NASCAR HAS A woman problem. Beyond enormously popular driver Danica Patrick, Xfinity series team co-owner Kelley Earnhardt Miller and International Speedway Corp. chief Lesa France Kennedy, the league has a poor track record of female participation relative to other racing circuits, such as IndyCar (a proving ground for a long line of gender pioneers, including Danica) and Formula 1 (for which women work as engineers and, in a couple of cases, run teams).
Keeping up shouldn't be so hard for NASCAR, in which competition is largely driven by technology rather than physical size or strength. Welcoming more women into the sport could goose fan interest—and with TV ratings down and tracks across the country removing seats, NASCAR could use the boost. Also, why should only stick-and-ball pioneers like Becky Hammon (a former WNBA All-Star who joined the Spurs two years ago as an assistant) and Jennie Finch (the Olympic softball player who last weekend became the first woman to manage a minor league baseball team) get to mix it up with the boys?
In a recent SI Now interview Patrick expressed hope that NASCAR's culture will incorporate more women but cautioned that it will take time. "I always think of it like, If it takes 100 men to come through to find one that's good and can do the job, if you have to wait for 100 women to come through, that just takes a while."
There is a way that NASCAR can build critical mass other than by putting women in the driver's seat. And that's by enlisting them for pit crews. For years the job went exclusively to men with mechanical backgrounds. But as the sport has gotten faster, pitting has become more specialized.
Increasingly, in-race stops are being handled by former college athletes who once couldn't change a tire on their own car, much less two in around 13 seconds. While the various pit specialties, many of which involve a lot of heavy lifting, suit the burly football types, there's one position on the crew in which a woman could really shine: tire changer. Two women, Nicole Addison and Christmas Abbott, have already proved they can do it. Abbott, a well-known CrossFit guru, says, "I didn't have any credibility as an athlete until I went to NASCAR."
NASCAR hasn't had to look hard to find women willing to follow Addison and Abbott's example. Phil Horton, a self-styled "pit crew coach," travels to colleges across the country to recruit and work out potential crew members for a lower series team called Rev Racing, the main shop for NASCAR's diversity effort. Female student-athletes have approached him so often over the years that he scouts them now too.
The women Horton tends to accept have the exceptional hand-eye coordination necessary to getting a tire and five lug nuts off and back on in a matter of seconds. His favorites are basketball players, softball standouts and track and field stars. He invited six such women to the Rev Racing shop in Concord, N.C., for a national combine last week, along with 12 men. What's more, all 18 were minorities—which addresses another glaring participation void in NASCAR. If the 2-to-1 male to female ratio seems intimidating, know that all of those women had beaten out men to land their invitations.
The hope is that these women will become good enough to change tires for the pros in about three years and, perhaps, go on to explore other opportunities within the sport. In the short term, of course, this still leaves the sport with a woman problem—but one that could be solved down the road if NASCAR stays the course.
By bringing female athletes into racing in roles beyond that of driver, NASCAR could boost diversity and fan interest.