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Indy 500 will have no female drivers in the field this year

British IndyCar driver Pippa Mann qualified to run in her seventh Indy 500 race last year. Mann drove a Chevrolet for Clauson-Marshall Racing in partnership with Driven 2 Save Lives, an organization she was unable to partner with for the race in 2020 due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Jamey Price

Janet Guthrie, the first woman to compete in the Indianapolis 500, had to take a second before answering a question about how she plans to watch this year’s race.

“Had there been a woman in the race, I would certainly have watched it on television,” Guthrie, 82, said. “But I barely keep up with how it’s happening anymore.”

Guthrie is hailed as a pioneer for women in motorsports as the first female to qualify and compete for the Indy 500 title. She was also the first woman to race in the Daytona 500 the same year, in 1977, before finishing her NASCAR years with a career-best sixth-place finish and placing ahead of names like Dale Earnhardt and Bill Elliott.

She said she still gets calls and emails from fans and reporters over four decades after her first major race entries, although Guthrie now lives a more quiet life — free of engine revving — in a Colorado ski town, which has been made all the more secluded by the coronavirus pandemic.

Earlier this week, Guthrie said she did a Skype interview with Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Bob Jenkins to discuss her recent induction into the Indianapolis Motorsports Hall of Fame alongside Earnhardt Sr. She stopped me when I asked about her NASCAR Hall of Fame nomination, technically a nomination for the Landmark Award won by Ralph Seagraves.

“I’m not eligible for the NASCAR Hall of Fame,” Guthrie said. “Because you have to have driven for 10 years, and I didn’t find the money to do that. I only raced five years in NASCAR, which was absolutely devastating to me that I couldn’t find the money to continue, because I was certain that I was going to win races.”

“I had led a race. I had run with the leaders. And I could see what was coming,” Guthrie added. “But without the money, you’re just a fast pedestrian.”

Guthrie was neither the first nor the last female driver stunted by this fact of motorsports — economic barriers to entry are high and disproportionately affect minorities, including women and people of color. Throw a global pandemic into the mix and this is what you get: No women in the Indy 500 lineup for the first time in 20 years.

Cars drive down the main straight-a-way during the final practice session for the Indianapolis 500 auto race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Friday, Aug. 21, 2020, in Indianapolis. (AP Photo/Darron Cummings) Darron Cummings AP

“There are women out there with the talent,” Guthrie said. “But what I’ve always said is that what the sport really needs is a woman with all the stuff that it takes: The talent, the desire, the focus, the emotional detachment, all the things driving requires, plus her own fortune.”

The female driver seemingly closest to that combination this year was British IndyCar racer Pippa Mann, 37, who made her seventh Indy 500 start last year and finished in a career-best 16th place as the only female in the 33-driver lineup. Mann, however, wasn’t able to secure the corporate sponsorship she needed to attempt entry this year.

So after Guthrie’s initial Indy 500 start, Sarah Fisher’s nine races, Lyn St. James’ and Simona de Silvestro’s Rookie of the Year victories and Danica Patrick’s third-place finish, there will be no gender barrier broken at the Indy 500. At least, not this year.

STRUGGLING FOR YEARS

Pippa Mann introduced herself with a concession.

“I’ve been at work the past few days,” Mann offered over the phone during her eight-hour drive home to Indianapolis from Birmingham, Alabama, where she was working a stint as a racing coach to earn her living. She referenced the thorough social media stalking I had done to get in touch.

“And I just don’t check Instagram messages that much because they tend to be full of, you know, dick pics.”

That was one of the problems Mann said she regularly encounters as a female race-car driver — or more generally, as a female athlete and public figure — that her male counterparts do not. Mann handles the unwanted pictures and comments by ignoring them, but the issue of securing sponsorship is much more unavoidable. This year, it’s become particularly career-stunting and devastating, Mann said.

“It’s very easy to point fingers at the pandemic and say the pandemic has caused the problem,” Mann said. “That’s not actually the case. We’ve been — women in motorsports — most of us have been struggling for years.”

