That’s Racing: NASCAR needs a 'Danica'

Friday, May 9, 2008 at 1:24am

NASCAR could use more lip gloss and eye shadow.

It needs a whiff of Channel No. 5 wafting through the garage, mingling with the fragrances of gas fumes and motor oil.

It needs more dangerous curves, and no, we’re not talking road courses.

NASCAR needs a Danica.

If you thought Danica Patrick’s recent Indy Racing League victory in Japan was a blockbuster, imagine its impact in NASCAR, with its gadzillion more fans and media exposure.

It would rattle racing’s Richter scale.

It’s just a matter of time before Patrick jumps to NASCAR; she’s flirted with the idea in the past, and now her stock has risen.

While we’re waiting, here’s a question: why hasn’t NASCAR grown its own Danica?

It insists it’s trying. It keeps enlisting promising young female drivers in its Diversity Program, but nothing happens. They go in, race awhile in the minor leagues, then disappear.

What’s the holdup? Why’s it so hard for a woman to break into NASCAR?

It’s not a physical thing; as Janet Guthrie once said, “I don’t have to lift the car, I just have to drive it.”

But Guthrie didn’t make it. Neither did Patti Moise, Shawna Robinson, Deborah Renshaw, Erin Crocker or any of the other women who in recent years tried to break through NASCAR’s sheet-metal ceiling.

During NASCAR’s formative years there were a handful of successful women drivers, most notably Louise Smith. The irrepressible Ms. Smith, the only woman racer inducted into the International Motorsports Hall of Fame, could hold her own, on and off the track, with the rowdy band of semi-reformed moonshine runners.

I interviewed Smith during Renshaw’s travails and she offered some advice to “girl drivers.” Never let ‘em see you sweat.

“Don’t let the boys intimidate you,” Louise said. “If they hit you, smack ‘em back twice as hard. Eventually they’ll leave you alone.”

Following the Louise Era, NASCAR went through a period when women were banned from the pits and garage area. Femme fatales were deemed too, well, distracting.

(Judy Allison once was forced to climb a fence to reach her husband, Bobby, in Victory Lane.)

Look around NASCAR today and you’d think the ban is still in effect.

NASCAR insists it is searching earnestly for its Danica. Skeptics say it needs to look harder.

When she’s found, it’ll be a big day for the sport. The Good Ol’ Boys need a Good Ol’ girl to shake things up.

Larry Woody is a veteran sportswriter in Nashville and has covered auto racing for almost four decades.

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