On Being a Woman Who Loves Racing

Being a woman who loves racing is exhausting.

Being a woman who loves racing means wanting to go to a race but not wanting to go alone, because going alone means subjection to harassment.  When I went to the 2015 Pirelli World Challenge race, I had men ask for pictures with me because they “try to get pictures with sexy little things at every race they go to”.  During that same weekend, a man sat next to me in a grandstand, his three friends surrounded me, and he proposed a bet: we choose a car, and if his car wins, he gets my number and a kiss.  At the Indycar race in Toronto, during the two hours I was at Friday practice by myself, the man who approached me confused Indycar with Formula 1, protested when I tried to correct him, and wouldn’t accept me trying to leave until I told him a made-up boyfriend was waiting for me to bring him his tickets at the gate.

Being a woman who loves racing means constantly being questioned and second-guessed.  The round of questioning a woman is subjected to feels more like an interrogation than a friendly conversation.  When I’m asked how I got into racing, it’s because I need to prove my worth as a longtime fan and not just as some silly girl who decided to show up to a race one day.  There’s almost a set script.  Who’s your favorite driver?  Team?  Why did you choose them?  Why did you travel for a race?  You really like racing that much?  And on and on and on.

Being a woman who loves racing means that if you fail any one of the many qualifications and requirements you’re supposed to meet, you can’t be a real fan.  I can see the disdain – the exact moment where I’m written off – when one of my questions falls short of expectation.  Oh, you haven’t been a Formula 1 fan since you left the womb, well… Oh, you don’t understand the complicated engineering terms I’m throwing out to you, well…

Being a woman who loves racing means being constantly undermined.  When I told men I was a Marussia fan, they wanted to know if I was aware that they were the worst team on the grid.  When friends told men they were Mercedes fans, they rolled their eyes and wrote it off as the woman choosing the team they saw at the top of the time sheets.  When I express support for a driver, more often than not I’m asked if I support him because he’s cute.  

Being a woman who loves racing means having to choose between being vocal about the problems in motorsport – and they are many – and being silent, subjecting both yourself and your fellow women to more of the same.  It means being branded a rabid feminist if you criticize.  It means hours of arguing.  It means stating your point over and over and over, to one man after another.  It means no one listening to you, to the case you’re making, to the logic you’re presenting.  It means standing up for yourself, and having your experience undermined in the face of the status quo.  It means “can I just play devil’s advocate for a second?”  It means ‘tradition’.  It means men scrounging for every example they can to shove in your face and say, “See?  This one single woman doesn’t believe in what you’re saying, stop being so sensitive!”

Being a woman who loves racing means you don’t have the luxury to get to see yourself in motorsport in a non-visually appealing way.  It means grid girls holding signs on the grid.  It means women with sponsor logos branded on crop tops and booty shorts.  It means women posing next to cars.  It means women as decoration next to the drivers at events, on podiums.  It means albums of photos on Motorsport.com titled “Paddock Beauties”.  It means seeing the exact moment when a man stops seeing you as a person and starts seeing you through the heart-eyed lens because “wow, you like racing?”  It means a barrage of unanswered DMs from men who all want to get to know the girl who watches Formula 1.

Being a woman who loves racing means some iteration of the above, every single day, for as long as you exist as a visible feminine presence in the sphere of motorsports.  And y’all, I am tired.

Which only makes it worse when shirts like the “girls who love racing are rare.  Wife ’em up” make their rounds, and you have to watch the people you admire – drivers, pundits, fans, and friends alike – take part in perpetuating a stereotype that you spent every day trying to reverse.  For them, it’s a justification for their behavior, justification to not have to think about what it means to reinforce the objectification of women in a male-dominated sport, justification to sit back and let the status quo run its course.  For women, it’s a step backward that we now have to redouble our efforts to overcome.

I know that these things aren’t done intentionally, or with malice.  I know that for many, it seemed an innocuous enough shirt.  But that doesn’t negate the fact that this kind of thing is Not Okay and does more harm than good.  It doesn’t negate the fact that the people spreading this kind of message are the ones who have the power to be heard and taken seriously and therefore need to be more conscious of the things they’re saying.  It doesn’t negate the fact that it creates a climate detrimental to female race fans – and yes, even female race fans spreading that same message.

The group of fans that I attend races with is entirely female.  We’ve met, traveled the world, and watched races together – all of us women.  It’s one of the most passionate, well-informed, friendly, funny, and incredible groups of race fans that I know.  And yet not a single woman in that group has been afforded access into the world of motorsports fandom with the same ease as a man would have.  Not a single one has been free from criticism, ridicule, questioning, or objectification.  It breaks my heart that such a talented group will have to fight tooth-and-nail just to achieve a fraction of the respect they deserve.  This is not the kind of welcoming committee I want to see represent my sport.

