Auto racing holds a unique place in the professional sporting world as a great competitive canvas featuring women and men competing alongside one another – under the helmet on track, behind a computer on pit lane and leading in the board rooms.
In honor of Thursday’s world-recognized International Women’s Day – and also for all the days in between – it is important to recognize the work and success, but also see the potential and realistic goals that exist for women in the racing world.
“It is important for people to see that any one of us has the ability to achieve his or her dream,’’ said Jamie Howe, a longtime broadcaster in the sport with FOX Sports.
“If you show up, work hard and are good at it, then you can achieve your dream. Remarkable women have proven that it doesn’t matter where you come from or what challenges you face. Success is possible.
“I think it’s extremely important for the world to see that.”
This sport in particular presents a rare opportunity for competition, power and success regardless if you are a woman or a man.
“For me personally, it was my own personal goal to race at the pinnacle of the sport regardless of any barriers,’’ said driver Katherine Legge, an accomplished and versatile driver, currently competing for Michael Shank Racing with Curb-Agajanian in the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship GT Daytona (GTD) class. “That determination didn’t take into account any obstacles and I think to be successful in anything you have to have those kind of blinders on.’’
Legge, 37, has achieved important and versatile success behind the wheel, competing twice in the Indianapolis 500, testing a Formula One car (Minardi) and racing fulltime in the competitive Deutsche Torenwagen Masters (DTM) series.
She won the first Toyota Atlantic Championship race she competed in – in Long Beach, California in 2005. She was the first woman to win the British Racing Driver’s Club (BRDC) “Rising Star” designation in 2002. And she’s a two-time WeatherTech Championship race winner.
“I never set out to be a role model but you realize early on that you are and with that comes responsibility,” she said. “I think that you have to cater for the kids that look up to you and it is your job to be a good example to them.’’
It’s exactly the kind of example – intentionally or not – that has inspired young women to pursue the sport, to see opportunity without any blinders or muted expectations. And in racing, there are multiple avenues to consider.
“To get a prime job, or a vital role in a team, is getting more realistic year by year,” explained Teresa Janssen, who leads the Mercedes-AMG GT3 program in North America.
“The number of women attending in motorsport is increasing. This lowers the hesitation, people don´t necessarily underestimate a women’s capability, but they aren´t used to it. The more they get familiar with it the easier it will get.
“I will not say with this that it is easy, you need to be good, and in many cases you still need to have a certain amount of luck that you found someone that is willing to give you the opportunity. It can take a while to reach this point. We can´t forget that it is important to keep women in motorsport. The first years are not easy. You need to prove yourself and it takes a while before you are ‘one of the guys.’“
That’s a sentiment Gill Campbell, now senior vice president of Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca can appreciate. In addition to great talent, it often takes great determination to excel – a truth not only in racing, but in all aspects of life.
“When I first got into the sport 30 years ago, there were five women I knew in the sport at that time were secretaries or PR reps,’’ Campbell said. “Throughout that 30 years, we’ve seen women rise in various aspects of motorsports – not only in driving and management but also in ownership.
“There is still only one female promoter who owns and operates a racetrack in the country, and that is Connie Nyholm at VIRginia International Raceway. Women have definitely come into their own in all aspects of management. If you look at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca, there are several women in higher management and decision-making positions.
“Throughout the years, we’ve seen women running series such as Vicki O’Connor in the Atlantic Championship Series. There are women who have really led the charge.
“You look at Formula One, and Claire Williams is a prime example of women rising up through the ranks. Roles that require engineering knowledge and those types of things are much more realistic for women than they were when I first got into the sport.”
In that vein, Nyholm was recognized just last week as one of the “50 Most Influential Virginians” – for the third consecutive year. As the CEO and majority owner of VIR she also brings great perspective to the role of women and racing – and the possibilities that exist.
“A young lady in fourth grade once asked me about this and I told her that there was someone who asked me, “What makes you think you can do this?” My answer was, “What makes you think I can’t?” Nyholm said.
“You are the boss of you. Reach into the bag of problems, draw one out and solve it, then reach in again. There will always be what some people see as obstacles, see them as opportunities instead and great people will help you be successful.”
For so many women thriving in the racing industry today, the idea that a woman may not be as successful as a man was never considered an issue.
Sarah Robinson, motorsport marketing manager, Michelin North America and the Michelin-IMSA 2019 project leader, is a prime example of limitless aspiration and ideas. Gender never guided nor excluded her on her career path.
