Nicole LaRose was standing in the pits of New Smyrna with a team she had sponsored when a visibly intoxicated man approached and started talking to members of the crew. She was aware that the drunk man and the crew were laughing—probably about her—but she ignored it. You have to, when you’re a woman at the race track; ignoring it and moving on is generally how LaRose copes. But she couldn’t ignore the man when he approached her to ask if she’d sleep with him before kissing her and smacking her ass, especially when she’d asked him multiple times to leave her alone.
“I’m desensitized to that stuff happening at the race track,” she told me. “But he decided he wasn’t done messing with me. He spanked me as hard as he could. I turned around, and everyone is looking. The guys are doing that awkward laugh, like, oh no, she’s about to flip out. And I sure did. But he kept getting close to me. I couldn’t get him away from me. I ended up having to leave my pit area because he wouldn’t get away.
“I was followed by my friends on the team. They just said, ‘oh, you’re beautiful, you should expect that to happen.’”
When I asked LaRose how she planned on dealing with the situation, she gave a weary sigh. “I just look toward the next event, trying to get my mind off what happened at New Smyrna.”
So, I have to ask: Men, what are you doing to make your fellow female, nonbinary, and trans race fans feel comfortable, both at the track and in everyday life?
Everyone who has ever watched a race knows that motorsport is a male-dominated field, from the drivers and crew to the sponsors and right down to the fans. But that ignores the number of women who have always served motorsport in some capacity and who are growing—if not in number, then at least in visibility—every year.
I’ve spent my career trying to highlight the accomplishments of women in motorsport and to show the often-exhausting process of being a race fan as someone who identifies as something other than male. And while the world is changing ever so slightly to accommodate fans from more diverse backgrounds, men, generally, view women as “infiltrating the pantheon” of this sanctified, testosterone-drenched sport.
I, for one, am tired of it—and I know a lot of other fans are, too. So, I’ve spent the past few months interviewing women who take part in motorsport in various ways: fans, sponsors, employees, and more. I wanted to get a sense of what it’s been like for these women and to convey an experience different (but still painfully similar) to my own. And a lot of the conversations I had were more astounding than I could have imagined.
So, men of the motorsport world, I’m asking you to sit down, read through, and ask yourself what you’re doing to make your fellow female race fans feel welcome. Have you asked her to justify herself as a fan by making her recite a list of as many Indy 500 winners as she can remember? Have you tried to flirt with her just because you saw her at the track? Hell, have you just stood by and said nothing while other men dogpiled her Twitter mentions to call her names? Because, unfortunately, it’s men who are responsible for a vast majority of women’s experiences, and it’s men who need to do more to put an end to the harassment.
After I spoke to Rachel Weiner and had digested our conversation, I cried. Her story represents my own personal fears as a woman working in motorsport.
Weiner took up a job at a short track during college before graduating to working with a NASCAR-adjacent company after securing her degree. She found herself on the road for weeks at a time traveling with the full NASCAR circus, often staying in the same hotels and trailers as her colleagues, drivers, and other folks that come with the stock car racing territory. After her time at the short track, she was used to the uncomfortable remarks men in the racing world would make to her.
But as she and her colleagues listened to live music in the Talladega infield in 2019, a man she considered to be a close friend placed his hand on her butt and pushed it further between her legs.
“I felt a hand on my backside, and it moved from under my butt basically onto my crotch. His hand was literally under me. And he started rubbing,” she said.
“I took a step forward and looked back at him, and I didn’t even say anything. It was just the most uncomfortable thing that I had to deal with because I thought of him as a friend. He works at a higher level, and I was really good friends with a lot of his friends. I liked my job. I didn’t want to face any backlash or any further issues or lose any friends. It’s so wrong because I felt like, as a female, if I did say something, my job would be harder.”
Weiner stayed silent. She and her friend never mentioned it to one another again. She didn’t tell anyone else. She felt she should report it to Human Resources, but she was afraid that it would have negative consequences on her career. But after almost a year—after she had quit the racing world entirely—she finally felt the courage to contact HR and let them know what had happened. She felt she had to if it had the chance to ever-so-slightly change the way men treat women in motorsport.