I don’t treat racing events like parties of the eighteenth century.  This is not me presenting myself in my quest for a husband.  I don’t attend to be “wifed up” by starry-eyed men seeking their manic pixie race car dream girl or ogled by those who think any woman at the track is there for their specific entertainment.  I don’t attend because I want to steep myself in an a testosterone-drenched atmosphere where I am exclusively singled out, objectified, or harassed because of my gender.

I go to racing events for one reason, and one reason only.  I am woman who loves racing, and I’m just here to watch race cars and have a good time.  I only ask that I be respected for that.

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29 Comments

  1. At first, when I saw the shirt, I felt off about it, but couldn’t put my finger on why. Maybe because drivers and pundits and friends liked it, I was playing dumb with myself. Now I wish I’d thought harder, said something.

    BUT…. Reading your post has held up a mirror to me. I don’t do (can’t remember doing) the things you talked about, but it’s true that I see women race fans differently to male ones. Most of my interactions with fans are online, and if I see a woman race fan on, I’m likely to follow them. That doesn’t sound inherently bad, and I’m sure it would be possible to cynically defend myself with an argument of empowerment. But it could also be that to me women race fans are more attractive than male ones.

    I’m ashamed as I think this through, but it’s like women race fans are the grid girls we can talk to. Something that was once only a sexual object is now accessible. Obviously, women have been in motorsport for decades, but the only ones we saw were the ones pressed into looking good and staying silent. The reality feels new. But using words like ‘conditioned’ would be a spurious way of avoiding responsibility.

    I like to think that I agree with and support the feminist movement, and I think in general my actions reflect that, but I don’t know if that’s enough. Supporting women drivers and engineers and journalists and other experts, retweeting something (like this) that I agree with, following, listening… It all feels like a veneer. Sometimes I don’t know if I put it all on so I can get away with being a sexist arsehole who likes to look at that girl’s cute profile pic before reading her tweets and I don’t really know what to do. AND I’ve managed to make it all about me, so there’s that too. *facepalm*

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    • (First off, thank you for your comment and for taking the time to read! It means a lot!!)
      It’s true that a significant majority of race fans that I meet are totally chill. Like, 99 out of 100 guys I encounter going to races or being a fan online are awesome!! It’s just that 1 out of 100 who stringently contribute to a toxic atmosphere and the others who don’t say anything that it makes women feel uncomfortable. I really like what you said about female race fans being like grid girls you can talk to – that’s a really good way of summing things up because I know for a lot of women, that’s how it feels.
      Your awareness of yourself as compared to others in terms of your experiences in motorsports is a really great first step because honestly, a lot of people are unwilling to consider that something might be wrong with the status quo in motorsports, even fewer who are willing to look at themselves to see if they might contribute to the problem. I think the best thing that you can do is continue being aware, and to start being more vocal about things that you see that need to change (be that using your platform as a male race fan to speak up for women or stepping aside to let her speak up for herself but use your ability to amplify her message to get it to a wider audience!) Motorsports is inherently a very masculine environment but with fans like you who are willing to look at that critically and start affecting change, we could see a shift in that dynamic soon!! And I’m super super glad that this post was able to help others see things from a new perspective

      Liked by 1 person

      • I think you’re being very generous in your reply! But yes, I agree it has to be a dialogue, and there’s no easy way out. I studied literature, and we used to say that the first reference of character is what they do and what they say. Perhaps by emulating behaviour one admires, core attitudes become irrelevant, and that chain of hand-me-down sexism can be broken.

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  2. I’m sorry you have to deal with this. I can’t imagine what it’d be like going to a race knowing in the back of my mind I was probably going to have at least one interaction like this.

    I’ve only ever seen anything like it once, and I immediately fought against it. At the GP of Indy, we were walking toward the north gate, and we’re getting to the tunnel under the track. Some guys drove up in a car and said to the girls walking in front of us “Hey baby how about you show me a little skin?” Immediately repulsed I yelled “WOW THOSE GUYS ARE SO COOL!” They stuck a finger out the window and drove on. I couldn’t believe what I’d witnessed and figured it was an isolated incident. I guess not. Keep fighting the good fight!

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    • For a lot of women fans, that’s unfortunately a reality. That kind of behavior is usually not so present at the actual circuit, but I’ve camped at a few tracks, and that’s where a lot of that toxicity comes into play.

      Thank you for taking time time to read and comment as well!! It means a lot!

