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Celebrating Women in NASCAR: The Journey from the Inception to the Present Day

May 19th is NASCAR Day and we want to talk about the women who have made a mark in an industry mostly directed to men.

Women in NASCAR

Since its inception in 1949, NASCAR has witnessed varying degrees of female participation, paving the way for many milestones and records in women's motorsport history. As we approach NASCAR Day on May 19, 2023, it's the perfect time to celebrate these women, their achievements, and their contributions to this thrilling sport.

The first significant moment in women's history in NASCAR was marked by Sara Christian, who competed in the inaugural NASCAR race at Charlotte Speedway, with Bob Flock finishing the race for her. Christian's participation set the stage for other women to enter the sport. In NASCAR's second official race at Daytona Beach and Road Course, Christian was joined by Ethel Mobley and Louise Smith. Mobley emerged as the top female competitor, finishing 11th in the race.

women in nascar

Women in NASCAR at the beginning

Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, however, the participation of female drivers in NASCAR's touring series was sparse. Among the noteworthy names of this era was Betty Skelton Erde, who, though not officially a NASCAR driver, drove the pace car at Daytona in 1954, setting a women's stock car speed record of 105.88 mph on the sand.

After a decade-long absence of female participation, Janet Guthrie made her mark in the 1976 World 600, finishing 15th and ahead of Dale Earnhardt. Guthrie went on to become the first woman to lead a Winston Cup Series race under caution at Ontario Speedway in 1977. This paved the way for Patty Moise, who in 1986, became the first woman to lead in a Busch Series race.

Women in NASCAR through the 80s and 90s

women in nascar

In 1988, Shawna Robinson, a Charlotte/Daytona Dash Series driver, made history by becoming the first woman to win a NASCAR Touring Series event. Robinson also secured the "Rookie of the Year" and "Most Popular Driver" honors that year, and in her sophomore Dash Series run, she became the first woman to earn the pole position for a NASCAR touring series race.

The 1990s saw more frequent participation from women in NASCAR's lower series. Patty Moise made a record 133 Xfinity Series starts between 1986 and 1998, and Tammy Jo Kirk achieved 37 top-10 finishes and two poles in what was then known as the All Pro Series. Additionally, Kirk was the first woman to participate in the Camping World Truck Series.

Women in NASCAR in the 2000s

Meanwhile, after starting a family, Shawna Robinson returned to stock car racing in 1999. She contested a full ARCA Bondo/Mar-Hyde Series season in 2000 and returned to sporadic NASCAR-sanctioned competition over the next few years. In 2001, Robinson became the first woman to finish a race in the Winston Cup Series since Janet Guthrie in 1980. Notably, she also had the first all-female pit crew for a Craftsman Truck Series race at Texas Motor Speedway in 2003.

In 2004, NASCAR launched the Drive for Diversity program to foster a more diverse driver base. Although the program has been successful in launching the careers of minority drivers, including NASCAR Cup Series race winner Kyle Larson, Camping World Truck Series race winner Bubba Wallace, and 2016 NASCAR Xfinity Series champion Daniel Suárez, it was less successful in expanding the roster of female drivers in NASCAR's top touring series during its early years.

NASCAR's women in 2010s

Women in NASCAR
Karla Surles. Image from official NASCAR website

The 2010s brought about a significant shift, as IndyCar Series driver Danica Patrick joined NASCAR. Racing part-time in the K&N Pro Series East and the Nationwide Series, Patrick secured a major milestone by clinching the pole position in the 2012 DRIVE 4COPD 300, becoming the first female driver to do so since Shawna Robinson. In 2012, Patrick made her part-time debut in the Sprint Cup Series.

The following year, at just 19 years of age, Snowball Derby winner Johanna Long became the youngest female driver to race in the Camping World Truck Series. She went on to compete in the Nationwide Series, making her debut in the same race as Patrick.

Danica Patrick continued to break barriers by becoming the first woman to receive NASCAR's Most Popular Nationwide Driver award in 2012. The next year, Patrick secured a full-time ride in the Sprint Cup series with Stewart-Haas Racing, becoming the first woman in Sprint Cup history to do so.

Patrick made further strides in 2013, becoming the first female driver to clinch the pole position and lead a green flag lap, both at the Daytona 500. This made her the first woman to lead both the Indianapolis 500 and the Daytona 500. Notably, she finished the race in eighth place, marking the highest finish for a woman in the Daytona 500. By 2014, Patrick had become the first woman to race at every racetrack on the circuit. That same year, she became the first woman to lead laps at Talladega, and she also participated in the 2014 Sprint Unlimited.

