Female NASCAR drivers no longer a novelty
by Joe Medley
Star Sports Columnist
May 05, 2012 | 5349 views |  0 comments | 6 6 recommendations | email to a friend | print
TALLADEGA – Being a female in a male-dominated sport is no longer the first question posed to racers like Danica Patrick and Johanna Long. It’s a question media seem reluctant to ask these days.

It comes later in the news conference, and the telling thing comes in how the question has evolved.

“Do you know Danica very well, Johanna?” a national writer asked Long, five questions into her Friday news conference at Talladega Superspeedway.

And she tries to deflect a lot of the questions about being a woman in racing. “Are you sort of the same way, it’s more about just being a driver than the gender?”

The question didn’t come up in Patrick’s news conference.

Congratulations, former Jacksonville State football player Ashley Martin and other women who have made breakthroughs in male-dominated sports. You helped to make it possible for the issue to advance, and advancement of the issue is evident with three women roaring around Talladega’s tri-oval this weekend.

Whether it’s Patrick and Long in today’s Nationwide Series race or whether it was Milka Duno in Friday’s ARCA race, the gender issue was there. It was just more a back-bumper issue than a front-bumper issue.

So it seems, at least, for our stop on the NASCAR tour.

The three women on the track this weekend aren’t even the first to run at Talladega. Starting with Janet Guthrie in 1977, 16 women have raced a total of 46 races for various circuits on the track.

Patrick spent seven years on the Indy-car circuit building her celebrity. Her looks didn’t hurt her chances at becoming a commercial success, but her driving isn’t bad either. She’s the only woman to win on the Indy-car series.

She also has several respectable showings, including a female-record third in the Indianapolis 500, so her foray into NASCAR seems like a natural progression.

She’s been around racing and in the headlines long enough to draw fans and detractors, a reality that male NASCAR stars like Jeff Gordon know well.

Some of Patrick’s detractors have taken up Long’s flag, but Long also has the advantage of having cut her teeth in stock-car racing. Her victory in the late-model Snowball Derby put her on the map in 2010, and her time in the truck series makes the climb to Nationwide seem natural.

Duno made her in-roads on the Indy-car circuit and is known for her place as the top female finisher ever in the 24 Hours of Daytona. She made her second Talladega run Friday, both in the ARCA series.

All three women racing at Talladega this weekend come with a track record, which makes their venture on NAS-CAR’s biggest track more a matter of record than a media matter.

But one also senses that the story of women breaking into male-dominated sports has come of age, as well. That gives Ashley Martin, now a full-time wife and mom and part-time personal trainer who lives near Orlando, Fla., a smile.

Just one thing.

Martin’s smile doesn’t come so much from any sense of being a trailblazer, though one could call her that. When she kicked the ball through the uprights for Jacksonville State in 2001, she became the first woman to score in an NCAA football game.

The reason for her smile is just more evidence of how the issue has evolved. She saw that evolution starting in her own locker room.

“When I look back, I more so take pride in the atmosphere and the whole situation,” she said. “That’s, I guess, what I’m most proud about – not being a female in a male-dominated sport before there were a lot of people doing it.

“It was more so the fact that I was accepted so well into a male-dominated sport as a teammate before it was really something that you saw a lot of women doing.”

Those sentiments sound familiar to those who remember Martin’s time with JSU’s football team. As much as she impressed with her famous kick, she also impressed with how she carried herself within a team.

She wasn’t necessarily trying to set an example for how women should carry themselves in male-dominated sports. It was more a team-player instinct, built from years of playing soccer.

It’s something she tells Kimberly Maldonado, a kicker prospect for Lake Wales High School, south of Orlando.

“She asked me if I could help her, and I said the only help I can give you is not going to be anything but the mechanics of kicking,” said Martin, now a Cockrell. “It’s how you go into this and your thoughts and attitudes toward it.

“Make sure you’re doing it for the right reasons, that you always maintain your focus on the fact that you have a job, and you’re not a trendsetter. You’re not trying to prove anything or change the face of football forever.”

That approach found echo in Long’s news conference Friday at Talladega.

“When I first started racing go-karts, it wasn’t anything about that (gender),” she said. “I never really liked to pay attention to that. I’m just another driver out there, trying to make it.”

Long says her inspiration is her father, who raced late models and first let her race karts when she was 8.

Then again, she enjoys seeing and hearing about girls breaking through.

“That’s awesome, when women can go into a male-dominated sport and do that,” the 19-year-old said after her news conference, when told about Martin’s story. “It’s really cool. Girl power, I guess.”

Thanks to people like Martin, girls seem to have powered past the novelty of such breakthroughs, and that’s really cool, too.

Joe Medley is The Star’s sports columnist. He can be reached at 256-235-3576 or jmedley@annistonstar.com. Fol-low on Twitter @jmedley_star.

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Female NASCAR drivers no longer a novelty by Joe Medley
Star Sports Columnist

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