Drag racing is easily the most female-dense form of motorsport at all levels. While women have historically faced insurmountable barriers in other forms of racing, drag racing has not just welcomed women with open arms but provided them with an ample proving ground in which to prove their merit. And in a conversation with NHRA Funny Car racer Alexis DeJoria last week, I learned that the role women play in the paddock is so commonplace that it’s no longer a point of contention for the women who compete.
“Today, even being the only woman competing in Nitro Funny Car at the moment, I don’t really think about it,” DeJoria said. “I’ve been doing this for so long and racing against the guys for so long, and I think at this point, I’ve earned respect from competitors.
“I love the fact that there are more women competing in NHRA drag racing than any other motorsport, but for me now, it’s just not as big a deal as it used to be.”
A lack of novelty in seeing women competing at a high level is undoubtedly a great thing, and DeJoria pointed out that that comes, in part, because seeing a successful woman in the drag racing world is nothing new.
“Shirley Muldowney was the first one to really break down the barriers, and she did it successfully by winning championships,” DeJoria said, referring to the legend who won three Top Fuel Championships and earned her place in the Motorsports Hall of Fame.
In an interview with MotorTrend, Muldowney noted that the NHRA “fought” her ascendance to the top of the sport but demurred after realizing “a girl could fill the stands.” The fans made Muldowney — and Muldowney paved the way for the women who followed in her path.
“When I first started, I really tried to make my actions speak louder than my last name and my gender,” DeJoria told Jalopnik when I asked her how her perception of herself within the context of the sport has evolved. “Being a minority, you have more eyes on you, and there is more pressure to succeed.”
DeJoria has long since proved herself a capable, safe competitor — and now, one who is in contention for her first Nitro Funny Car championship.
But the racing world is always looking for more diversity; after all, breaking down barriers is part of what makes motorsport so compelling, whether those barriers are a new speed target to hit or a new face behind the wheel. I asked DeJoria what she felt would be the best way to get more people into the sport.
“Get in at any level you can, preferably working on a team. That gives you so much experience and knowledge about the inner workings of the cars,” she said. “It’s hard these days to get sponsors for any driver, but there are so many opportunities to work on teams.” That kind of experience is what will make anyone stand out, no matter who they are.