ST. JAMES: Who are we missing?

Zak Mauger/Motorsport Images

ST. JAMES: Who are we missing?

Insights & Analysis

ST. JAMES: Who are we missing?

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The pandemic has created havoc for everyone around the globe. It uprooted everything we hold dear; our passions, professions, families, and friends. It upended our sense of timing of the things we look forward to; race schedules, holidays, award celebrations, and industry trade shows. Most of us build our yearly calendar around these events, and it created discord. While everyone has a different point of view about things, those POV’s were elevated and often difficult to reconcile. It challenged our core values; how we spend our time and with whom and how we spend our money. It generated fear in some of us, not knowing who and what to believe. In some ways, it brought people together who have spent most of their lives competing against each other because that’s what happens when survival is at stake.

I couldn’t be prouder of the racing and motorsports industries, as they’ve taken the lead in demonstrating how to “pivot” and “adapt” (two words that have become staples), responding quickly so as not only to survive but to embrace new ways of doing business. That’s what racers do! (I’ve heard this stated many times.)

Early December is one of those “staples” for the racing industry — trade shows where the expectation is to come together, learn how to improve our businesses, network, tell our stories, demonstrate our products, and get ready for the next season. Two examples of “pivot” and “adapt” were the EPARTRADE Online Race Industry Week and the Virtual Racetrack Business Conference. I spent time in both, listening to industry leaders tell their stories, demonstrate their technology and inspire us all. It was beautiful because you could take it all in sitting at your computer or listening on your phone, instead of having to pick and chose as you do when actually at an event where everything is spread out and schedules often conflict.

But still, something glared at me. Diversity has been on the “to do” list in motorsports for decades, with a sporadic effort. Due to the highly publicized and terrible social injustice issues that have occurred this year, “diversity and inclusion” have stepped into the forefront of priorities. People are speaking eloquently about how important they are, how they’re the right things to do, and how embracing them is a way to grow the sport. Data and statistics support these facts.

Yet there’s something at the core that’s conflicting. Story after story talks about how someone came into the sport because of family influence when they were young or how their dad took them to a race. That’s a common theme for so many people in the sport, whether in the business or as fans. Yet when you talk about diversity and inclusion, you’re now talking about people who likely have not had the same experience, so we need to adjust our language if we’re going to resonate with new audiences and populations. If you’ve grown up in the sport and have a passion for participating, competing and being in the business, it’s like a like-minded community. But if that’s not your story, exposure comes via different people, places and times in your life. We need to be respectful and understand everyone has a unique journey.

Outreach to young potential fans beyond families already involved in motorsports has improved in recent years, but much more needs to be done, St. James argues. Steven Tee/Motorsport Images

I grew up in the ’60s muscle car era, and I’ve always been a car person. Because of my buddies, I went to the Indy 500 and some drag races in and around Ohio and called myself a quasi race fan. My family had no idea what an automobile race was, and I followed the path that society set out for me as a young female in the late ’60s/early ’70s — married, helped start and build a business. Fortunately, my husband was one of those guys who took me to the races and we both became hooked, and as soon as we could afford a little extra time and dollars for something other than our business, we started racing in SCCA in the early ’70s. I’ve never looked back, and I challenge anyone to question my passion and commitment to the sport. While I was often the only female competing on the racetrack, many women were active in the club, and I felt completely comfortable at the racetrack. I’d found my community of like-minded people.

Fast forward: NASCAR has had a Diversity Council and Drive for Diversity program since the ’90s/early 2000s, which has evolved into the Rev Racing team run by Max Siegel. In 2009 the FIA established the Women in Motorsports Commission, headed by rally champion and one of the most competitive women racers globally, Michele Mouton. Michele has led the efforts brilliantly over the last 10 years, including creating the FIA – Girls on Track driver search program. Many females and people of color have had opportunities and experiences they would otherwise not likely have had. NHRA has had successful females and people of color throughout their racing divisions. I credit their Jr. Dragster program, ease of entry at the grassroots, and Shirley Muldowney’s championships in the 1970s and ’80s as contributing factors. Some individual standout success stories such as Janet Guthrie in the Indy 500 and Daytona 500, Willy T. Ribbs in IndyCar, Trans Am, and IMSA have garnered media attention and demonstrated what’s possible. I believe my success with the support of Ford Motor Company in the 1980s also helped along the way.

St. James’ Indy 500 runs helped shine a media spotlight to break down stereotypes and to pave the way for a new wave of female racers. Motorsport Images

Of course, my years racing in the Indy 500 in the 1990s helped set the stage for the onset of women racers such as Sarah Fisher, Danica Patrick, and the other six women who have successfully competed at Indy. A few other opportunities emerged in the late 1990s/2000s: Don Panoz’s Women’s Global GT Series (which I helped manage); in 2004, Formula Woman was created in the UK, where over 10,000 women applied and whittled down to 16 drivers to compete in Mazda RX-8s (the first season won by Natasha Firman, daughter of race car constructor Ralph Firman Sr). And then late in 2018, the ground-breaking, game-changing race series for women, the W Series, was announced.

What made it ground-breaking/game-changing? There were no costs associated with the drivers competing. There was a race purse so the drivers would receive prize money; the race cars were current, state of the art F3 open-wheel cars prepared and maintained by a top-flight professional race team. Plus, throughout the season, the drivers were supported by media, fitness, and technical training teams. The 2019 season produced fabulous racing. While grounded in 2020 due to the pandemic, the recently announced 2021 season will be a support series in eight F1 races — ground-breaking/game-changing for women in racing worldwide.

With the activities listed above, it would be safe to assume there’s been a lot of support for women racing, so why is there complaining? Yes, there have been programs established and efforts made, but it takes leadership and a sustainable commitment, along with a robust and collective strategy to effect change. Except for the NASCAR Drive for Diversity and the FIA WIM Commission, those mentioned are independent efforts dependent on individuals who either run out of money or energy or become distracted by other priorities. I’ve always believed the sport needs to invest in itself to effect change. Earlier this year, Roger Penske decided to do just that, with his announcement of the Race for Equality & Change campaign, followed up by the new Force Indy team’s announcement for people of color to compete in the USF2000 Series under the tutelage of Penske Racing. I’ve never known Roger Penske to run out of money, energy, or to become distracted.

Women in the Winner’s Circle celebrations in Indianapolis featured Sarah Fisher (front row, far right); Katherine Legge (far left) and the author (front, center).

My new role in motorsports is to have the honor of serving as a board member of ACCUS (Automobile Competition Committee of the United States) and being nominated to represent ACCUS on the FIA-WIM Commission. I’ve been listening to the leaders of the sport saying words like “sustainable,” “tangible,” “engagement,” “do, not talk,” “greatest single opportunity to grow the sport,” “what’s best for the sport.” I feel compelled and empowered to help bring those words into action. It’s time for the industry leaders to follow in-step with Roger Penske’s commitment and take actionable steps that are thoughtful, tangible, and sustainable.

For me, it is a “restart” time and an opportunity to make changes that will last and help grow and expand the sport in a meaningful way. Leaders know this is the right thing to do. They need to understand that NOW is the time! Women represent over 52% of the population and influence over 80% of household purchasing decisions. Women represent +- 40% of existing race fans, so we’re not trying to build something from the ground up. RACER.com has shared that it’s seen an over 150% increase in their female users between January-September 2020 vs. 2019. And yes, many women are already successful in racing and motorsports in all categories but are still very much in minority numbers.

We have a strong base and message to build from, and NOW is the time to do just that!

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