Originally created 08/10/00

Women opening doors in NASCAR

ATLANTA -- When the guards at her father's racetrack denied Patti Wheeler access to the garage area 23 years ago, she merely got her father's keys and unlocked another gate.

Since then, women have been unlocking gates at all NASCAR Winston Cup Series facilities.

Not only do women run the television companies that produce broadcasts of several races, but they also make up a huge share of the marketing and public relations companies that promote each team, and they are executives at many of the racetracks.

A few have even pushed deeper into the sport's consciousness by becoming drivers.

"I don't do what I do to be a political cause," said Shawna Robinson, a full-time driver on the ARCA Series. "I do what I do because I love to race. The fact that I'm a woman has nothing to do with racing. It can work to my benefit as far as the sponsors go, but the bottom line is, I have to perform on the racetrack."

Heading into Saturday's race at Winchester (Ind.) Speedway, the 35-year-old mother of two is eighth in the series point standings.

For Wheeler, racing has been part of the family since before she could walk. Her father is H.A. "Humpy" Wheeler, the president of Lowe's Motor Speedway near Charlotte, N.C. He is a man with considerable clout in the sport, but not enough to get his daughter past the men-only barriers at his own racetrack.

"Old, old, old superstitions are strong in racing," Patti Wheeler said. "Women are bad luck in racing, or at least, that's what everyone used to think. It was bad luck to drive a green car. It was bad luck to take your wife to the year-end banquet.

"Things started to change in the late 1970s. When I was 18 back in 1983, there were just a couple of us in the sport. Now there are a lot, especially in the marketing and public relations side of it."

Most race teams on the NASCAR Winston Cup Series employ women as team or sponsor representatives. Women also work in public relations departments at many of the speedways on the circuit and within the management structure of the sanctioning body.

"When the big national corporations got involved, it became a mushroom cloud," Wheeler said. "Corporate America came into the sport already integrated with women. It wasn't a big step for them; it was a big step for the sport."

Janet Guthrie was a groundbreaker 20 years ago because she wanted to be a driver. She drew more attention and pressure as the first woman at the Indianapolis 500 and Daytona 500 than for her success on the track, but the spotlight on her was intense.

At this year's Indy 500, the field of 33 included two women -- Lyn St. James and Sarah Fisher.

"I don't want to be judged as a woman," Fisher said. "I want to be judged as a driver. If I can't do the job, get rid of me. I don't want the job just because I'm a woman."

Patti Wheeler is president of World Sports Enterprises, a television production company that produces live coverage of the NASCAR Winston Cup Series on TBS and TNN, as well as an assortment of other racing packages.

"Women in this sport had to happen," Wheeler said. "It wasn't that long ago they tried to keep me out of the garage in Charlotte. I just got my father's keys and went through another gate. I put a baseball cap on and did what I wanted to do. Television, I think, made the sport change."

NASCAR's own demographics show why people in the sport now seem eager to shed the male dominance of the past. Nearly 48 percent of a live audience now are women, and women traditionally control a family's finances. That audience shift led to changes in sponsorships beyond motor oil, tobacco products and beer companies to products women like.

The first major sponsor that wasn't male-oriented was Underalls pantyhose. They became an associate sponsor on Sterling Marlin's car in 1987.

Since then, sponsorships have included Folgers, Maxwell House, Tide, Lifeboy, Kellogg's Corn Flakes, Bisquick, Betty Crocker, Cheerios, Philips Light Bulbs, M&M's candies, Snickers, Ralph's Supermarkets and TV Guide.

Once television became the driving force behind NASCAR, the restrictions on women in the garage area, including daughters of the track president, quickly changed.

"I don't think being a woman in this business is any more helpful or a hindrance," Wheeler said. "I think it's become such a part of the routine that nobody thinks about it anymore."

Reach Don Coble at doncoble@mindspring.com.


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