“I don’t know if it’s from the start, where they have an agenda. They see this girl, they see she’s nice, and they think ‘I could be her friend at first and then get with her,’” Weiner mused. “It’s disheartening. It’s discouraging. I don’t want to call myself naive, because I can usually see things coming. The men in the racing world shouldn’t surprise me, but they always do. Just when you think you do have a friend or a respectful colleague, they find a way to turn it around.
“I wanted to work at a higher level. I wanted more responsibility. I wanted to work in a role of leadership. And I feel like being female was a reason for me not moving up the ladder. I started to think it wasn’t worth it to even try, going to work and having people treat you this way. I wanted to be respected for my raw skill set, not because of how I looked. And if I did say something when someone made me uncomfortable, my immediate thought was, ‘Well, there goes my job.’”
The most difficult part about speaking to Weiner was hearing her passion for racing fused in her voice. She spoke with pride about being selected to take on more challenging tasks that put her in direct contact with the higher-ups because it meant her hard work was paying off. When she started talking about the encounters with her colleagues that made her “feel like a piece of meat,” her voice wavered. We talked on the phone, but I didn’t need to be looking at her to know the disempowerment running through her body.
“For women coming into this sport, you kind of know what you’re signing up for. You know it’s going to happen at some point. And that’s such a big problem,” she said. “I don’t know if it’s a sense of entitlement or what [on the part of men], but this happens at all levels.”
Part of what makes it so hard to expect—and digest—is the fact that many assaults are perpetrated by men that women know, love, and/or respect and whom they believe know, love, and/or respect them in return. It is undoubtedly heartbreaking to be assaulted by a stranger. It gets so much worse when the person hurting you is someone you believed held you in esteem.
Weiner ultimately did report her harassment to HR, but only after she had left racing entirely and moved back to her home state. The man who assaulted her has unfriended her on social media. And while she’s trying to find the positives in the situation, Weiner still feels the sting of knowing she was denied a career she was so wholly passionate about.
Rachel Weiner was at the track to do her job and to do it well. She did exactly what she was supposed to be doing. And yet she’s the one that lost out. Her male colleagues have kept their jobs and with them, the ability to perpetuate this cycle of harassment to any of the next women who may step up to fill Weiner’s shoes.
Let’s hop back to Nicole LaRose. One of the things that struck me most about her story was that, as she walked away from the man who had assaulted her, her crew members followed her and tried to diffuse the situation by telling her they wouldn’t let anything happen to her.
But they had. And they’d even gone so far as to laugh about it with the man who had harassed her.
Where would they have drawn the line? In 2018, the End Violence Against Women Coalition, a UK-based organization dedicated to doing just what its name says, posted the results of a survey it had conducted among 3,922 people. Of the respondents, one-third didn’t believe a rape could have occurred without another form of physical violence. One-third of men didn’t believe rape could occur if a woman had flirted with a man or if she withdrew her consent during the sex act. 24 percent said that there is no such thing as rape between partners in a long-term relationship. Those results have remained fairly similar across the board in European countries and the United States.
(Of course, this is not to take away from the men in the world who have been raped; their statistics are skewed for plenty of reasons, which should be acknowledged. But researchers who take pains to study the sexual experiences of men do often note that women are still much more likely to experience a sexually-based assault in their life as opposed to men.)
Let me be clear: what happened to LaRose was not rape, but it was most definitely sexual assault. But if one man out of every three you meet doesn’t believe that the act of penetrating a woman against her will is rape, it’s not likely they’ll consider kissing or grabbing a woman to be sexual harassment. And if those men didn’t think LaRose was in a concerning situation, what would it take before they stopped laughing and stepped in to help her?
