If one were to survey the top three tiers of NASCAR racing — Cup, Xfinity and Truck Series — they would find one female among 100 or so drivers.
And that’s about how the story has gone for decades.
Lyn St. James, a former Indy car and sports car racer, has seen the “female driver” baton passed from Janet Guthrie in the late ’70s, to Patty Moise in the ’80s, to Shawna Robinson in the ’90s, to Erin Crocker in the 2000s, and on to Danica Patrick in the 2010s.
“From Erin (Crocker) to Danica (Patrick), it was like, ‘Tag, you’re it,’” St. James said. “Unfortunately, I think the mentality with the leadership was, ‘Check the box, we got the gal.’ And the pressure was all on the shoulders of one.”
Patrick was the latest woman to carry that responsibility in the Cup Series until she retired from racing in 2018, which was her sixth year as a full-time driver in NASCAR’s premier division. Notably, in 2013, she was the first female to win the pole for the Daytona 500.
Since Patrick’s retirement, no woman has competed in The Great American Race or the Cup Series.
Hailie Deegan is near the top of a list of drivers who could change that statistic.
Deegan, driver of the No. 13 ThorSport Racing Ford in the Truck Series, is the lone woman currently competing full time in one of NASCAR’s top three series.
Since her first Truck Series race in 2020, Deegan has collected three top-10 finishes, making her the only female driver in series history to record multiple top-10 results.
The 21-year-old daughter of action sports pioneer and off-road racer Brian Deegan also made an appearance in the Xfinity Series last fall at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, finishing 13th.
While Deegan continues to forge her way through the ranks, St. James believes NASCAR is teetering on the cusp of having multiple women on the Cup Series grid. While she doesn’t know when it will happen, she has good faith that it will happen in her lifetime.
“Now, there’s just numbers. And they’re talented and they’re good,” St. James said. “It’s still going to take time. But I’m very optimistic, seeing the Kaylee Brysons and the others.”
Jamie Little, a veteran pit reporter for NASCAR on FOX, surmises the process to reach that point will be a matter of the right talent finding the right opportunity.
As the lead play-by-play caller since 2021 for the ARCA Menards Series — considered a feeder series for NASCAR’s top three divisions — Little has seen the bench of female talent grow considerably.
During ARCA’s Feb. 18 season opener Daytona Int’l Speedway, there were five women in the field, three of whom finished in the top 15 — Mandy Chick (fifth), Amber Balcaen (sixth) and Natalie Decker (14th).
But even as women continue to gain traction on the race track and climb their way up the ladder, they all seem to hit a wall at one point or another.
“I always tell people, Danica Patrick wouldn’t be Danica Patrick if it wasn’t for Bobby Rahal believing in her and giving her a shot in great equipment,” Little said. “There are other Danicas out in the world, but until they have the right opportunity in good equipment, then we won’t see women in the Cup Series.”
St. James believes high-level team owners and operations in NASCAR possess a key role in moving the needle forward for women.
“They need to put more effort into their hiring and their observing where the talent is,” St. James said. “I get calls, ‘Who’s the best out there?’ But there’s got to be more than one.
“Kaylee Bryson might be hot on everybody’s list because of what she’s doing, but she’s not the only one.”
Whether that involves holding test sessions, shootouts or other evaluations of skill, St. James is firm in her opinion that top teams should engage more with up-and-coming female talent to scope out prospective drivers.
While women still have a ways to go in the stock car racing world, numerous female drivers have already found considerable success on the drag strip.
Across the professional NHRA Camping World Drag Racing Series ranks, there are eight women who compete full time. Brittany Force and Leah Pruett race Top Fuel dragsters; Alexis DeJoria carries the flag in Funny Car; Erica Enders and Camrie Caruso occupy Pro Stock; while Angie Smith, Kelly Clontz and Jianna Evaristo compete in Pro Stock Motorcycle.
Of those eight women, two are multi-time champions. Force has collected two Top Fuel world titles, while Enders has earned five Pro Stock championships — both added titles to their résumés last year.
“Two females winning in the same year, I think that’s huge. I wish there could’ve been more attention brought to that,” Force said. “But the crazy thing is, women do it in this sport all the time.”
Though the male presence in NHRA continues to outnumber the female segment, it’s become standard to see women in the winner’s circle over the last decade. Last year, Force turned on the win light five times, while Enders put her stamp on a career-best season with 10 victories.
“You don’t see us in bikini magazines, you see us holding a Wally at the end of the track with a bottle of champagne,” Enders told SPEED SPORT in 2022. “All across the board, I think our sport is awesome.”
The serious level of respect that has developed among drag racers, men and women alike, has contributed greatly to its inclusive “Speed for All” environment.
As Force says, the car can’t tell whether the driver is male or female.
While she’s never experienced any pushback from the industry about being a woman or racing against men, there is an element to being labeled a “female driver” that she’d prefer to avoid. She asked:
“I don’t love the whole female spin on it, when all the media attention is brought to me as, ‘You’re a female and you drive this race car?’ Well, he’s a dude and he does it. Why is it any different?”
But when it comes to the major accomplishments that females own in NHRA, Force is fully supportive of recognizing the monumental feats.
Noteworthy achievements by women in drag racing include:
When Force earned her first career victory in 2013, she became the first woman in 35 years to reach the Top Fuel winner’s circle. Enders became the first woman to ever win a Pro Stock race in 2012. Ashley Force — Brittany’s sister — was the first female to win a national Funny Car event in 2008.
Angelle Sampey was the first woman to secure a Pro Stock Motorcycle championship in 2000. Legendary racer Shirley Muldowney was the first woman to win a Top Fuel world title in 1977 — the first of her many accomplishments in NHRA.
“In drag racing, you have two very unique situations that they’ve created,” St. James said. “One is their Jr. Dragster program, which they’ve had for decades. And I’ve heard again and again that over 50 percent of the Jr. Dragster drivers are girls.”
The NHRA-sanctioned junior drag racing series has provided a way for interested youth to gain experience behind the wheel and eventually transfer to the professional ranks — a program from which many female drivers have benefited.
“The other is you have the iconic Shirley Muldowney, so you have role models. She didn’t just show up, win three championships and disappear. She continued to compete and win, and be vocal and controversial in many cases. And then you have all those who have followed,” St. James said.
“Unfortunately in NASCAR, you had people like Janet Guthrie show up, but she showed up for a couple of years and then, because there wasn’t the support, she disappeared. Not because she wanted to, but because the funding wasn’t there for her to continue.”
Over the years, NHRA has continued to embrace a female presence in drag racing — a decision that has benefited teams, sponsors and fans alike by heightening and diversifying the competition.
Other forms of motorsports, such as NASCAR or the NTT IndyCar Series, seem to still be catching up, according to St. James.
Despite that fact, there continues to be opportunities for women to become involved in racing on every level, just perhaps not as a driver.
Find out more next month in Part III. Or read Part I here.
This story appeared in the April 12, 2023, edition of the SPEED SPORT Insider.