography, Janet Guthrie: A Life at Full Throttle (Sport Classic Books, 2005), is dedicated to him, among others.

Guthrie drove in her first IndyCar race at Trenton in early May 1976. Then it was on to Indianapolis, where most of the drivers and crews, and some spectators, chose not to welcome with open arms this single, 5-foot, 9-inch, 135-pound female driver.

Vollstedt's car had not made the field at Indy in 1975, even with experienced open-wheel driver Tom Bigelow behind the wheel. Guthrie also could not make it go fast enough to qualify in 1976. But another opportunity had presented itself. Guthrie had received an offer to try to qualify for the World 600 NASCAR race at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

"The day after the last day of qualifying at Indianapolis, I was on my way to Charlotte, where it was just like Indianapolis all over again," she says. "People said, 'She'll never make the field.'"

But she did make it, qualifying right behind Dale Earnhardt and Bill Elliott. Then some folks said Guthrie would be worn out after 40 laps in a stock car with no power steering, and she'd have to pull in. They were wrong. They didn't know this soft-spoken, modest woman who liked classical music and ballet was also very, very determined.

"I finished Fifteenth," Guthrie says. She had become the first woman to qualify for and compete in a NASCAR race during the sport's modern era.

Guthrie drove in some more NASCAR and IndyCar races in 1976. The next year, she became the first woman to qualify for and race in the Daytona 500. In May 1977, Guthrie and her crew overcame one frustrating problem after another to put a prototype car in the field at Indianapolis, making her the first female driver to qualify and race there.In all, Guthrie competed in three Indianapolis 500s-her best finish was Ninth in 1978-and 33 NASCAR races between 1976 and 1980. Guthrie's top NASCAR finish was Sixth at Bristol in 1977, where, according to Greg Fielden's book, Forty Years Of Stock Car Racing, she was relieved by driver John A. Utsman. Using a relief driver at Bristol was common in those days, however.

Guthrie's life and racing career are both well detailed in her book.

"This book puts you inside a driver's mind and in the driver's seat and explains the excitement a lot of people have found in Nextel Cup and, to a lesser extent these days, IndyCars," she says.

It also teaches us something about perseverance and determination.

- Phil Roberts

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