In 2015, Patrick tied Janet Guthrie's record for most top ten finishes for a woman, and a few weeks later, she surpassed this record at Bristol. At Michigan, she became the first woman to lead under green on a non-restrictor plate track, and at Kentucky, she became the first woman to make 100 starts in NASCAR's Cup Series.

In 2016, Patrick led a career-high 30 laps and completed more circuits than all but three other drivers. She opened the 2017 season with a fourth-place finish in the Advance Auto Parts Clash, an exhibition race for previous pole winners, before retiring from full-time stock car racing after the 2018 Daytona 500.

The 2010s also marked the rise of Hailie Deegan, the first female driver to win a race in the ARCA Menards Series West. In 2018, Deegan became the first female driver to win a NASCAR touring series race in about three decades. She followed this up by winning two more races in 2019.

In 2019, Manami Kobayashi became the third woman to win a NASCAR touring series race, winning in her debut in the Whelen Euro Series Elite Club Division. This was also the first time in NASCAR history that two women, Kobayashi and Alina Loibnegger, finished 1-2.

2020 and beyond for Women in NASCAR

The 2020s ushered in more milestones for women in NASCAR. Gracie Trotter became the second female driver to win in the West Series in 2020, making her the first woman to win under the ARCA name. In 2021, Toni Breidinger, the first Arab American female driver in NASCAR, returned to the ARCA Menards Series, while Deegan and Natalie Decker moved up from the ARCA Menards Series and the Truck Series, respectively, to compete full-time in the Truck Series and part-time in the Xfinity Series.

As of April 2021, Shawna Robinson, Hailie Deegan, Manami Kobayashi, and Gracie Trotter remain the only women to have won a race in one of NASCAR's touring series. Furthermore, as we approach the 2023 season, Hailie Deegan and Toni Breidinger are the only female drivers running a full season.

Celebrating women in NASCAR

As we celebrate NASCAR Day this May 19, we commemorate the rich history and significant achievements of these women who have been blazing trails and shattering ceilings in this traditionally male-dominated sport. They continue to inspire countless others, proving that talent, courage, and determination know no gender.

While the path to the NASCAR circuits can be a grueling one, these women have shown that they are more than capable of navigating it. From the likes of Sara Christian, Janet Guthrie, and Patty Moise, to Shawna Robinson, Danica Patrick, and Hailie Deegan, they have each played a crucial part in rewriting the narrative of women in motor racing.

Their relentless pursuit of success has not only earned them a place in the history books but has also paved the way for a new generation of female racers. Young talents like Toni Breidinger, the first Arab American female driver in NASCAR, and Gracie Trotter, the first female to win under the ARCA name, are just some of the promising drivers who are carrying on the legacy of these pioneering women.

Yet, their journey is not just about breaking records or achieving personal glory. It's about demonstrating the potential of women in a field where they have been underrepresented. By simply turning up on the track, they have been challenging stereotypes, promoting diversity, and inspiring future generations of women to dream without boundaries.

The determination and resilience shown by these women are a testament to the fact that the drive to succeed is not dictated by gender. They have proven time and again that they have the skill, strength, and stamina to compete at the highest level of motor racing.

NASCAR's own initiative, the Drive for Diversity program, launched in 2004, reflects the growing recognition of the need for a more diverse and inclusive field of drivers. While the program's early years saw limited success in expanding the roster of female drivers, it nevertheless signaled an important shift in the sport's attitude towards diversity and representation.

NASCAR Day and the role of women in NASCAR through its history

Women in NASCAR

As we celebrate NASCAR Day this May 19, 2023, let us honor these women for their invaluable contributions to NASCAR. They are not just drivers; they are trailblazers, role models, and embodiments of determination, resilience, and courage.

Their stories and accomplishments serve as a powerful reminder that the race is not always to the swift, but to those who keep on driving. Their tireless efforts continue to inspire more women to rev their engines, grasp the wheel, and chase after their NASCAR dreams.

In this spirit of celebration, let us anticipate more milestones and achievements from women in NASCAR. They have already shown us that they have what it takes to compete, win, and rewrite history. Let's continue to support them as they speed along their journey, accelerating towards a future where diversity in NASCAR is not just hoped for, but is a reality.

These women are more than just racers; they are history makers and barrier breakers, who with every race, lap, and finish line crossed, continue to redefine the very fabric of NASCAR. Today, we celebrate them, their journey, and the indomitable spirit of women in NASCAR.

As we reflect on the history of women in NASCAR this NASCAR Day, we recognize their incredible achievements, appreciate their unwavering resilience, and look forward to a future with more women in the driver's seat, creating an even more diverse and vibrant NASCAR community.

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