Women Drive The W Series

I was recently asked to submit a chapter on women and motorsports to include in an upcoming collection of essays on motorsports history. As the subject is quite broad, I chose to focus on women-only racing. What follows is an excerpt from the upcoming ‘From Powder Puff to W Series: the Evolution of Women’s Only Racing’ from Life in the Fast Lane: Essays on the History and Politics of Motor Racing. This particular extract addresses the W Series, the most recent, prominent, and perhaps most promising women-only racing series.

In the early 2000s, the women’s racing series emerged as an alternative all-female racing concept, created to address the lack of women in the higher echelons of motorsport by providing more openings for more women to develop the skills and experience necessary to move on to the next level. While earlier attempts at the women’s racing series met with varying degrees of success, the most recent and most promising format is the W Series, which just completed its second successful season.

2019 & 2021 Champion Jamie Chadwick

The W Series was introduced in October 2018 as “a unique ground-breaking free-to-enter single-seater motor racing series for women drivers only” (W Series). The all-female Formula 3 championship series was conceived to promote female drivers into Formula One. The W Series objective, notes organizer Catherine Bond Muir, is not only to provide top notch racing for spectators and viewers on a global scale, but also to “equip its drivers with the experience and expertise with which they may progress their careers.”

In its inaugural season, 18 drivers representing 13 countries – chosen from nearly 100 of the top female drivers across the globe – participated in six races at some of Europe’s premier Formula 1 racing venues. Prior to taking the wheel, the women were required to participate in rigorous training programs centered on driving techniques, simulator exposure, technical engineering approaches, fitness, and media, conducted by instructors with Formula 1 experience. Efforts were taken to address the inequalities that plague many of the world’s premier racing series. Drivers were not expected to attain sponsorships in order to participate nor to shoulder any of the financial responsibilities; rather, all expenses  were covered by the series organization. The women competed in identical series-owned Tatuus T-318 Formula 3 cars rotated after each race to remove any hardware advantage from the competition. Not only was the series free to enter for all its drivers, but awarded significant prize money [total of $1,500,000 US] all the way through to 18th place in the final standings.

The 2019 series was a modest success; it experienced an increase in viewer interest and ratings after each race. By the end of the first season, the W Series was being broadcast in over 50 countries reaching up to 350 million households. The first W Series champion – Britain’s Jamie Chadwick – took home a $500,000 prize and was subsequently named as a development driver for the Williams Formula 1 Team. At the end of the season it was announced that in 2020, the top eight drivers in the championship would collect points toward an FIA Super License, an important entryway into Formula 1.

Chadwick leading the pack

The COVID pandemic cancelled the 2020 W Series. However, it was announced that as part of a new partnership with Formula 1, the W Series would be on the support bill for eight Grands Prix in 2021. The partnership not only lends legitimacy to the all-female series, but further underscores the W Series’ role in the preparation and promotion of female racers into the upper tiers of motorsport.

The 2021 season came to a close in October, with Jamie Chadwick once again finishing at the top of a very impressive group of drivers. However, despite the growing success of the racing series, there remains a bit of controversy not over the W Series itself, but the role it plays – or not – in the development and promotion of female drivers. W Series entered the racing arena under a cloud of controversy with much to prove. Not everyone – the media, racing organizations, race promoters, and the women themselves – was convinced a woman-only series was a step forward for female racers. W Series opponents argued that since motorsports is one of the few competitions in which women can compete directly with men, female racers should take every opportunity to do so. As male accomplishment is the barometer by which success in any field is most often measured, choosing to compete against women may be considered a sign of weakness, cowardice, or ineptitude. Other objections focused on the prize money offered to female competitors, arguing that the considerable monetary awards could be better distributed. When the W Series was announced, veteran driver Pippa Mann asserted, “I strongly believe, in the firmest possible terms, that this money should be spent helping field those same racers in real cars, in real series, in non-segregated competition” (qtd in Hall). 

