Column: Does motorsports really need an all-female racing series?

The W Series

Motorsports has always talked the talk – but not always walked the walk – when it comes to female racecar drivers.

Sure, there’s been tons of discourse over the years on giving opportunities to female racers — but in practice, well, not so much.

Look at Formula One: will it ever have a full-time female driver who will be successful going head to head with the likes of Lewis Hamilton, Max Verstappen and others? There have only been five female drivers in F1 history — all briefly, and the last being in 1992. That’s 26 years ago. Shame, shame on F1 officials.

But there are other examples of series or races that have embraced female drivers, too:

* The Indianapolis 500 has been one of the leaders in not only allowing but also encouraging females to compete in the Greatest Spectacle In Racing. The list of females that have raced at the Brickyard include Lyn St. James, Janet Guthrie, Desire Wilson, Amber Furst, Milka Duno, Sarah Fisher, Danica Patrick, Katherine Legge, Simona Di Silvestro, Ana Beatriz and Pippa Mann.

* NASCAR has had its Drive For Diversity program for more than a decade, as well as its NASCAR Now program, to encourage minorities and particularly females to pursue their racing dreams either behind the wheel or from the pit box.

* NHRA drag racing has been one of the biggest proponents of female racers over the years, with such stars as Shirley Muldowney, Erica Enders, Courtney and Brittany Force and dozens others. Look at NHRA’s Junior Dragster program — it’s almost 50 percent made up of female racers.

* Last week, Michael Shank Racing announced it will have an all-female team in the 2019 IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship. MSR isn’t looking for cheap publicity with the all-female lineup. Rather, it has four very capable drivers signed not for their gender but for their talent and ability: Legge, Beatriz, De Silvestro ad Jackie Heinricher.

But last week’s announcement of the formation of the so-called “W Series” has many in the motorsports world questioning the legitimacy and need of an all-female racing series.

At first glance, the Formula 3 W Series seems like a good idea, offering opportunities for up to 20 women to battle it out for their own six-race championship in 2019 and a hefty $500,000 prize to the eventual series champion.

On the surface, looking at it with a glass half-full outlook, the W Series also appears to be well-funded, with millions of dollars to spare and spend.

Or burn, if you look at things from a glass half-empty point of view.

The interesting aspect of this new series is that while organizers claim to have “dozens” of female drivers from around the world interested in joining the series, where are the big names? Only about a dozen junior-level racers appear committed thus far.

There’s plenty of time to add to that list of drivers, as the series doesn’t kick off until next May.

But it is interesting that at least two well-known current or former female racers – Pippa Mann and Lyn St. James – are not in favor of an all-female series.

Mann has been the most vocal. When the W Series was first floated as an idea last season, Mann took to Twitter to voice her displeasure with the concept.

When the series was officially announced last week, Mann once again took to Twitter to further blast the overall idea now that it appears headed toward reality.

Add then there’s this poignant tweet from Leilani Munter:

This past weekend during the NASCAR weekend at Talladega Superspeedway, St. James also questioned the logic and legitimacy of the W Series, as well.

“Any opportunities that present themselves to put women in race cars, you have to at least take a hard look at it,” St. James said. “I’m for any opportunities that can put women in race cars.

“Do we need a women-only series? No, I really don’t think there’s a need for that. But before I can really have a hard-core response and make a statement that puts me on record, I want to know where the funding source for this is.

“When you read what they’re proposing, no cost to the drivers, a $1.5 million dollar points fund and a $500,000 prize to the winner, I want to know where the funding source is and what the mission of that funding source is. How real is that? That’s a lot of money. And if that money could be spread in different ways to have a good result, have a better result potentially maybe.

“I have a bigger question than I do an answer, the short answer being that if it presents opportunities to women drivers, you’ve got to take a hard look at it and not throw it under the bus. Do we need an all-woman series? I don’t think so, not at all. I can’t support that that’s necessary.”

St. James knows what she’s talking about, particularly when it comes to opportunities for female racers. She launched the Women in Motorsports Scholarship program more than two decades ago to aid female racers in securing opportunities.

In addition to St. James’ legitimate concerns questioning the funding of the W Series, there are several other questions that need to be answered:

* By having an all-female series, while it may fall under the umbrella of diversity and opportunity, isn’t it also a form of segregation?

* To follow that question up, where does a line ultimately become drawn? Does that mean we eventually could see a variety of new racing series based upon a person’s gender, sexual identity, ethnic or racial makeup, religious beliefs, etc.? Motorsports are based upon talent and ability, not segregation.

* While it may have good intentions going in, could the W Series ultimately do more damage than good to women racers in the long run? Will women who compete in that series perhaps lose other opportunities in “male” forms of motorsports that could ultimately be more beneficial and rewarding?

* While it is one of the W Series’ hopes, can anyone legitimately – at least at this point – call the series a true developmental series for female racers to get more opportunities in entities such as Formula 1, IndyCar, Global Rallycross and even NASCAR? Time will be the real judge, but at this point, opportunities down the road are suspect at best until proven otherwise.

* Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, how does the W Series prevent itself from becoming nothing more than a curiosity or sideshow, where gender and sex appeal is more important than actual racing talent? Will W Series officials do the smart thing and showcase female driving talent, rather than how they may look in a firesuit or bikini or what have you? Remember, that type of thing had countless people question Danica Patrick’s serious commitment to racing in her career for how she was promoted and some of the ad campaigns that featured her more for her looks than her talent behind the wheel.

Will the W Series be able to sustain at length? Will people take in a race or two and conclude that the competition isn’t very good – especially when there are no male equivalent drivers to compete be judged against?