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  3. I go to races with a group of 6 men and I have the unfortunate nicknames of pinocchio (because I’m not a really boy….. Apparently that’s acceptable) and son because I go with my dad. This is so accepted that they think it’s normal and okay to say it. I’ve watched racing since the beginning of the lewis era and I love formula 1 not just for him but he does help. I love motogp and slept for 3 hours during le man’s 24 hours and yet most men think it’s odd for a woman to do this. I will always find it annoying how I will never be classed as a true fan.

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  4. This is a very well written article, if inherently depressing. I was just at the St. Petersburg Indycar race yesterday, and remarked to my girlfriend (who was not at the race but has been to races and enjoyed them for what they are, not just for me) that there was a considerably larger female population at that race than any other race I’d been to. Like approaching to 50-50 which was obviously significant enough to stand out to me to notice and remark to her. The thing that made me the happiest was the young girls at the race with their parents who were actively engaged and enjoying themselves as I know from personal experience how important it is to start young for a racing fan or sports fan in general, and I have another anecdote about this that I’ll pass along later. The downside to this is that my first assumption was to think “well St Petersburg is a much easier vacation destination to convince your wife/girlfriend to go to than Daytona or Sebring. And while that may have been accurate and probably responsible for the large increase I felt as if I did the women like yourself who were there for yourselves an injustice with that prejudice. And while I don’t think it’s a bad thing that many of the women were there with their husbands/boyfriends, because it’s important for that interest to start somewhere, I feel as though if I, likely one of the more progressive minds there, am still painting most of these women as there as a partner and not as a fan then there’s likely not many people there who are fostering the necessary culture to encourage these women there to become fans. They’ll still likely get questions from friends and from other race fans of “why are you here” or “you went to a race? Why?” And that’s really not okay. As for the anecdote I mentioned earlier, and the further personal experience I have with this issue, I was introduced to racing (Nascar) by my Aunt, herself a huge Nascar fan. She comes down yearly to Daytona with her children and now grandchildren to enjoy the action. This year she was talking to me and saying “How did I get you into racing? Your little cousin (male) just doesn’t seem to be interested. I mean your other little cousin (female) seems like she’s having a better time and I can’t seem to get him interested.” I gave her some advice on how I felt to get him into racing but I was bothered by the fact that she, who should know better, seemed to be dissmissive about her granddaughter being an interested party. If your own family isn’t supporting your interests, especially that young, then it’s going to be very hard to foster that interest and let it grow into being a fan. I made sure to spend a bit more time with my little female cousin to make sure she was still having fun, and hopefully she comes back next year even more excited. Sorry for the long-winded reply, I just really appreciated your article and felt I had some words to share on the subject.

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    • Thank you so so so much for sharing this comment, this is incredible!

      Indycar’s demographics for race attendance are usually pretty great! That series is doing something right, because I went to quite a few races last year, and there was a pretty even split between men and women even at places like Pocono. I like to think it’s because of the amount of female drivers the series has hosted in recent years; it does WONDERS, especially for all the little girls!

      And it’s so unfortunate to hear that even your aunt was dismissive of her granddaughter’s interests. That is, sadly, an issue that persists – in my own family, I was the huge race fan and my brother didn’t care for it. But my dad never once acknowledged that I was the one interested in cars.

      But good on you for taking the time to foster her interest!! Nobody is perfect – biased thoughts can still pop up but the fact that you’re aware of the fact that you’re thinking a biased thought and taking steps to foster interest in young female race fans is awesome! The first steps to big change!

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  5. One of the many issues I’ve had raising my daughter is how unfair women are treated. It might not be intentional, but it’s certainly a culture thing that is brutally unfair.
    Not being a woman myself, I never understood how deep that discrimination went until my daughter arrived, and I have to constantly educate her that she must never allow herself to think that a woman is in any way less than a man.

    And yes, I am aware on how objectified the image of a woman is in racing.

    One of the races of this F1 season I watched Nicko Rosberg walk to the podium in a corridor where there were dozens of women just placed there in pretty dresses to applaud him.

    It’s ridiculous, really.

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  6. ive been a race fan since I was a toddler. my dad used to take me to the Daytona 500 every year. I have loved all sorts of auto racing ever since; NASCAR, F1, Indy, CART, Formula E….no shame in being a gearhead!!! any man who doesnt like my love of car racing can go take a flying swerve off of a chicane.

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  7. Articles like this always seem strange for me, took years of pestering for my wife to finally get me to watch f1… and now I’m hooked. Asides from drivers, females seem to be everywhere in f1, from team bosses, to reporters etc. Hopefully we some female talent destroying the laptimes soon too! F1 punters just need to learn some basic respect it seems like! All the best, cheers for the article.

