Sunday, May 24, 2009
Women In Racing: What Does It Take?
By Doug Vehle
The Firesign Theatre comedy group said it best, Everything You Know is WRONG. Ray Harroun won the first Indy 500, right? Only the best can make it at Indy. Anyone from Fullerton High School knows that our old dance instructor was the first woman to drive an Indy car, right? Not true, women were getting the chance to take the Indy cars on the track for more than a decade before Arlene Hiss got behind the wheel of one. And the contention she was the first woman granted a competition license by then Indy car sanctioning body USAC (United States Auto Club) is wrong, too.
Women were running the USAC road racing series nearly two decades earlier, and if not for mechanical trouble a woman would have made the first qualifying attempt for the Indy 500 in 1962. All this before the 3 woman running this years' Indy 500 were even born. But many people continue to attribute a good many 'Firsts' to Arlene Hiss that in fact she never achieved, such as being the first woman to qualify for an Indy car race. So the story you hear about the struggles women have had in racing aren't all true. Embarrassing though it is, she has to admit she never qualified for the one race she started to become the first woman to actually race in an Indy car. Thus becoming the first woman to be humiliated in one. When she got into that racecar, did she have what it takes?
The 3 woman in today's race each have a first: Sarah Fisher is the first woman to be the fastest qualifier in an indy car race as well as the first "Hardluck" woman driver, Danica Patrick the first to lead the Indy 500, and Milka Duno is the first that it's okay to call a 'Crazy woman driver.' That last is an accomplishment for all of us, in that it means nobody is threatened at the thought of a woman failing. A far cry from 1976, when affirmative action was the order of the day, and you could have found yourself in grave danger if you asked how many feminists it took to screw in a lightbulb.
It's not that Arlene Hiss wasn't a regular race driver in her day. She had been the dominant driver in Showroom Stock class racing at Riverside International Raceway, and had been racing some 14 years when she showed up at the opening race in Phoenix. She lacked the usual unknown drivers experience in sprint and midget car racing, the throwback undersized versions of the Indy racers from the 1930's, so common among a driver who wasn't coming from such other major racing classes as Formula One and NASCAR looking for their first Indy start, and there's always been some question why she would have found a car available to her.
It helped that her soon to be exhusband Mike Hiss had been the Rookie of the Year for Indy cars 4 years earlier, and she'd been spending a lot of time among the racing teams. The rumors had circulated for some time about her getting her opportunity, and it is believed that, with driver Janet Guthrie making test runs for another team, there was a rush to get the known driver on the track first. If Guthrie didn't pan out, USAC would be spared accusations of sexism once this woman everyone knew had shown them how it was done.
So concerned for getting her into the race, and so comfortable that they knew she was a 'Real' racer, she didn't have complete the full rookie testing. There was some cursory test laps, some exercises as proving she could exit the car quickly in an emergency, and she was ready to race.
Or was she? There's no official explanation for her failure to qualify for what was to be her first major race of any kind. It's possible there were weather conditions that cut the session short, only 20 cars had official times. It was to be a 24 car race, and Hiss was one of two nonqualifiers added to the field. Several drivers who had previously won races and contended for the championship were not added, possibly because of mechanical problems that couldn't be corrected in time. So when the green flag came out, you would call the driver to enter the first turn in last place the first to drive in an indy car race.
What happened from there would immediately be obscured by much opinion and spin doctoring. There is no question that Hiss was dramatically slower than every other car on the track. The arguing ensues on the subject of the significance of that fact. Consider:
1) The Eagle car Arlene Hiss drove was 3 years old. At that time there was nothing unusual about older cars continuing to race. Her husband had been rookie of the year in the Indy 500 in a two year old car that had been the fastest qualifier in two thirds of the events one year earlier. National champions were sometimes driving 1-2 year old cars. The basic design of her car was still currently the production car of Dan Gurney's All American Racers, and other 3-5 year old Eagles were in the race running faster than her.. So while some try to dismiss her car as doomed from the beginning, that just isn't a supportable position.