When I asked her what men can do to make racing a more welcoming environment for women, her answer was simple: “Just realize what you can do to de-escalate a situation like that. The guys surrounding my situation had no idea they were fueling the fire. Being self-aware, being able to realize a situation where someone is uncomfortable—and not just as clearly uncomfortable as I was—and just ask, am I being an audience to this guy harassing this girl? What can I do to show this guy that I’m not entertained and what this guy is doing isn’t cool?”
Then there’s Amanda, an aspiring teenage motorsport journalist who has gone through more bullshit than I can truly recount and whose name I have changed to protect her status as a minor. She’s something of a firebrand on Twitter, but her ideas aren’t anything egregious; she’s just a woman stating an opinion with similar confidence to the men she’s likely seen tweeting about motorsport.
And yet, every few weeks, another Twitter account dedicated to her harassment pops up. The most recent showed up earlier this week is the now-deleted account titled @MazepinCameInMe, which posted similarly crude tweets about having non-consensual sex with Amanda and other teenage members of the F1 Twitter community. And that’s not even taking into account the folks who use their regular accounts to call her names and wish harm upon her.
“I’m so sick of it,” Amanda told me in an email. “It makes me question how far I can go. I’m an opinionated teenage girl who doesn’t back down when she knows she’s right, but does that hinder me? Will I be turned down from jobs because I’m shamelessly against these things? Can you ever be respected as a writer or presenter when so many people hate you?”
Amanda receives a lot of hate for her goal of pursuing journalism, but her experience isn’t uncommon for women, members of the LGTBQ+ community, or people of color who use Twitter. I’ve seen death threats and Twitter accounts dedicated to harassment made regarding plenty of NASCAR fans who had the supposed audacity to question Kyle Larson’s media-heavy redemption arc after using racist language during an iRacing stream last year. I’ve also seen similar attacks levied at those unconventional fans because they said the concept of a dirt race at Bristol was stupid.
One-third of girls aged 13-17 have experienced some form of sexual attention online, the BBC reported in 2017, with one in 10 experiencing threats of sexual violence.
The answer here is not to advocate for teens getting off the internet. I can tell you firsthand that my experiences on Tumblr as a teenager, while not always pleasant, were integral to the development of my self-expression because I lived in a home that encouraged me to be nothing but quiet and submissive. And, speaking as someone who is currently watching her teen sister grow up, many schools are actually asking for assignments to be completed on social media. So, no, it is not feasible to cut all kids off. It’s to demand that adults set a better example for the teenagers who use social media. It’s to demand grown-ass men stop sexually harassing teenage girls online.
And that isn’t the full extent of experiences. Kelly Brouillet, president of her own motorsport communications company, penned a painful story titled, “To the race fan who saw me in a white shirt on a rainy day at the track” back in 2016. It detailed the way men commodified her in the comments section while she was doing her job. Current W Series racer Emma Kimiläinen walked away from an opportunity in Indy Lights because she was asked to pose topless. Bernie Ecclestone, former CEO of Formula One, has stated that female F1 drivers “wouldn’t be taken seriously.” During the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, many racing drivers decided to provide ‘virtual signatures’ on any photo a fan sent them; one male fan asked Pippa Mann to sign the photo of her crying after failing to qualify for the Indy 500. She declined.
The list could go on and on.
Now it’s time to look toward my male race fans. I know not every male race fan is a bad person. I know there are guys out there who do their best to make sure women feel included, who come to the defense of their female friends, and who have the hard conversations with their bros about why something they said was stupid.
But it’s not egregious for me to ask that men do more. Women have already been working hard to protect themselves, but ultimately, it isn’t up to us. We can situate ourselves as hard-working, inoffensive, and even unattractive, and it still doesn’t matter, because we aren’t the ones perpetuating the cycle of harassment. It’s men who need to speak up when their friends make a demeaning joke about one of their female friends. It’s men who need to think twice before putting their hands on a woman. It’s men who need to reevaluate their worldview and realize that women can be at the track for the exact same reason as you: to watch fast cars and have a good time.
So, men, what are you doing for the women in the motorsport world? And what are you going to do to improve?