The new ARCA season will see only the fifth female driver competing for the drivers’ championship in the 66-year history of the sport after Natalie Decker signed for a full season in the Venturini Motorsports No.25 Toyota. But as far as she is concerned, she is no different from the rest of the starting field. “All drivers are created equal...we all share the same racing DNA,” she explains. “Once I put on my helmet, I’m no different than anyone else.”
Yet while motor racing is one of the few sports where men and women can compete on an equal basis, drivers like Decker remain rare. At the top of the sport, only five women have ever entered an F1 Grand Prix, and only two, Lella Lombardi and Desire Wilson, have ever qualified to start the race proper.
The physical, and hormonal, differences between the sexes keep men and women apart in most sports, with only the equestrian events at the Olympics open to both. Even shooting, which was once an open event, was separated from the 1992 games, although ironically, the last open competition was won by a woman, Zhang Shan.
With new sports such as poker under consideration for the Olympics, the number of “open” events could soon widen again, with the world’s best female players like Vanessa Rousso taking on the men for the medals.
Of course, there are women who have succeeded in the so-called men’s game. For example, when the women’s bowling tour folded, Kelly Kulick joined the men’s tour and went on to win the PBA Tournament of Champions. Ila Borders pitched professional baseball, Manon Rheaume was a goaltender in the NHL and Katie Hnida was a renowned kicker at the highest levels of college football.
Perhaps most famously of all, Billie Jean King won the “Battle of the Sexes” tennis match against Bobby Riggs in 1973, as recently portrayed in the movie of the same name. That said, although he was a former champion, Riggs was 55 years old at the time and was more interested in the money he could make along the way than the outcome of the game itself.
So, will women ever compete with men on a level playing field? Surprisingly, a poll taken in 1996 showed that two out of three Americans believed that one day they would. Even further, a paper, published in Nature, proposed that if women kept improving at the rate they were, they would soon be as fast if not faster than men.
Sadly, the thinking in that paper was flawed because it assumed that the improvements in times and distances would continue in a straight line — which is like assuming you will keep growing at the same rate you do in your teens. Naturally, just like your height, improvements tend to tail off, leaving the gap between the sexes in most sports as big as it ever was.
But for Natalie Decker and her female teammate Leilani Munter, that just serves as more inspiration to succeed. “It’s about breaking the glass ceiling,” said Munter. “No woman driver has ever won a race any of NASCAR’s top three series, but it’s not a question of if it will happen but when.”
Maybe this will be the year that the girls dominate the grid and make that piece of motor racing history. All eyes will be on Daytona on February 10th to see if they can pull it off. And the so-called battle continues.