An early representation of the woman driver

The debate surrounding the W Series echoes that which has accompanied most configurations of female motorsport since Powder Puffs first entered the racing arena. For much of its existence, women’s racing has been constructed as a frivolous and inconsequential sideshow, a trivial endeavor, a catwalk of second-rate drivers in pink racing suits. Although women’s racing has come into its own in the twenty-first century, it cannot completely escape such long-standing and disparaging associations. It is not surprising, therefore, that many choose to dismiss all-female racing as way to distance themselves from these pervasive and sexist stereotypical representations. Secondly, throughout automotive history, women have been portrayed as inferior drivers. In the early auto age, writes automotive scholar Virginia Scharff, “critics of women drivers […] cited three presumed sources of women’s inferiority at the wheel: emotional instability, physical weakness, and intellectual deficiencies” (26). These assumed biological, gender-induced character deficits have carried over into motorsports, where women are considered less able to perform in a competitive field, or, as Pflugfelder writes, are thought of as “something less than a driver” (417). To be female in segregated racing such as the W Series, therefore, carries the stigma of inferior and ‘less than.’ To prove oneself as legitimate, some contend, it is imperative to compete against men. As Straus asserts, “I didn’t become a race car driver to be the ‘best woman out there’” (qtd in Gilboy).

W Series organizers and promotors have countered criticism by focusing on the increased possibilities such a series offers for female racers. W Series leaders argue this can be accomplished through the reduction of obstacles that hamper women throughout the tiered racing system, the elimination of individual financial responsibility, and the establishment of programs that encourage women’s motorsports involvement at a young age.

Throughout motorsports history, the lack of opportunities for women has greatly limited their participation. A series without men opens up significantly more racing possibilities for female racers. More women racing in high-profile, high-performance events will lead to the normalization of women’s motorsport participation. More women on the track will lead to increased media coverage and publicity, bringing the world of motorsports to new, younger, and female audiences. If women’s racing becomes normalized, young girls are more likely to develop an interest, and more parents may consider karting – the predominately male entryway into motorsports – for their racing-obsessed daughters. 

In a recent interview, Chadwick addresses the criticism often directed at women’s racing in general and the W Series in particular. Her repeated success in the W Series has led the media to position Chadwick as a model of women in motorsports, a weight she does not take lightly. As she explained, ‘What [the W Series] does is give massive visibility and exposure to women in motorsport, giving us the opportunity to be racing at such a high level. […] Without W Series, there’s a handful of drivers that wouldn’t have that opportunity. […] And to be completely honest, I think I would have struggled to see my career progress […] without W Series because I think the season’s racing helps for sure” (Southwell).

W Series organizer Catherine Bond Muir notes, “Women in motorsport are something of a rarity today, but with W Series as a catalyst, we hope to transform the diversity of the sport—and perhaps even encourage more girls into professions they had not previously considered. That will mean as much to us as helping develop a female Formula 1 world champion” (qtd in Gilboy). 

Gilboy, J. (2018a) ‘W Series: Everything to Know About the Women-Only Racing Championship’, The Drive. 13 Oct.

Hall, S. (2019) ‘3 reasons we should be paying attention to the W Series’, Autoweek, 3 Jul.

Pflugfelder, E. (2009) ‘Something less than a driver: toward an understanding of gendered bodies in motorsport’, Journal of Sport and Social Issues, 33(4) pp. 411-426.

Scharff, V. (1991). Taking the wheel: women and the coming of the motor age. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press.

Southwell, H. (2021). ‘Jamie Chadwick Feels the Weight of Representing Women in Motorsport.’ The Drive, 23 Oct.

W Series (2020) ‘W Series: a game changer.’ 6, Feb.

The Classic Car & the Woman Driver On Screen

While I am not a big network TV watcher, I enjoy viewing many of the series that find their way to Netflix or Amazon Prime. One of my favorites that has just returned is Modern Love, a series of short films taken from the New York Times essay feature of the same name. I was particularly taken with this season’s first episode – ‘On a Serpentine Road with the Top Down’ – as it addressed the relationship of a woman – played by British actor Minnie Driver – and her automobile, a 1970s Triumph Stag. The Stag was the impractical vehicle purchased by her late husband while they were both in medical school. It was the car in which they took family road trips and was a space in which they had meaningful family time. Although the widowed physician has remarried and has a second daughter, she is hesitant to part with the car that holds so many memories. She spends much time in the car alone, holding conversations with her late husband, as a way to reflect on her past as she travels through her grief. Like most classic vehicles, the Stag is ornery, unpredictable, and subject to frequent breakdowns. Her husband convinces her to sell it so as to make the family more financially stable. However, as they subsequently engage in an honest and open conversation about love, grief, and the inability to completely move on, her husband sells his boat so that he can buy back the Stag and with it, the memories it holds for the woman he loves.