She said the pandemic has magnified a longtime problem in the industry in which major corporate sponsors have been unwilling to back female drivers. Brian Bonner, a Charlotte-based consultant at Bonner Race Marketing and former IndyCar driver, said the season typically costs $8 to $10 million dollars to run a car, and drivers usually supply half that amount. Driver money is usually generated through any combination of personal services agreements, corporate sponsorships and/or out of their own pockets — meaning their families’ pockets, in many cases.

Pippa Mann competed in her seventh Indy 500 last year and raced a career-best 16th place finish. Mann was unable to find enough funding to compete this year, so for the first time in 20 years, the Indy 500 will not have a female driver in the lineup. Jamey Price

As is the case for any driver or team, participation in racing means time off the track is used to make calls and pitch corporate executives for backing. Mann was able to piece together enough funding through roughly a dozen sponsors, primarily with local Indianapolis-based businesses and philanthropic organizations such as the Indiana Donor Network and Driven 2 Save Lives, in order to field past entries.

But with limited B2B opportunities and races without fans due to COVID-19, the IndyCar series this year became a tougher sell for Mann. Unable to deliver the same ROI to previous partners, Mann was at a loss as the clock ticked down on landing new ones for the event considered “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing.”

Still, Mann said the difficulty in landing sponsors is not an isolated incident. This year, it just kept her from the show, exposing a larger sexist corporate mentality. Those in the industry agreed; It’s harder to pitch a female to potential partners than it is to pitch a male of similar talent.

THE RESILIENCY QUESTIONS

Gil Smith runs motorsports marketing company Infield Media & Promotion. Smith said he works with more than a dozen clients, male and female, across various racing circuits, including NASCAR, IndyCar and IMSA, but that it’s always been a struggle to get major corporate sponsors to embrace female athletes the same way they embrace male ones.

“Sponsorship in motorsports is difficult to begin with,” Smith said. “But with a female athlete, you almost need a new-entry sponsor because the men have the well-known, historically involved sponsors pretty well locked up.”

Like Smith, Bonner mentioned Patrick’s nine-year GoDaddy sponsorship, which he called an “upstart brand at the time,” as a factor that helped push Patrick’s exposure to unprecedented levels for women in the sport. He called that example a “perfect storm” in which Patrick was a hot commodity, GoDaddy was a burgeoning brand and the company marketed with sex appeal.

Still, five years later and no other female drivers have cracked into the mainstream media like Patrick. Part of that, Smith and Bonner said, has to do with how corporations view women in motorsports. Companies assume there is an element of risk when it comes to female drivers.

Danica Patrick signs autographs before a NASCAR Cup Series auto race Sunday, March 12, 2017, in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/David Becker)

Smith said that the “dialogue changes” when he’s pitching a female driver versus a male one. He declined to mention sponsor names, but said he works with both Mann and driver Amber Balcaen, 28, the first Canadian female to win a race in NASCAR’s Whelen All-American Series.

“Strangely enough, I can approach a sponsor with a 16-year-old kid who no one knows that’s a guy and everyone says, ‘Oh, 16-year-old? That will be phenomenal!’” Smith said. “When I approach somebody with a resume like Amber, the first question is, “Well, can she drive?’”

“You start getting all these questions about their ability to really perform as an athlete,” Smith continued. “It’s so different from the questions around a male athlete. ‘Is she capable?’ ‘Can she stand the grind?’ It’s this resiliency that seems to come into question.”

Smith, Bonner and other motorsports marketers said they’re stumped when it comes to why. Balcaen, for example, has over 13,000 Twitter followers and 54,000 Instagram followers as a driver in one of NASCAR’s lowest-racing series. That’s more than most drivers’ followings in the higher-level ARCA, Trucks or Xfinity Series.

“The thing that I don’t get is that Corporate America hasn’t latched on to a woman more,” Bonner said. “At least the last several years. Because they have personalities. They’re brands. And, I’ll be honest, some of the guys in IndyCar racing, they’re boring!”

Bonner witnessed the female phenomenon first-hand, he said, when he was running as a rookie in the Indy 500 the same year as St. James. The drivers sat beside each other for the annual motorcade parade through downtown Indianapolis in 1992.

