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The X Factor: Women of the IRL, and why we need them

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It’s 2010, and I'm fairly sure that people are starting to tire of reading this kind of column.

What is equally as annoying - to me, at any rate - is that this kind of column still needs to be written.

In 2010, women at all levels of motorsports all over the globe are commonplace. But there is an ugly undercurrent that still poisons the well - rarely spoken as loudly as in past decades but still prevalent in mutters and snickers even in this "enlightened" age.

"Why do we need girls in racing?"

NASCAR legend Richard Petty, as late as 2006, told the Associated Press that "I just don't think it's a sport for women." Sadly, there is a subset of racing fans who appear to agree with him. They still believe that women competing and managing at the top level of motorsports are there because of "stunt casting;" that they are hired for the newsworthiness of their gender, their visual appeal and their ability to sell the sport to female fans. And no example to the contrary - from Ethel Flock to Shirley Muldowney to Jutta Kleinschmidt - seems to change their perception.

Naturally, most of the women who race are sick of this - justifiably so. Racing in the modern era, they believe, should be a meritocracy, and it shouldn’t matter if the person in the cockpit is white, black, male, female, Christian or Muslim as long as they have the desire, skill and speed. And they are 100% correct.

But since there are still people who wonder why women who involve themselves in racing are valuable beyond "stunt casting," let me offer some excellent examples from the Indy Racing League.

Born in London and currently calling Ipswitch, Suffolk home, Pippa Mann is a relative newcomer to the Indy Racing League. She drove 14 races for Panther Racing in the Firestone Indy Lights Series last season and will drive for Sam Schmidt Motorsports this year.

Pippa makes the list not for her on-track results - which aren’t bad for a rookie, to be fair - but for her ability to connect to the fans. Specifically, she has become a social networking superstar. People tend to connect to Pippa for her celebrity but stick around because Pippa actually seems to consider social networking a two-way street unlike a great many of her fellow celebs.

Pippa’s great talent is to make racing fans feel less like the social leeches many "star" personalities consider them to be and more like... well, pals in the pub. You get the sense when you interact with Pippa that she genuinely likes people and enjoys interacting with them, which is a skill that very few racers of any type possess. In an age where social networking is used by celebrities as a broadcast tool, Pippa uses it to communicate.

It’s that kind of involvement with the rank-and-file fan that is the best sales pitch for the sport. Grabbing headlines is fine for short-term results, but long-term loyalty is built by the Pippa Manns of racing, not the glamour hounds.

There isn’t a group of people that sparks more debate within the IndyCar community than the George family. For the most part, the Georges tend to keep a low profile, with one singular exception: Lauren George.

Lauren was announced as the new team owner for Vision Racing’s Firestone Indy Lights program when she turned 18. At the time, a lot of people following IndyCar racing thought that she was basically going to be a figurehead or some sort of shadow puppet for her father. Obviously, they did not know Lauren George very well at all.

Now a freshman at Notre Dame University in South Bend, Indiana, Lauren broke her family’s "radio silence" from the first moment she took over the reins of her team. Lauren’s blog on the Vision Racing website surprised many and even shocked some fans for its bluntness and honesty. Not only did she prove she was actively involved in running her team, but she also proved that she had the nerve and intelligence to take on everyone from sponsors to competitors to critics.

That moxie helped not only to change perceptions of her family among many fans, but also indirectly fueled a groundswell of support for her brother Ed Carpenter, who seemingly overnight went from "daddy’s boy" to "valiant underdog" during the 2009 IndyCar season. Lauren helped show that, while being a member of the George family did have its advantages, nepotism was certainly not one of them.

For her honesty and openness, Lauren George has become a fan favorite. But her savvy and moxie is going to make her a team owner to be reckoned with in the coming years.

When you make a list of the most respected team owners in the IndyCar paddock - from a fan perspective, at least - you’d have to include Sarah Fisher.

Sarah Fisher has done plenty of pioneering - first woman to podium an IndyCar race in 2000, first woman to win an IndyCar pole position (Kentucky Speedway, 2002, with a track record time that still stands), and fastest qualifying time for a woman at Indianapolis.

I first heard of Sarah Fisher when she was part of the "Battle of the Sarahs" in USAC. The other Sarah, Sarah McCune, seemed to me to be the driver who would be headed up the ladder fastest, but it was Sarah Fisher who in 1999 ended up in the IndyCar Series with Walker Racing.

For all of Sarah’s trailblazing, it was clear that she had been rushed into IndyCars for all of the wrong reasons. After asking for her release from Walker Racing in 2002, she made a brief run at stock car racing in the NASCAR West Series in 2004 and 2005.

The Sarah Fisher who showed up at Phoenix International Raceway to drive stock cars was a much-changed one from the open-wheel ingenue. Her celebrity seemed exhausted and she found herself being dismissed by many around her as a flash in the pan. But where less determined people might have written off the future, Sarah seemed to plant a stake in the ground and mark that period as the beginning of a new direction.

