It has been 14 years since Danica Patrick became the first woman to win a top-class race in a major motor sport series. At the time, pundits predicted her victory in IndyCar would usher in a new era of female racers.
But today’s landscape shows a more complicated picture.
For every success, there have been even more setbacks. There currently are no women driving full time in Formula One, IndyCar or Nascar – and, historically, very few have ever competed, even though these series are not exclusive to men.
The Indianapolis 500 had featured at least one woman in its field for 20 straight races starting in 2000, but none participated in two of the past three seasons. And the W Series, a women’s racing league that runs as part of Formula One Grand Prix weekends, cancelled its 2022 season prematurely because of funding problems.
“It was probably a bit naive to think that one woman’s success could make an immediate impact,” said Beth Paretta, an automotive entrepreneur and long-time advocate for women in motor sport.
“Sure, it was great to see a feel-good story like Danica’s, but something needed to be done back then to sustain that momentum – and we still don’t truly have that.”
Paretta, 48, has made it her mission to correct that. In 2021, her IndyCar team, Paretta Autosport, became the first mostly female team to compete in the Indy 500, featuring a female driver, Swiss racer Simona de Silvestro, and an all-woman pit crew. The team has since competed in a handful of other IndyCar races, though it is not a full-time participant within the series.
Paretta said her goal runs deeper than just promoting talented female drivers. Racing is still a male-dominated sport, she said, from the administrative roles within teams to the race strategists. “You can often count the number of women in the paddock on one hand,” she added.
Her hope is to shine a spotlight on women working in all facets of racing to inspire the next generation.
“Typically, for women in racing, we’re not used to pointing out that we’re women,” Paretta said. “In fact, we kind of hope you don’t notice – we just want to do our jobs and get on with it. So accentuating women in motor sport is an uncomfortable adjustment for us, but we’ve come to realise that we have to do this if we want our kids, and our kids’ kids, to normalise this.”
Susie Wolff, a British former race car driver who has worked in various roles within motor sport, agrees that increasing gender diversity in racing behind the scenes is essential to ultimately producing more female racers.
“It’s not just about putting a girl in the car,” Wolff said. “There are generally 20 or 30 drivers on track, but thousands involved in making a race happen. On-track drivers get the most publicity, but it has to be much more than that.”
Wolff knows first-hand what it is like to be one of the few women in a racing garage. In 2012, she signed as a testing and development driver for the Williams Formula One team, and two years later she became the first woman since 1992 to participate as a driver in a Formula One race weekend.
In the summer of 2018, she became the team principal of Venturi Racing, a team in the electric racing series Formula E. She said she has been met with scepticism at every job she has ever taken.
“I will never forget when I was announced as team principal,” she said. “I was with 16 journalists, and the first question was, ‘What qualifies you for this job?’ The second question was, ‘Did your husband get you this job?’ And the third question: ‘How can you manage the travel involved, since you just had a baby?’” She is married to Toto Wolff, team principal of the Mercedes Formula One team.
By the end of her tenure, spending one year as chief executive, she had silenced the critics by bringing Venturi from nearly last place in the constructors standings to a championship contender. She is hopeful that women who assume roles in racing in the future will not need to endure the same type of scrutiny she did.
“I was successful, and suddenly everything about my gender and being the only female didn’t matter,” said Wolff, who left Venturi after the 2022 season.
Another obstacle facing women who want to race, Wolff said, is the lack of defined pipelines for them. Breaking into higher levels of racing is difficult, often carrying a steep financial cost, and there are few dedicated programs designed to encourage and support girls. That is partly what inspired Wolff in 2016 to establish Dare to be Different, a non-profit organization that promotes motorsports to girls.
“It becomes something of a numbers game,” said Wolff, who estimated that the total number of young women participating in any form of racing remains exceedingly small. “If only 5 per cent of all global racing license holders are women, you’re not likely to get one breaking into the highest levels. You need to get more young women entering the sport for the best to rise to the top.”
Those types of pipelines, though, can take time to produce results. Nascar’s Drive for Diversity programme, for example, was created in 2004 with the aim of improving racial and gender diversity among drivers and pit crew members.
The initiative provides structured training programmes, complete with on-track experience, to its participants in the hopes of elevating them through Nascar’s ranks. But it has only recently begun to see its efforts reflected on the sport’s highest level.
The program’s notable graduates include Kyle Larson, an Asian American driver who won the Cup Series championship in 2021; Bubba Wallace, who last year became the first Black driver to win a top-level race since 1963; and Daniel Suárez, who this year became the first Mexican-born driver to win a Cup Series race.
“I’d say it’s been a coming-out party, of sorts, for that program,” said Brandon Thompson, Nascar’s vice president of diversity and inclusion. “But a lot of people tend to forget that those seeds were planted way back when we started this effort 20 years ago. It takes time to build that foundation.”
Although the programme has yet to promote a female driver to the Cup Series, it has graduated a few women to pit crews. Last month, four women who aspire to drive in the series participated in its most recent racing combine, where participants – many of them teenagers – audition their skills in the hopes of being selected for a developmental racing series that could lead to further promotion through Nascar’s pipeline.
“We’re certainly keeping an eye on the development of the young women we have in that program, and we feel great about the crop of talent we have in that pipeline,” Thompson said. “We’re just waiting for the day when we can change this conversation and be talking about their success.”
Other motor sport series have recently unveiled similar diversity pipelines. In 2020, IndyCar introduced “Race for Equality and Change,” which supports grassroots youth motorsports programs. And last month, F1 launched a subsidised racing series specifically for young women that officials say will work in conjunction with the W Series to add more women to the F1 pipeline.
For drivers like Chloe Chambers, 18, who participated in the W Series this year, these are all positive steps toward getting women more vital experience.
“In racing, the biggest disadvantages come from funding rather than physical ability based on gender,” Chambers said. “Statistically, women have gotten less funding and less time behind the wheel of a race car. So things like F1 Academy are all great steps to hopefully get women more experience.”
Chambers, who was born in China and raised in New York, said her goal was to reach Formula Three, a feeder series for Formula One. Doing so has historically been difficult for women; for example, Jamie Chadwick, a 24-year-old British racer who won the W Series championship the past three seasons, has never landed a seat in F3.
In spite of the challenges, Chambers believes she can break through once she gains enough experience.
“In the future, I’m hopeful there will be women on the Formula One pipeline,” she said. “That’s the goal of every driver, but for women, it’s that much harder.”
As for Paretta, she currently is looking to secure sponsors to run her team full time in IndyCar next season. And while the progress for women in racing has not come as quickly as she may have hoped after Patrick’s groundbreaking win, she is optimistic that the future can be bright.
“We’re closer than we’ve ever been,” she said. “We just need to keep talking about it.”