“We’d come around the corner in downtown Indianapolis and the grandstands would erupt,” Bonner said. “And was like, ‘Wow that’s so cool,’ And I realized that it was all women and they were all cheering for Lyn.”

“It was like, ‘Oh yeah, you guys, too.’ ”

A PERPLEXING PROBLEM

Citing the combination of Balcaen’s achievements and already-established following, Smith said it was “perplexing” why corporations don’t want to partner with more female drivers, especially since it’s a “gender-neutral, level playing field” when it comes to the performance and athletic ability of drivers in a race car. But Bonner and Smith attributed it to the fact that female drivers are still considered a risk in potential sponsors’ eyes since there is little precedent in the sport.

“There are things that sort of just go by when you have a male athlete operating in a male sport,” Smith said. “It’s the locker room mentality. You throw a female into the mix, you can’t do that anymore. You have to be polite and respect comes into the game, and it’s not the locker room anymore.”

If a sexual harassment lawsuit becomes an issue, for example, a sponsor’s name is thrown into the mix, Smith said. While there have been pushes through diversity programs in both IndyCar and NASCAR, as well as momentum in the sanctioning bodies to champion diversity, drivers can’t rise to the highest levels and sustain competition without corporate backing.

Smith said the problem becomes “exponentially more difficult” when race is compounded with gender. He mentioned his client, Melissa Harville-Lebron, a Black female team owner. Harville-Lebron has been working to field a fully-sponsored, all-female and all-minority NASCAR Xfinity or Truck Series team called E2 Northeast Motorsports. Smith said that NASCAR’s been supportive of the idea, but that Harville-Lebron has had “tremendous” difficulty securing sponsorship.

“Female. Black. Motorsports. It doesn’t get any harder,” Smith said.

“BIGGER THAN ME”

The social issues that plague motorsports, Mann said, are why she’s starting to speak up more.

“I want to see corporations start to step up and support women,” Mann said. “The planet has changed so much since Janet qualified and she has done so much. How are we still in the same place with Corporate America?”

Both Guthrie and Mann said they weren’t initially keen to discuss sexism in the sport or social justice issues. Guthrie said she didn’t recognize what she called her “responsibility” to speak up as woman in the sport until after she qualified for her first Indianapolis 500 and was part of the downtown parade.

“There were these guys who had little girls on their shoulders and were sort of waving these little girls as if I represented hope for the future,” Guthrie said about the moment that sparked a change in her.

Mann also said she was hesitant to publicize her sponsorship troubles earlier in her career and initially opted to to “keep quiet.”

“That’s what we all do because that’s how you get the money you get and get to where you are,” Mann said. “But if I keep quiet and I don’t speak up, what changes for the next generation?”

“We’ve come a long way, but there’s so much work still to do,” Mann said. “On every front. Whether you’re a race-car driver. Whether you’re a female athlete. Whether you are a social activist in the street trying to drive much-needed social change.”

“I think so much of the social movements we’re seeing and what we’re literally seeing in the microcosm of my small world and the Indianapolis 500 opens that lens and shows us how far we still have to go,” Mann said.

Unlike Guthrie, who was unsure if she’ll tune in for the race, or Patrick, who is part of the live NBC broadcast team, or Fisher, who will drive the pace car Sunday, Mann said she plans to watch the Indy 500 and what she’s missing from her home.

After the race finishes, and the winner chugs his bottle of milk, Mann will get back in the car — not her race car, just her regular old sedan — and drive to Chicago for her next coaching gig as part of her plight to make ends meet. She’ll have another long drive to think about the miles to go.

“There have been days in the past few weeks that I have really been struggling with not being in a car at the Indianapolis 500 this year and not having that opportunity this year,” Mann said, her voice breaking slightly.

“But at the same time, this is so much bigger than me.”

NASCAR and Charlotte FC beat reporter Alex Andrejev joined The Observer in January 2020 following an internship at The Washington Post. She played Division I volleyball at Columbia University before earning her master’s degree at the University of Southern California.
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