While the W Series says it’s about promoting and showcasing women racers, in the overall scheme it really shouldn’t be just about women — it should be about opportunity. That’s why St. James may have the best answer of all to those questions:

“Hey, if you want to start a new series, that’s great. But put half-women and half-men in it. That would give some guys a chance that maybe wouldn’t have an opportunity as well.”

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Heather Lyne, Dennis Erb Jr. make history in the World of Outlaws Late Model Series

Lyne Erb Outlaws Late
Jacy Norgaard / World of Outlaws

More than two decades in the making, the pairing of Heather Lyne and Dennis Erb Jr. produced a historical milestone in Dirt Late Model.

Last month, Erb and his long-time crew chief Lyne won their first World of Outlaws Late Model Championship and with this achievement, Lyne became the first female crew chief to win in a national late model series. Their journey together goes back 21 years and tells the story of hard work, persistence and belief in oneself.

After a career-best season with the World of Outlaws, Erb and Lyne secured the points championship at US 36 Raceway in Osborn, Mo. with three races remaining in the season. The consistency and success of their season came down to pinpoint focus. Lyne and Erb are a team of two living out a David vs. Goliath tale. In order to be as successful as possible this year the duo knew they had to do as much as possible with the resources they had.

“It’s always a challenge when you only have two people, both at the racetrack and at the shop,” Lyne told NBC Sports. “I also work full time, so during the day, Dennis has to do a significant amount of work so that when I get down there I can start working and maintaining. It’s planning ahead. It’s having that system in place and making sure that you’re prepared ahead of time.

“When you have a problem at the track, making sure you have all that stuff ready so it’s a quick change and not a lengthy process to make a repair. We had zero DNFs in the World of Outlaws, we had only one DNF out of 96 races [combined among all series].”

Dennis Erb clinched his 2022 championship before the World of Outlaws World Finals. Jacy Norgaard – World of Outlaws Late Model Series.

Taming Time

This was not an easy feat. Between a full travel schedule and Lyne’s full-time job as an engineer, time comes at a premium. What they lack in time and resources they made up for in patience and planning.

“We buckled down, and we got all the equipment that we needed back, motors freshened, and things of that nature,” Lyne said about the mid-point of last season. “We were able to keep up with that. We just had a higher focus. I tried to reduce my hours at my day job as much as I possibly could while still maintaining what I need to get done at work. I got rid of a lot of the other distractions and got a more refined system in place at the shop.

“We did certain tasks on certain days so we had time to recover. We were on the road a little bit more, as opposed to coming home to the shop. So we had to be more prepared to stay out on those longer runs. It was just really staying on top of things a little more. It was a heightened sense.”

This was Lyne and Erb’s fourth full season with the Outlaws, but they’ve been on the road together for the last 21 seasons starting in 2001. Their partnership began with Lyne’s bravery. When one door closed, she was quick to open another. In 2001, Lyne’s dad was ready to stop racing. Her mother wanted to regain her weekends, but Lyne knew this was her life path and wasn’t prepared to lose it.

“I’ve always been a tomboy at heart,” Lyne said. “I watched racing with my dad. Growing up he watched NASCAR. In high school, I got tired of playing at the lake house, so I went to the local dirt track and fell in love with it. I just couldn’t get enough. It took a year for me to convince my dad to come to the track with me. He finally did and we sponsored a car that year, the following year he started to race limited cars. He ran hobby stocks and limited late models.”

At some point, Lyne and her father’s level of commitment drifted apart.

“He did it for about five years,” Lyne said. “And then my mom said: ‘I’m done racing. I want my weekends back. It’s just not fun anymore.’ I wasn’t ready to hang up my wenches and Dennis raced out of the same hometown so I, on a dare, went down and introduced myself; told him if you ever need any help, I’ll drill out rivets, I’ll help wash, whatever you need. Twenty-one years later here I am.”

Heather Lyne became the first female crew chief to secure a national touring late model championship in 2022. Paul Arch / World of Outlaws Late Model Series.

Breaking Through

Lyne entered a male-dominated job in a field that is also male-dominated – and where there were few examples of women creating these places for themselves. In this way, Lyne became a blueprint for other women as they strive to find a place for themselves in racing and in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) overall. She has her mother to thank for providing a strong role model, her father for sharing her passion, Erb for taking a chance on an unknow entity and most importantly herself.

“I was raised to believe that I can do anything, I want to do, as long as I put my heart and soul into it.” Lyne replied when asked about role models in the sport growing up. “My parents did not raise me to have that limitation. But from a racing role model perspective, I went in there completely green and just introduced myself to Dennis, the fact that he was brave enough to take that risk and bring a girl to the racetrack. Someone he didn’t know at all speaks volumes for him.”

Lyne and Erb have learned how to survive and succeed with each other on the road. They do this by leveraging decades of combined experience and an ability to adapt to the everchanging landscape of dirt late models. Next year the World of Outlaws visits nearly a dozen new tracks and Lyne sees it as an opportunity for continued success.

“I just want to do it again,” Lyne says going into next season, “I’m looking forward to the competition, I always do. I wouldn’t do it if I wasn’t competitively driven.

“There are some new tracks on the schedule that I’m looking forward to trying for the first time that I haven’t been to myself,” Lyne said of the 2023 season, “Dennis seems to do well on those first timers. We won out at Marion center, we finished second at Bloomsburg. We have a good solid notebook of information to tackle them over the last three years with these rocket race cars that we’re running. It’s good to have that information and leverage it to try some new things.”