It’s almost a non-story when Formula One head troll Bernie Ecclestone makes an embarrassing, sexist comment lately. Unfortunately, racing legend Mario Andretti made some facepalm-worthy statements in agreement this time, too. Then three-time NHRA drag racing champion Shirley Muldowney put it all in perspective.
You see, Ecclestone has become a bit like F1's drunk uncle. You wouldn’t be surprised when Uncle Berns urinates in the houseplants again, because, well, that’s just how your drunk uncle rolls.
Thus, when Ecclestone puffs up the ego of bear-wrestling autocrat Vladimir Putin ahead of the Russian Grand Prix as he did to The Guardian earlier this week, meh. When he says yet another ignorant and offensive thing about women, feh.
Ecclestone most recently trotted out a tired line that doesn’t really apply to heavily car-dependent sports like racing, telling an event in London, as quoted by The Daily Beast:
I don’t know whether a woman would physically be able to drive an F1 car quickly, and they wouldn’t be taken seriously.
Ecclestone later added that he does think women have a shot at breaking through as successful executives outside of sport. Sadly, his reason was yet another silly generalization that managed to feel like a put-down to both sexes:
Women are more competent, and they don’t have massive egos.
We’re just over it. NBC Sports’ Tony DiZinno initially had the best response to this round of Bernie jackassery. You know what the media backlash will look like, because we’ve typed out the exact same thing a billion times. It’d be better if Bernie kept quiet, but he probably won’t, and Bernie’s loose cannon of a mouth is a big problem for F1's public perception. Same story, different day.
We’ve long reached Peak Bernie.
This latest round of SSDD may not have even be a full-blown story had it not been picked up shortly afterwards by TMZ Sports, who asked racing legend and 1978 F1 world champion Mario Andretti what he thought of Ecclestone’s commentary.
You would think that Andretti, with all of his continued involvement in racing today, would know better. His sons certainly compete against more women now and Mario himself is often seen as the friendly public face of American racing.
Sadly, TMZ got a classic case of an old man saying old man things in response. Andretti said:
Bernie doesn’t mince words. He says what he thinks. You could be more delicate about it, but Formula 1 has been in existence for what, 66 years, and we’ve only seen 5 women try and compete and none have really been successful.
The bottom line is you can make assertions until the cows come home. Saying women can do it. Bottom line, they have to prove it. You can’t just come out of the woodwork and say “I want to be a F1 driver.” You need to earn your way there.
Will it happen one day? It’s impossible to predict, but I’d say probably yes. At the same time, someone else might say, if it was going to happen, why hasn’t it happened in 66 years?
I think it’s clearly more of a men’s sport. Could there be some women who are competitive? Like with tennis… could Serena Williams compete with men? I think yes, but could she win a major, I don’t know.
Considering that the past 66 years have positioned racing as “a men’s sport,” there’s a major reason why only five women have competed in F1 that Andretti completely missed here.
Women for decades were steered toward the role of homemaker, and we’re just now realizing that it’s OK to share responsibilities with a significant other—or to not fit into that mold at all. That’s a relatively recent development, and you’re not going to see a ton of women in racing until we’re really over that.
Even today, there are more parents out there who stick their girls in go-karts (which—let’s be honest—is the only way you’re likely to end up in F1 now), but those girls are still in the minority.
Andretti concluded his remarks to TMZ with a challenge:
If women take issue because of the statements Bernie made, then go out and prove him wrong. So far no woman has even come close.
That’s all fine and well, but to be honest, I don’t see how F1 would be as attractive to many up-and-coming female drivers over sports car, rally, oval or drag racing where the series leadership isn’t always ragging on the opposite sex. There are some talented women coming up through the F1 ladder system regardless, but it’s going to be a while before we see them get a chance to prove themselves in an F1 car.
This is one big vicious cycle: as long as you’re positioning a sport as the domain of men, of course you won’t have many women show up to compete. F1 in particular seems to be the worst about this, as “this isn’t for you” comes directly out of the mouth of F1's head honcho himself.
If there’s one positive in Andretti’s comments, it’s that he’s actually challenging ladies to get involved in motorsport. While he may have used a nonsensical analogy to tennis that borders on Ecclestone’s garbage remarks about physical ability, Andretti does seem to acknowledge that the small number of women competing is part of the issue when it comes to how female racers are perceived. That’s something! After all, the next great talent is hard to find in among a limited pool of participants.
If there’s a living woman equivalent to Mario Andretti, it would most likely be 75-year-old drag racing legend Shirley Muldowney. She was the first driver ever to win more than one title in the NHRA Top Fuel class—a class known for brutal, insane speed—according to Fox Sports.
She made short work of putting Ecclestone’s comment in its place to the BBC World News, as quoted by Fox Sports:
Someone who says some of the things I read that he said, it’s pretty degrading, really.
I’m a 50-year veteran in the sport of NHRA drag racing. I’ve won four championships (three NHRA and one AHRA) and I’ve had the pole position 18 times in my career, and to listen to this man just degrade everything that any other woman has done out there, myself included, is a little bit of a put-down.
I’m not out there because I’m a woman, I’m not out there because I am trying to prove anything, and I’m not out there because I want to prove Mr. Ecclestone to be a bonehead, but winning is the bottom line. That’s what it’s all about.
The BBC also asked Muldowney if she thought a new push for women to get involved in motorsport was on the way, to which she replied that it already happened in drag racing:
It already has happened. It happened back in 1971 when the NHRA, the first to accept women on an equal basis, allowed me to come into the U.S. Nationals in Indianapolis and get my feet wet.
I reached the top of our sport. I wanted to go out there and teach them the right way to do it, show the fellas the way home, and no one gave me a quarter. I did it… with great crewmembers, and I always had my own equipment. I was the boss, and it kinda looks like I called the right shots when you look at history.
Most (female drivers) are not just drivers, they don’t just show up with their helmet in one hand and a first-class boarding pass in the other. They come with their own equipment, they build their cars and engines, they maintain things, they tune it, and they drive it. They are kinda like a one-man band, and what a great job our drivers do. That’s the foundation of the NHRA. You must start at the bottom and work your way on up to the top.
I started with the sport in its infancy and I grew with it. I was the first woman, and they hated me. They did everything they could to outwit me, to make life difficult, but you know, I didn’t go to the corner and cry, I just got even. And I’ll tell you where I got even: right on the starting line and on the finish line. That was my taste of glory, and I dwell on it. I love the way I did it because if I had done it any other way, I would not have made the grade.
Of all the various kinds of motorsport, drag racing has become one of the most female-friendly communities out there. The NHRA proved long ago how to get the best competitors to show up regardless of what’s between their legs, and perhaps the so-called “pinnacle of motorsport” should take a few notes.
The motorsport media, too, should perhaps pay attention. If you want to get a good take on women’s issues, why not ask some of the legendary female racers for their takes more often?
Andretti certainly means well despite his problematic response, but he speaks from an entirely different perspective than a woman who’s been a ground-breaking influence on an entire sport.
Let’s have more of the latter, as that’s a perspective that clearly doesn’t get enough representation on topics like this.