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  8. As a life-long race fan who both attends events and drives on the track at performance driving events I thought I understood what women must feel in this setting. I was wrong. I was thinking of the tip of the iceberg. So, thank you for this post. It has enlightened me. As a male race fan I take many things for granted. For instance, being left alone with my sons to enjoy the experience. I’m sorry you have to go through this and I hope the future allows you to enjoy race days in the same way I have throughout my life. Take care, and don’t let the baddies get you down or discourage you.

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  9. I have been verbally slapped for this opinion before, but this has to start with Moms and Dads teaching their children, esp. sons to respect women. I was married to a lovely woman who told me before we wed that she would not do my laundry and expected me to help with the housework; which I had no problem with. Her teenaged daughter had similar rules. She waited on her preteen son hand and foot, spoiled him completely. When I ventured to say that she was raising him to be the kind of man she disliked, I was told “He’s my baby. You don’t have kids, you can’t understand”. Some time after we parted I happened to see that he was arrested for domestic violence. I wish I was allowed to join in his upbringing, respect has to be taught early and often and it has to begin at home.

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    • No I totally agree with you here. Mindsets are molded in childhood, and bad habits that form because parents treat don’t instill the values in them that will do the world good later down the road.

      Liked by 1 person

  10. I’ve been compelled to think about about my roll in your situation. It starts so young, cars called girls names, Dads always driving when both are in the car, ladies picking up their partners and stepping out to let them drive. Ques my generation grew up with. I would like to think that my attitudes are evolving but I also perpetuate the problem. I enjoy the grid girls, the booth baby and the eye candy. I’ve done the Guys trips to the Grand Pri in Montreal and enjoyed the cities industrial levels of man centered entertainment. I have not been so gosh as to interfere with any other fans enjoyment of a race, or other event.

    I have had the privilege to take three women to there first Grand Pri. One was already a gear head with a greater level of knowledge on high preformance autos than I will ever have. She also may have been part of the problem as she reveled in the attention and enjoyed out preforming any of the guys who would challenge her depth of fandom with stats and histories of the drivers she followed. My wife took some convincing to get to her first and so far only Canadian GP. She was willing only to share the experience with me. It turned out not a fan of long lines, loud noise (yes she found the v6’s loud), uncomfortable seating, or crowded subways. With all that she is still prepared to attend races with me on alternate years as part of a overall vacation. Would I fell comfortable with her attending a F1 race with other women or even alone? I’m less sure after reading your article.

    I hope many pass on the message that no one should have to justify their interest in motor racing, or any sport. Lets all enjoy it together.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. I saw this cross-posted on Jalopnik, and it brought back a lot of memories of growing up a rabid unlimited hydroplane racing fan in 1980’s Seattle. Even in the most liberal of liberal PNW I would ask for the sports section to check up on a favorite driver and have guys say “WHY do YOU want the sports section. . .??” “Because I want to know if Steve Reynolds has left the hospital or not – can I see it next or what?!” Being a grown-woman NHL and NFL fan these days is only slightly better. . .but when we speak up and keep loving what we love, it *does* get better.

    Thanks for this.

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  12. Elizabeth while I respect your point of view as an individual (gender is irrelevant), I truly wished that you put the entire experience in context. As a lifelong long car guy and a 25 year mechanic, the last 13 as a Ferrari race mechanic, I see the reality of what you speak of. That reality is there are not a lot of women around cars, race cars or race tracks in general. Yes I know there are always exceptions to the norm, BUT the norm is a high male to female ratio, it always has been. Racing is one of the ultimate testosterone endeavors that males gravitate towards, generally females avoid these situations. The same argument can be copy and pasted to bull fighting, rodeo, boxing, MMA, sailing, air races etc etc.. These are male gender dominant arenas and if you wish to infiltrate these pantheons, utilizing common sense, you have to expect some ribbing, quasi harassment and general confusion from a largely male audience. While I do not condone ACTUAL harassment, I am not surprised you have encountered some. If the ratio of 99% were hostile or not hospitable you would have a great sexist argument, but it is not 99%,it is closer to 1%, therefore you have no real argument, only a rant on how you FEEL based on a tiny sliver of a population. You make no mention of the upstanding treatment you receive from the majority, that says a lot about you. My closing is this, people get ribbed at ANY competitive event for a large variety of reasons, get a thicker skin and you will enjoy your experience that much more. Sports equals emotions to people and we all know emotions can cloud judgement, don’t make the same mistakes you are accusing others of. Enjoy your racing and know most of us are civilized and smart, maybe your next rant can cover the silent decent majority.—Kent

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    • Hi Kent! Thanks for taking the time to read and to go out of your way to comment! There’s just a few things I’d like to say in response!