2) More important is the lack of RELEVANT experience Arlene Hiss had going into this race. Mario Andretti, who was away from Indy cars racing in Formula One and not at Phoenix that day, offered the opinion that any woman who wished to race Indy cars should be expected to compete in the over 600hp sprint cars he had used as a stepping stone, same as so many other men of that era. The Showroom Stock car Hiss drove to race at Riverside was the same Opel Manta Rallye she drove to work at Fullerton High School. A 4 cylinder 88hp economy car with a top speed of 85mph. Driven in a conventional upright position, the driving style bore no resemblance to the reclined position she would be in to drive a car that would accelerate to over 200mph quicker than her Manta could reach 60. Meanwhile, Hiss was a veteran road racer, and there's a long history of the difficulties that even the top Formula One road racers experiencing difficulty transitioning into the more disorienting oval track racing. Formula One cockpits were and still are rather similar to Indy Car cockpits.
3) Bobby Unser had already been divorced 3 times by 1976. Only important when you consider the shouting matches with which he confronted both Hiss and Guthrie, just the way he handled women.
There is no question that Arlene Hiss was lapping the 1 mile Phoenix oval at about 85% of the speed of the other cars. The car at times wobbled in the turns, and when she eventually spun the car at a lower speed than other drivers were successfully negotiating the turns, she was 'Black Flagged' into the pits for a consultation. A male driver might have expected to have been kept out of the race, but when she proved coherent enough to be angry with the officials she was instantly allowed back on the track. USAC wanted it said she was given every opportunity and more. The 150 mile race ended with Hiss having driven just 128 miles.
What can be questioned is the basic attitude of Arlene Hiss. Either before or especially after the Phoenix debacle, she could have arrived at Saugus or another Southern California raceway seeking a chance to race in a sprint car, and savvy promoters would have found her a ride. As an SCCA driver of Showroom Stock and other classes, she was already licensed to drive the Formula 5000 series, which was created to run old Indy cars with street car V8 engines. Again, her notoriety would have won her a ride, and her presence in the final year of the Formula 5000 may have saved that series. These could have been used as stepping stones toward her getting back into an Indy car as a driver prepared rather than scared.
Instead she accepted the opportunity to enter a NASCAR event, where women were racing in the organizations' first year in 1949, then dropped from sight. Hiss would spend the next several years venting a verbal assault over the "Unfair treatment" she claimed to have received.
It would be Janet Guthrie who would be the first woman to qualify for the Indy 500. She would finish 9th while driving her 2nd start with a broken hand, wearing the same number 51 as Arlene Hiss two years earlier. This would make Guthrie the first to qualify for an Indy car race, since Hiss never qualified. She would also run her first NASCAR race before Hiss as a publicity stunt, becoming the first woman in a "Superspeedway" race, i.e. high banked track.
In 1992 Lyn St. James would become the first woman to be named rookie of the year for the Indy 500. Like Guthrie, she would ultimately be regarded as a respectable 'Also ran,' never accorded the status of being the first female front runner. That honor would go to Sara Fisher, who has struggled as much with the business aspects of gaining sponsorship as with the racing itself.
Sponsorship hasn't been a battle for the other two women in the race. Teen go kart champion Danica Patrick ran well in the Formula Ford Festival in England, gaining her the opportunity to race a car coowned by David Letterman in the Formula Atlantic series, which has replaced sprint cars as the primary stepping stone to Indy. She also appeared in a scantily clad pictorial in 'For Him Magazine,' which many see as her biggest step forward in gaining sponsorship for the big time. She has since become the first woman to win a major professional race, coming home first in an Indy car race in 2008.
With that finish, she succeeded Venezuelan supermodel/navy engineer Milka Duno as the most successful woman driver. Duno, who parlayed her modeling background and 4 technical masters degrees into a racing career, had finished 2nd at the 24 Hours of LeMans, at that time the best finish by a woman in a top event. Duno, however, hasn't won the same respect as the others. In her rookie start at Indy she didn't seem to notice that an accident had slowed every other car and had to brake hard at the last moment, putting her car into the wall as she lost control She proceeded to blame the officials for having just penalized her for wreckless while driving on pit road and breaking her concentration. Wrecked racecars have become the norm for her. Patrick would question her concentration after the two tangled on the track in another race; in a high profile confrontation in front of TV cameras Patrick asked if Duno had even SEEN her on the track before hitting her.
