LADIES DAY ON PRO SPORTS CAR CIRCUIT
by Larry Roberts
August 28, 1998
Those of you who remember the politically incorrect days of post- W.W. II auto racing will remember when oval track promoters of those classic quarter-mile Hard Top or street-stock races would periodically hold what was indelicately called "Powder Puff Derby" events. The wives and/or girlfriends of car owners, drivers and crew members with little or no time to even adjust the driver's seat to fit their smaller stature much less get in any track time, were invited to compete in infrequently-held races. The ensuing spin-outs, low-speed crashes and other embarrassing moments drew guffaws and laughter from the crowd.
Women-only races were also held by the amateur Sports Car Club of America (SCCA) before it entered into its modern era of serious amateurism. Although female drivers were also racing in the featured events and had considerable track experience in most cases, they were also invited to compete in "Ladies Races" in which all cars raced together, regardless of displacement, degree of sophistication or speed potential. Other sparsely-populated classes were in the same race and the women were there strictly to fill the grid.
But over the years as the tastes of race spectators became more sophisticated and auto racing entered the realm of big-time sports, these displays became less and less frequent and those women who were serious about the sport were grudgingly accepted onto the grids alongside their male counterparts. Some, like Janet Guthrie, who raced in the Indy 500 in the '70s, and Lyn St. James, who made a respected name for herself in Indy cars, on the Trans Am circuit and other types of racing, proved their capabilities. To its credit the National Hot Rod Association (NHRA) has never segregated women drivers and some went on to be top rated pilots in Funny Cars and dragsters. It seemed that sexism was dead in auto racing.
I was therefore quite surprised when I received a press release from the American Le Mans Series (ALMS) that announced the formation the Woman's Global GT Championship series. Bill Donaldson, executive director of the yet-to-race ALMS circuit, stated that the eight race developmental circuit will be viewed as a venue that will "....attract a more family-oriented spectator base to build the popularity of endurance racing in this country." The ALMS races will run under the auspices of the Professional Sports Car Racing sanctioning organization.
Like the all-Pontiac International Race of Champions (IROC) races, the Women's Global GT Championship competitors will drive identical Panoz GT-RA cars that were originally developed to be "school cars" for the Panoz Racing School at the Road Atlanta track. They are front- engine, rear-drive, 2500-pound "tube" cars similar to the IROC Pontiacs, but powered by 250-horse 5.0 liter Ford V8 engines. Twenty of these cars are being built for use as training cars at the school, so I assume that those to be used in the Women's Global series will be built in addition the ones those used at Road Atlanta.
The aforementioned St. James will be the executive director of the program and says that it will "...bring women to the forefront on a regular basis in a credible, viable series" and she feels that competing in the Panoz cars will give them a stepping-stone into the GT-1 and GT-2 ranks of purpose-built sports car long distance racing. "We need a platform to highlight women as (racing) drivers," she states in the ALMS press communique. St. James knows of what she speaks, having had to overcome prejudices and preconceived notions to get where she is in the world of high-speed motoring.
It wasn't spelled out how qualified female drivers would be selected for the circuit, but I guess that inclusion will be judged by past experience and dedication. The address for the series is listed on the fax I received as 10500 Crosspoint Blvd., Indianapolis, IN 46256 (317-577-3500) and I also assume that all resumes will be considered.