Stephanie [Minnie Driver], her late husband Mark [Tom Burke], and a classic Triumph Stag in ‘On a Serpentine Road, With the Top Down.’

As reviewer Lissette Saenz notes, ‘we get attached to things that remind us of the people we loved and lost.’ In a recent Sunday Times article, women spoke of vehicles inherited upon a loved one’s passing. As the owner of a 1936 Austin Healy explained, “The car is a part of my dad that I still get to hang onto” (Vowden). This sentiment is not only expressed in the Modern Love episode, but can be found in a number of what can only be described as female road trip films.

In a recent article published in the Journal of Popular Culture, I examine the relationship of women and cars in these cinematic offerings. Classic vehicles in the female road trip, I note, often serve as a container of memories for a woman who has suffered a deep personal loss. The cars the women drive are most often not their own; rather they are inherited after the death of the person they loved. I cite two films – Bonneville and Grandma – to demonstrate how an old vehicle can allow a grieving woman to reflect on her past while providing her with the opportunity to drive away from it. 

Arvilla [Jessica Lange], Margene [Kathy Bates], Carol [Joan Allen], and a 1966 Pontiac Bonneville in Bonneville.

In Bonneville, released in 2006, Jessica Lange plays the recently widowed Arvilla, who embarks on a road trip with two friends (Kathy Bates and Joan Allen) in her late husband Joe’s 1966 Pontiac Bonneville to deliver his ashes to his daughter in California. Before embarking on the journey, Arvilla spends some time alone in the car, feeling Joe’s presence and confronting her loss. Yet once she leaves her Utah town, Joe’s spirit slowly exits the Bonneville along with the ashes Arvilla disperses along the way. In its place is Arvilla’s growing confidence in her ability to create a new life for herself.

The 2015 film Grandma stars Lily Tomlin as Elle, a widowed lesbian poet-in-residence who spends a day driving her deceased partner’s 1955 Dodge Lancer across Los Angeles in an attempt to cash in on past debts to pay for her granddaughter’s abortion. While the journey is ostensibly about obtaining funds to help her granddaughter Sage (Julia Garner), it is in truth about grief, loss, uncertainty, and Elle’s ability to move on. It is also concerned with family and the developing relationship between grandmother and granddaughter.

Sage [Julia Garner], Elle [Lily Tomlin], and a 1955 Dodge Lancer in Grandma.

Women have a different relationship to old cars than do men. In the United States, classic car ownership is overwhelmingly male and is most often prompted by nostalgia. Men of a certain age purchase the models they drove or desired when young as a way to remember or reimagine a young and virile past. Whereas aging men often view the classic car through a personal lens – as a reflection of their former selves – women are more likely to view aging automobiles as a connection to others. These sentiments are not only represented on screen, but are evident in real women’s lives. In my research on women and muscle cars, for example, I spoke with many female owners who inherited cars from fathers or husbands who had passed. Women spoke of both the sadness and joy they experienced when taking these old cars out for a ride.

Like the Modern Love episode, Bonneville and Grandma speak to how an automobile can hold one’s grief while simultaneously providing the means to move beyond it. As a metaphor, as in real life, the automobile is uniquely qualified for this undertaking – it is a physical space in which the essence of a previous owner can be experienced, and has the physical machinations to move a body and a life forward. The films mentioned here reflect an acceptance, as reviewer Tisha Lardizabal notes, that ‘moving on doesn’t mean having to be rid of all of the love and memories that were created.’ They also suggest that the relationship between women and cars is richer, more universal, and more complicated than most representations – in the media and popular culture – would have us believe. 

Lardizabal, Tisha. “Review: Amazon Prime’s ‘Modern Love’ Season Two Premiere ‘On a Serpentine Road, With the Top Down’.” mxdwn.com 15 Aug 2021.

Lezotte, Chris. “What Would Miss Daisy Drive? The Road Trip Film, the Automobile, and the Woman Behind the Wheel.” The Journal of Popular Culture.

Saenz, Lisette Sanuza. ‘Modern Love’ 2×01 Review: “On a Serpentine Road, With the Top Down.” Fangirlish 13 Aug 2021.

Vowden, Charlotte. “Women With Drive: The Ladies Who Love Being Behind the Wheel of a Classic Car.” Driving 28 Oct. 2018.