Motorsports is an overwhelmingly male dominated activity. While verifiable statistics on participation of men vs women do not exist, it is estimated that less than 4% of motorsports participants – at all levels and throughout all types of motorsports events – are female. This can be attributed to a number of factors. Historically and culturally, young girls have been discouraged from developing an interest in motorsports or cars. Those who do so are often branded as odd, deviant, or unfeminine. Women who pursue racing as either an avocation or vocation often find themselves at a distinct disadvantage. Not only are they subject to discrimination and sexual harassment on and off the track, but as a group are generalized as being too timid, unskilled, inexperienced, and utterly unqualified to share the track with men. Although motorsports – as a competition where men and women are able to race against each other – is often heralded as the ‘great equalizer,’ this notion presumes men and women come up through the racing ranks with the same opportunities, support, and driving experiences. In the current professional climate, the road to racing success begins at an early age most often through karting. The gender ratio entering racing in junior categories is hugely skewed in one direction; estimates list the ratio as 98-to-2 in favor of men. Unless they come from a family of racing enthusiasts, young girls are much less likely than boys to take an interest in driving at the age of eight or so, when future motorsport champions start competing in carts. Without early motorsport opportunities, women who enter the racing arena do so severely behind in experience, training, and support compared to male peers.
However, in my recent research into the history of all-women racing in motorsports, I spoke with a number of women without extensive automotive or racing histories who discovered an entryway into motorsports that is safe, relatively inexpensive, accessible, challenging, and a whole lot of fun. Autocross – a timed competition in which drivers navigate a unique course defined by cones or pylons – has become increasingly popular with women of varying racing levels who want to experience the thrill of driving competitively without a significant financial investment. Unlike wheel to wheel racing, in which drivers compete directly with one another, autocross is a timed event in which the goal is to drive around the track and get the lowest time possible without hitting any cones or going off the track. The only requirements are a driver’s license, approved helmet, car [just about any type is acceptable], and the desire to test oneself in a race type setting.
The women I conversed with came to autocross from many directions and for a variety of reasons. Some had boyfriends who participated in the sport so decided autocross might be a good way to spend time together. Others heard about autocross from friends and were encouraged to give it a try. A few of the women were looking for a new pastime that was challenging, exciting, and out of the ordinary – autocross filled the bill. Although the road to autocross differed among female racers, the reasons for engaging and sticking with autocross were shared by many of them.
One of the draws of autocross is that other than an approved helmet, there is no additional equipment necessary. Consequently, it is less expensive than other types of racing. This is important if it is an activity you are testing – if you find it isn’t for you, the only expense you have incurred is the entry fee. Starting out, women often use their daily drivers; once hooked, they may modify their cars or upgrade to something faster and more nimble. There are a number of car categories in which to compete, so drivers are competing against individuals in similar vehicles. Women cited autocross as safer than other motorsports – since you are on the track alone, damage to the car [or yourself] is unlikely.
The challenge of autocross – engaging in an activity that is both familiar [driving] and unfamiliar [racing on a marked course] – was considered a benefit by many of the women who participate. Autocross provides the opportunity to drive fast while learning the skills of controlling a car at speed – it is educational and exhilarating at the same time. Women found that the skills they acquired through autocross – mental, physical, and automotive – carried over into other aspects of their driving and non-driving lives. The female racers also mentioned the ‘adrenaline high’ experienced while behind the wheel, and also noted how mastering the car and the course gave them renewed confidence in themselves and their abilities. Many felt empowered participating in an activity so strongly identified with masculinity and the male driver, and noted how their participation awarded them a fair amount of respect as drivers and individuals knowledgeable about cars. While some sexism exists within the autocross community, it is most often verbal rather than experiential – since women are alone on the course, they cannot be threatened or bullied by a male driver. Many autocross events have separate ladies classes, which provide a safe space for women to gain skills and confidence without the fear of male intimidation.
Autocross was also cited as a form of therapy – as an all-consuming activity requiring singular focus, it keeps one’s mind off of other issues. Participating in autocross burns off steam, diverts one’s attention, and builds confidence. Although racers participate individually, they are expected to help at the track in various capacities throughout the day – whether working on someone’s car, taking entries, or setting up the track. Thus the social aspect of autocross was important to many of the female participants, as it provided the opportunity to create new friendships and engage in community and support.
While autocross addresses the racing bug in a great number of women, others view it as a stepping stone to more advanced, complicated, and competitive activities. Many women go on to participate in rally cross, road racing, time trials, and SCCA Pro Racing. Yet as I discovered, no matter what the level of involvement or experience level, autocross has the ability to provide women with an important and empowering entryway into the male dominated world of motorsports.
For more information on autocross and other women’s racing programs, check out SCCA Women on Track.