In 1997, a 16-year-old girl from Ohio competed in the Knoxville Nationals. The combination of her gender and her age made her an instant curiosity. Women had raced winged sprint cars – strange, powerful beasts that are notoriously difficult to control – at Knoxville Raceway in Iowa for 19 years before she arrived, but none had done it at such a young age.
Her story grew when it became apparent that she was highly capable. Racing against men with decades of experience, she qualified for the D-main – a remarkable feat for a young racer. Sarah Fisher went on to compete in Indy car racing for 11 years, including nine Indianapolis 500s. She owned a race team, became an influential leader in the sport and is regarded as a pioneer in the advancement of women in racing. Not the first, certainly, but one of the most significant.
On Friday, another woman with multiple Indy 500s on her resume took to Twitter to criticize the FIA’s decision to name Carmen Jorda to its Women in Motorsport Commission.
“Dear @fia,” Pippa Mann tweeted. “If the news I am hearing is correct, and you have appointed a racer with no notable results, who does not believe we compete as equals in this sport, to represent women in racing, I am incredibly disappointed. Sincerely -an #Indy500 qualifier, #IndyLights race winner.”
Mann was correct to criticize, of course, but the largely positive (and largely unexpected) response to her tweet proved encouraging. Her message should be viewed as intended – not as a personal attack on another driver, but as a plea to the world’s largest and most influential motorsports governing body to take women seriously.
At the heart of the controversy is Jorda’s stated belief that women should race separately from men, including comments like this:
“They think because we are driving a car we are on the same level as men, which is completely not true because we will never be the same as them. I have had to fight through many things to get to the top of this sport, just because I am a woman, and that is not fair.”
Sigh. Given that women have been racing against men since the early days of the automobile, Jorda’s position is difficult to accept. Especially for the women doing it in real time.
“Against this backdrop of current and rising female racing talent, it is extremely disappointing to learn that a racer with no notable results in any of the categories in which she has competed, and who believes and is quoted as saying that she does not believe we as female racers can compete, has been appointed to the FIA Women in Motorsport Commission,” Mann writes. “To me personally, the appointment of someone with these core beliefs, to a committee meant to further the cause of women in racing, is incredibly disheartening and represents a true step backwards from the FIA. Most worrying of all, one wonders whether this appointment is in any way truly representative of their beliefs towards female athletes competing in motorsport in general.”
The fact that women compete against men – and beat them and win championships – is the primary difference between racing and other sports. It should be championed, encouraged and promoted. The beauty of motorsport is that it’s open to all. That should never be diminished.
Just this year, Christina Nielsen won the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship’s GTD title for a second time. In 2016, her championship was the first by a woman in sports-car history. Katherine Legge teamed with Andy Lally to win two races in the GTD class. Brittany Force won the NHRA Top Fuel championship. After completing her second full season in GP3, Tatiana Calderon became the first woman to record a podium finish in a Word Series Formula V8 3.5 race. And Mann became the first woman to record a lap of more than 230 mph at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
It’s not easy, but the well-worn path of women in racing is gradually improving.
"On the open-wheel side, we still suffer from a lack of female racers overall coming up through the ladder system behind me, and most female racers who reach the top, myself included, have struggled to find the financial support and funding to stay there,” Mann wrote. “However, things are getting better, and I am finding there are more companies who are beginning to have interest in backing me as a female athlete in this sport.”
Since Cheryl Burgard became the first woman to compete at Knoxville Raceway in 1978, 30 other women have raced at the famous track. In 2015, 18-year-old McKenna Haase won a weekly race in the 305-cubic-inch class, making her the first woman to win a feature race at Knoxville. Erin Crocker-Evernham competed in the Knoxville Nationals a record five times and was the first woman to qualify for the event’s prestigious championship feature.
And, of course, Fisher launched her career there.
Women have earned the right to respect from fans, fellow racers and the sport’s governing bodies. They’ve earned the right to proper and honest representation. They’ve earned the right to support from the organizations that should be supporting them. They earned it long before a 16-year-old girl from Ohio pitched a sprint car around a half-mile dirt oval.
They deserve better than someone who thinks they shouldn’t be racing against men.