“I am a very fortunate woman, in that my parents and brother never imposed any gender limitations on my interests and hobbies,’’ Robinson explained. “It never occurred to me growing up that a woman couldn’t or shouldn’t be an engineer, or race cars, or play with Transformers along with My Little Ponies.
“I joined Michelin in 2004. Michelin has always encouraged its people to pursue and explore roles that suit their skills and desires. No one within Michelin has ever considered it unusual that I, a woman, have been an engineer, a test driver, and now a primary player in our motorsport group.”
And like so many of the women who have leadership roles in this sport, Robinson said she also makes a point to positively influence young girls and women — to eliminate the idea of barriers.
“I always like to talk to girls and young women, and share my path,’’ Robinson said. “I believe those of us already in these roles ‘outside the norm’ have a responsibility to lift each other up and let young women know how many opportunities are truly available to them.”
To that point, Erin Gahagan, Team Manager for Tequila Patron ESM, explained that compared to past generations, opportunity has never been more diverse or more available for women in this industry. That’s not to say all the glass ceilings have been broken, but certainly young women today see more opportunity.
“There is no norm these days,’’ Gahagan said. “There are so many different kinds of roles out there, that everyone is able to find a role uniquely suited for their talents and interests.
“It’s nice that women have more choices.”
And that’s an important and distinguishing point.
“I have seen more women working in motorsports recently,’’ said Kourtney Bigelow, IMSA’s Senior Director, Administration. “More importantly I am seeing more women advancing in these positions a building a successful career in motorsports.
“Many people think there are only opportunities for driver and mechanic positions, which women can do, but there are so many other avenues available. Teams have a need for business development, sponsorship management, and public relations, among other things.
“There are even more opportunities with Promoters, Sponsors and Sanctioning Bodies. There are many possibilities for women to have a career in motorsports today.”
Developing a mentor relationship and finding an inspirational path can be a crucial and lifelong connection between your aspirations and your reality. And that is something so many in this sport recognize and embrace.
“Finding someone you can personally relate to that does something you aspire to is so important for all of us,’’ said Laura Wontrop Klauser, program manager for Cadillac’s successful DPi program.
“I was blessed to meet and become friends with then-Chevrolet NASCAR Cup Series program manager Alba Colon through Formula SAE early in my career at GM. Through her, I learned about the many motorsports programs within GM, and that peaked my interest in working toward the goal of becoming a Racing Program Manager. When I achieved the Program Manager position, Alba continued to be a source of knowledge transfer for me and an opportunity to evaluate different approaches to solving problems – seeing what worked and what didn’t.”
As with Colon, another longtime role model in the sport is former driver Lyn St. James whose work in Women in the Winner’s Circle has expedited and guided women’s opportunity in racing for years.
“Lyn St. James has done an amazing job for Women in the Winner’s Circle, she has done an amazing job of recognizing the impact that women have made in motorsports and particularly recognizing young women and bringing them up the ranks in the driving aspect of it,’’ Campbell reminded.
“I often do career days in schools, particularly middle schools, and it always amazes me that the majority of the kids who come to my sessions are girls. It makes me feel very proud. I think that young girls do need their role models. There are aspects across this business that apply to a broad scope of assets, capabilities, and specialties. In any single aspect, you can apply yourself and be involved in the motorsports side of it.
“It’s a very narrow sphere of people who succeed in the sport, and those that succeed don’t leave.”
It’s not to say there aren’t still challenges. But there are people willing to tackle those obstacles, stand up to stereotypes and continue the forward movement.
“We still fight the stereotypes and beliefs that are attached to women in motorsport,’’ said Christina Nielsen, a two-time WeatherTech Championship GTD driving champion.
“However, by creating more awareness around the fact that it is very much a possible career choice for women, more women have taken on the challenge to try and succeed in this world.
“Because there are a few more women in racing now, it has also increased the amount of attention and acknowledgment among those who do well. But do I think it has gotten easier? No. There are just more of us who have taken up the battle and we have come across some great men and women on our way who has helped us ‘cause no one can make it on their own.
“Putting gender aside, you need a good team and people around you to succeed.”
It’s a perspective that can positively impact anyone. And on this day celebrating women around the world, it is a significant reminder of those who have blazed trails and earned success – but also, the work still to be done and the boundless possibilities that exist in auto racing and elsewhere.
“I’m very proud of my gender, but I don’t think about my gender as I’m in this job,’’ Campbell reminds. “I’m performing a role for Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca that has an impact on motorsports both nationally and internationally.
“It’s great that women are recognized, particularly this year when women are in the spotlight with the Time’s Up and Me Too movements. I like seeing those of us in motorsports be acknowledged for what we have contributed to the sport overall.”