After a brief return to IndyCars with Dreyer & Reinbold Racing, Sarah decided to take the plunge and become an owner/driver with the aid of her husband and father-in-law. From the first step it was a struggle, but by 2008 Sarah Fisher had become used to fighting against the odds.

Her hard work is paying off - with a dedicated sponsor in Dollar General and a second car with Jay Howard driving in the works for 2010, the future is brighter for Sarah than it has been for almost a decade. There are some who believe that Sarah might end up as the next Richard Childress if things keep going her way. Certainly, her persistence and never-say-die attitude even in the face of mountainous odds and criticism are an enormous asset for the IndyCar Series.

These three women are positive examples who are changing perceptions and improving their sport. Their drive and determination make Richard Petty's infamous 2006 interview about women racers look that much more ridiculous.

Naturally, of course, whenever the subject of women in racing comes up, there is always that elephant in the room that eventually needs to be addressed. Namely, Danica Patrick.

There doesn’t seem to be a driver - male or female - more controversial in IndyCar circles than Danica Patrick. For good reason - the raven-haired beauty has become a crossover sensation in the mainstream and is as likely to be seen on a red carpet as behind the wheel of a racing machine. She is as adept at promoting her sex appeal as her driving skill... which has led to questions about which of the two is more responsible for her fame.

There are a couple of sides to Danica Patrick that seem to be at war with each other. There’s Racer Danica, and then there’s Celebrity Danica. Racer Danica is the thin-lipped, scowling, hyperfocused race car driver who has elite skills regardless of gender. Celebrity Danica is the scantily-clad, zipper-lowering minx with the come-hither look and caked-on mascara whose image has sold everything from cellphones to antifreeze to domain names.

Celebrity Danica has made Danica Patrick a very wealthy and famous woman. But fame has a price, and in the eyes of many Celebrity Danica has undercut Racer Danica’s quest to be respected as a race car driver on merit instead of sex appeal.

It goes back to Danica’s Toyota Atlantic days. Danica entered the Atlantic series as a well-regarded racer - winner of several WKA karting titles and standing out in Formula Ford and Barber Dodge Pro racing. Peers who became acquainted with Racer Danica more often than not came away impressed by her drive, her ambition and her skill.

Then came the FHM shoot.

Celebrity Danica was born in the pages of FHM Magazine, where Danica was laid out in revealing leather in a photo spread that looked like any other low-rent cheesecake shoot in any hot rod magazine. Quality aside, the photos went viral in a big way, and suddenly Danica Patrick was one of the most searched-for names on the Internet. An already hot property because of her skill, she became a personality, a star... without having ever won a race in a pro series.

Danica’s ability to promote herself and the assistance of the IMG talent agency soon turned the driver into a brand. Celebrity Danica started popping up everywhere, showing up on red carpets for the papparazzi, posing for Sports Illustrated’s swimsuit issue twice, and most recently starring in a titillating series of GoDaddy.com commercials. Her fame stock is at an all-time high.

The downside to this is that Celebrity Danica has pulled the rug out from under Racer Danica. A driver who used to be remarkable for her skill level, Danica Patrick is now looked at more as a sex symbol than an athlete. She is referred to often as the "Anna Kournikova of auto racing." Her accomplishments behind the wheel matter less than those in front of a camera to mainstream America - her landmark victory at Motegi had fewer viewers (and less publicity) than her "Enhancement" GoDaddy.com commercial. What is natural competitive fire becomes, through the filter of Celebrity Danica, "diva attitude."

The saddest part is that it doesn’t seem to matter to some people anymore where Danica finishes as long as she’s in the race. And that has to gall Racer Danica to no end, because Racer Danica knows that given the right equipment she is capable of beating anyone, anytime. And make no mistake - Racer Danica craves the recognition of that fact from the public. She is not, in fact, the "Anna Kournikova of auto racing" because she has the skill to succeed on more than her looks. But that celebrity status and the photos and the ads (which she thought were all in good fun) bring an air of a sideshow to her career, an unwanted level of cheap promotionalism that takes attention away from the long and difficult road she traveled to make it on the big stage.

IndyCar’s struggle to balance their marketing with common sense has not fared well in the past decade, from Gene Simmons’ abortive attempt to turn the IRL drivers into "rock stars in race cars" to the image of Ashley Judd - she who makes every pit interview into an Oscar acceptance speech - running braless and rain-soaked onto a hot track at the end of the 2007 Indy 500.

The IRL’s marketing department’s exaggerated focus on Danica Patrick has for years been an attempt to leverage her celebrity to promote the sport. As a new decade for Indy racing opens, it is well past time to place the focus on Racer Danica more than Celebrity Danica. Critics aside, Racer Danica has the potential to keep IndyCar on the map for the right reasons - her skill and determination, not the altitude of her zipper. And in a larger sense, the predominance of Racer Danica over Celebrity Danica would help to refocus the attention centered not just on Danica Patrick, but on all the women in Indy racing, to validate and praise their skills, dedication and bravery and not simply their gender.