Duno would find another critic in actress Ashley Judd, the wife of Indy 500 winner Dario Franchitti, ". . . .they've got to get the 23 car (Duno) off the track. It's very dangerous. . . She shouldn't be out there. When a car is 10 miles (an hour) off the pace. . . People's lives are at stake." And yet Duno hasn't faced the same struggles for sponsorship that the more competitive Fisher has. Like Danica Patrick, she's been able to gain favorable magazine spreads which keep the attention, and there for the financial backing, in her corner. Plain Sara's recognition as arguably the best driver of the 3 hasn't helped her overcome the lack of looks. Which has also been a problem for possibly the best woman driver of them all, Katherine Legge, the only woman to win in Formula Atlantic races after coming home first 3 times. Legge has yet to find an opportunity to compete in the Indy 500, and is at least getting to race the Deutsche Tourenwagen Masters in Europe. There's still the first of being a woman with a big buck sponsor without having been offered a center spread in 'Playboy' magazine to be achieved.
But men can have the same problems getting sponsorship. Twice, after winning NASCAR championships, David Pearson was unable to find a fulltime sponsor for the following season. Former Indy 500 winner Parnelli Jones won the TransAm championship and lost his backing at the end of the season. Nobody ever wanted to look at pictures of those two. But 'Dancing with the Stars' champion and male model type Helio Castroneves was rushed from a federal courtroom in Miami when his trial for tax evasion concluded for a spectacular helicopter landing at the Long Beach Grand Prix so he could drive, afterall. So the women really are being treated just like the men.
Duno, meanwhile, has at least been considered favorable to Arlene Hiss. It's become a racing epithet to call someone "An Arlene Hiss." An uncompetitive driver might be defended with a statement like "At least he's no Arlene Hiss." And Duno has those who remind that she indeed is no Arlene Hiss. But I guess you can say women drivers have come a long way when it's okay to say you want her off the track. Even the women are saying that about Duno. It was a touchy subject to say that about Hiss even though she'd been a far greater hazard in her race. Today it's safe for me to say the punchline to the joke about how many feminists does it take to screw in a lightbulb. But I'll let YOU do it anyway.
Hiss, now in her 70's, left Fullerton High School long ago, but with a PhD she now teaches online for the University of Phoenix. She has stated she hoped for the obscurity that might befall another unsuccessful driver, but that obscurity has never come.
And just so you understand the reference to Ray Harroun and everything you know is wrong, he is regarded by those who know racing as the 4th place finisher in the first Indy 500. The scoreboard had been showing the leader as being Ralph Mulford, racing a street car he drove to the track, and he was announced to the crowd as the winner of the race in a climatic battle to the finish. But he arrived at the winners circle to find local hero Ray Harroun already getting the trophy. There was some arguing and shouting, and then a closed door meeting. The owner of Mulford's car left the meeting smiling, even though the hard earned victory was gone. Why was he smiling?
Carl Fisher, the originator of the race, lured Harroun out of retirement to run this first of what Fisher expected to be the premiere annual event of autoracing. As Fisher wanted Indianapolis to remain the nexus of American auto manufacturing, it was clear he'd prefer the local driver and his locally built Harmon Wasp as the winner. The owner of Mulford's car was known as a man who'd sell anything---at a profit. With the overwhelming success of the first 500 mile race, Fisher was in a position to buy anything he wanted, including a local winner to his race.
The explanation was offered to the disbelieving public that the confusion had resulted from the incident when a car crashed into the scoring scaffolding, scattering the crew. Harroun had been able to take the lead shortly afterward was the story. But Harroun had been a lap down at the time of the crash. How could he have made up that lap in such a short time?
Mulford drove his street car home, eventually it was sold as an ordinary used car. In spite of his successful racing career, Mulford himself lapsed into the same obscurity as Arlene Hiss craves. Harroun's Marmon Wasp has become a racing icon known as the official winner of the first 500, as you know it would. But everything you know is wrong.