After a decade of trying to make it in the macho world of motor sports, Shawna Robinson thought she had finally earned some respect. Last Thursday the 29-year-old Robinson became the first female ever to win a pole position in a NASCAR Grand National event, qualifying for Saturday's Busch Light 300 at the Atlanta Motor Speedway with a track record for Grand National cars of 174.330 mph. To mark the historic feat, fellow driver Joe Nemechek, the other qualifier on row 1, presented Robinson with a red rose in Victory Lane.
On race day, however, Robinson got a rude awakening. As she entered Turn 3 on her first lap, she was racing side by side with Nemechek when Mike Wallace slipped alongside her car on the inside of the track. Wallace took the air off Robinson's spoiler, causing her orange Polaroid Chevrolet to drift up and smack Nemechek broadside. Both cars spun and slammed against the retaining wall. The front of Robinson's car was heavily damaged, and in order for her to continue, much of the sheet metal had to be sawed off. Racing with the engine exposed, she completed 63 laps before a hole in the radiator forced her into the pits for good. Meanwhile Nemechek never got underway again, and as soon as he was out of his mangled car, he grabbed a microphone and made charges over the track's public address system that Wallace had intentionally caused Robinson to crash. "I'd heard from people before the race that he was going to take some air off her spoiler and get her loose," Nemechek, the 1992 Grand National champ, alleged later. "I figured he was running his mouth, but he did exactly that. Going three across on the first lap is a big risk. People could have gotten hurt. You don't pull a stunt like that."
Why did Nemechek think Wallace would want to take Robinson out? "It wouldn't be politically correct to answer that," Nemechek said. But Robinson, who after the race had to be separated from Wallace's wife, Karla, as the two exchanged words, was more direct. "Ego," she said. "Maybe some think it's a manly thing. I don't know where that thinking comes from."
Certainly that thinking is foreign to Robinson. Growing up in Des Moines. Robinson and her four siblings were taught that they could accomplish anything they set their minds to. Her father, Richard, was an amateur racer who competed on local tracks and tinkered with racing vehicles in his home garage. He encouraged his children to take up racing, which they did on minibikes, snowmobiles and motorcycles. "I still have the burn marks on my legs from racing motorcycles as a teenager," says Robinson. At 18 she began driving in a short-track series for trucks. Five years later she became the first female to win a NASCAR Dash series event.
As the only woman driver in either of NASCAR's top two series, Robinson still struggles for sponsorship. She often wanders the supermarket, pen in hand, copying the addresses of potential sponsors from packaging labels. A top finish in Atlanta might have helped her attract some backing.
Wallace denied trying to put Robinson out of the race, and after interviewing the drivers and studying a tape of the wreck, NASCAR officials issued a terse statement that nobody was to blame for the crash. But an unmollified Robinson asked, "How many fans were taking bets, 'Is the girl going to crash on the first lap?' By starting on the pole and racing well, I hoped I could have changed those attitudes. I've never wanted to flaunt the woman thing. I just want to be thought of as being a good driver, not a good female driver."
She crashed (in orange car), but the racer achieved a historic first.