      Please consider that maybe women aren’t going to race tracks because of incidents like the ones I’ve described. I know for many women it’s much easier to watch from home because their attempts to actually go to a race have been met with harassment and derision. Not everyone is comfortable enough to stand up with that treatment or endure it – which is why posts like this exist. To provide a lens of a fan whose experience isn’t generally documented in hopes that motorsports will become a more welcoming atmosphere in the future.

      (Also, I’d love to know what your definition of quasi-harassment vs actual harassment is! I’m under the impression that harassment is a little bit like punching someone – where’s there’s no quasi-punching someone, you either do it or you don’t.)

      A woman going to a race isn’t a woman infiltrating a pantheon. It’s a woman going to a race. It’s a bit distressing that your security in your masculinity rides so heavily on only being surrounded by other men, and I’m sorry to hear that!

      It’s also rather unfortunate that you can’t take this post seriously because it describes how I feel based on my experience. If we’re to use that precedent, I’ll have to disregard your comment, as you seem rather emotional based on your own experience. I’d encourage you to also not make the mistake of accusing me of ranting with a clouded judgement and invite you instead to read some things that other women have had to put up with at a race track. It may seem that there’s an argument to be made about the conduct of men who just tell women to get a thicker skin so they don’t have to stop harassing them.’

      And just a note – a “decent silent majority” doesn’t deserve accolades for simply existing within the status quo. Staying silent while other people are enduring harassment because that’s just the way it’s always been is not a mindset worthy of praise. It’s part of the problem. If I were to write a more positive rant, I might focus on the men who have stood up for me or my fellow women when we’re being treated poorly at a race track – unfortunately, I’ve never seen one. Hence why I took the time to write this post!

      Thanks again for reading and commenting, Kent! I hope you enjoy your racing as well, and maybe I’ll see you the next time I’m infiltrating a pantheon near you!

      Like

  13. I am sorry, and saddened, to hear your story, and I apologize for my fellow men, some of whom are really embarrassing. I have been in and around racing for almost 50 years. Some of my competitors from the earliest days were women, and, well, the stopwatch does not lie. I was, and remain, a huge fan of Janet Guthrie (her book is one of the very best racing autobiographies, I’m sure you’ve read it) and have spent hours explaining to guys like you have faced too often that, yes Danica is for real, and has talent, and no, she hasn’t won in NSACAR, but lots of those guys don’t win, and for example, if they knew a guy, who knew a guy, who raced NASCAR Cup, qualified and finished in the top half regularly, and even won the pole for the Daytona 500, that guy would be the coolest guy they ever knew and they would brag about knowing him! And, racing takes Big Money, and the ability to promote yourself and represent your sponsor, team and sport are a integral to success. Do you ever hear anyone say, “Oh, Lagano, he’s just a shill for Pennzoil, or whatever”? Christina Nielson, Amy Ruman, Simona DeSylvestro, Kathryn Legg, Leah Pritchett, the Force Sisters, and so many more coming, but not enough! Will we ever evolve enough to get rid of Grid Girls, Brolly Girls, Trophy Queens? We just took a big step backwards on that with the new Monster Energy Girls at Cup races. (They are quite attractive and fun, but it’s also so blatantly Old School…would it help if there were some Monster Energy Boys, too? Probably not…). Women should not be objectified, or “rated”, and certainly not harassed! And, yet, I am a man, and, well, I like women, and darn it, they can be pretty damned attractive. It’s biology, for goodness sake! But, time and place, right? And there is nothing wrong with female fans discussing whether Jeff Gordon is more handsome than Jimmie Johnson, as I’m sure they do at times. It’s a tough issue, that won’t go away. Among my more civilzed male friends, it is understood that competence is attractive, confidence is attractive, intelligence, interest and many other such traits are attractive. Racing is all about those traits. And racing is one of the very sports that allow men and women to compete directly, no handicaps, no excuses. A woman who races is attractive. A woman who likes racing is attractive. . I am rambling here, but if you’ve read this far, thank you. I can explain a little of the boorishness you have faced: Janet explained in her book that the last people to come around to the fact that she could race were the hanger’s-on, whose only claim to glory was what reflected off their heroes. Some men are easily threatened, and respond very badly. You may have noticed this in other walks of life! Anyway, don’t be deterred, keep going to the races, there are many civilized men who welcome and appreciate you and your friends. And who would disrespect a fan because they are new? Men! Ugh!

    Liked by 1 person

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