Any time a situation pops up in the motorsport world that involves women, folks of LGBTQ+ identity, or people of color, such as our interview with transgender racer Charlie Martin or Formula One opting out of grid girls, you’re liable to see a plethora of the same type of comments made on in the Twitter replies, the Reddit thread, or the comments page. There’s a wealth of people in this world who just simply don’t want to acknowledge that there are people out there who might have a different experience with motorsport than they do.
This is the wrong way to think about things, and it runs counter to the survival and growth of the sport itself.
Check it out. The folks at the bottom of a Reddit thread on my personal experiences as a female fan don’t acknowledge that women are treated differently, or, more than that, worse than their male counterparts. Or the rallying cry of “PC gone wild” when Formula One opted out of grid girls. Or maybe you were watching the Indy 500 and saw the sheer number of people delighting in Danica Patrick’s accident. Or the pretty ridiculous jokes about a Mexican driver made on a NASCAR broadcast.
If you’re lucky, no one will be outright rude—but some people would rather just turn a blind eye to all those people who don’t necessarily look or think or act like they do. All those other details—who really even cares about ‘em?
What a lot of people—and not just the ones who don’t feel the need to distinguish between male or female, gay or straight—don’t understand is the difficult matrix of experiences that those drivers have that makes it hard to just blend in and be a plain ‘ol racer.
There’s a delicate balance that all minorities in racing have to achieve in order to justify their existence. They can’t be too loud and proud about who they are and what makes them different, because that’s seen as obnoxious by the folk who aren’t sure what they’re supposed to do with this whole new genre of person. They can’t use their unique identity to foster sponsorships or inspire others, because that could be seen as a misuse of their status—such as, for example, with Charlie Martin. She received unfortunate criticisms for celebrating Pride Month by offering rainbow stickers to her competitors, and for her collaboration with LGBTQ+ organizations that aren’t traditional in racing and therefore are up for potential criticisms.
But the fact is, merely being a minority in the world of motorsport is already pretty damn obvious. So what are they supposed to do about it?
It’s a classic example of the double bind, a concept introduced by Gregory Bateson, a well-versed social scientist who was key in contributing to our modern understanding of behavioral science, in the 1950s. Basically, the double bind means that a person or group is subjected to two conflicting messages. Both messages negate one another, but both result in an unpleasant outcome.
In the case of motorsport, this double bind comes in the form of negative feedback for a minority driver no matter what they do. If that driver acknowledges their difference publicly and utilize that fact to gain sponsorship, then they’re subject to being told that they’re alienating all the rest of the motorsport world because no one likes a loud and proud minority shoving their differences in everyone’s face every time.
But if that driver ignores those differences, they’re also subject to turning a blind eye to the matrix of social forces that makes racing inhospitable to minorities in the first place, which makes it difficult for them to be a role model.
It’s hard. Imagine being a female driver just trying to race competitively with the rest of the grid, but all anyone wants to ask you about is what it’s like to be a female driver. Then other people complain that all they hear about you is that you’re a woman, and you’re shoving your femininity in their faces and it’s obnoxious. If you try to motivate other women to join the world of motorsport, you’re just making things even worse.
But no matter what, no one is ever going to let you forget that you’re a woman.
It’s what’s fostered the years of controversy around Danica Patrick. She utilized her femininity in bikini-clad sponsorship shoots. And that did open up a lot of doors that might not have been to a driver less willing to do whatever it took to ascend to the top. At the same time, though, that subjected her to ridicule for the rest of her career. Now that she took her clothes off, a lot of people didn’t take Patrick seriously. She was only in it for attention, they said. She wasn’t a real racer. And it was hard for some other women to support her because Patrick was doing all the things they didn’t want women to have to do to succeed while at the same time respecting her drive to do so. It’s the double bind in full force.
Racing isn’t really like the real world. Trying to compare motorsport to, say, your office job is like comparing apples to serrano peppers. An office of 100 people functions differently than a field of drivers. While workplace discrimination is definitely a thing, it’s also more likely that the already-employed workers will be evaluated based on their performance.
There’s a complicated web of factors that come into play when it comes to how successful a driver can be. Drivers need to be marketable for their sponsors, and sponsors look for safe options. At high levels like Formula One, they’re groomed into providing perfect PR soundbites that aren’t too shocking or touched with too much personality.
It’s not necessarily that women, LGBTQ+ folks, or people of color aren’t interested in racing. It’s that not only do they seem to get fewer opportunities to get in at the ground floor that lead to the bigger, more high-profile series later on, it’s that they’re not always the “safe” option. Just their very presence is making a radical statement, which is a risk that some teams may not be ready to take.
Here’s a challenge: name an active gay racer. Can you? Many of the folks who have come out in the racing world have done so after they’ve retired from behind the wheel. Take, for example, Danny Watts. His description of the atmosphere in the racing world toward members of the LGBTQ+ community are pretty harrowing:
“There were enough gay jokes and homophobic slurs to go around, and I felt like if I lifted my head out of the trenches, I’d be immediately annihilated.”
Those aren’t the kinds of comments that encourage a young gay driver to fully embrace their identity. Being gay and being a racer are made to seem mutually exclusive identities.
Racing is not always, and maybe not even usually, a meritocracy. The track itself is but the business isn’t. Sorry to break it to you. In the perfect world, we would just focus on a driver’s skills and the rest wouldn’t have any impact on their career whatsoever. This isn’t a perfect world. This is not the case. We still live in a world where people don’t see women as good leaders because they’re too “emotional” and where a gay couple can’t order a wedding cake.
You’re wrong if you think these mindsets don’t carry over into the world of motorsport. They do. And they cause a whole hell of a lot of problems for racers who happen to be a little different in a way that does not necessarily impact the way they maneuver a vehicle.
Think about it: I’ve been working on a series about women in racing. These are women who have often accomplished great things, or broke barriers—but you very seldom hear about most of them, even though those early pioneers were just as courageous as men, and in many cases more so.
Why? Because racing was hostile to women. The women who were able to get into the racing world often had familial or romantic connections in the late 19th and early 20th century. But in the post-WWII world, women were pretty rigidly pushed back into much more traditional gender roles. That’s the era that really drove home that women were somehow physically and mentally incapable of putting their lives on the line for the sake of speed.
It’s an interesting trajectory. We had women like Kay Petre, Mildred Bruce, and Hellé Nice who set incredible records and were able to compete very successfully alongside the men. But we didn’t have another wave of women like that until the 1970s, when Janet Guthrie, Lella Lombardi, Michèle Mouton, and countless others decided to try their hands again.
Finding high-level female drivers in the 1950s or ‘60s is pretty rare. Women could be banned from tracks or the pit lane or from racing generally, or the media would cause such a stir that their sponsors would reconsider funding them, or any million different things. As she states in her autobiography Janet Guthrie wasn’t even able to set foot in the pits at Indianapolis, simply because that was not a woman’s place.
And racing still can be hostile. History forgot about these incredible women, and we keep repeating the same issues over and over and over.
Which is why it’s kind of important to have visible minority drivers and to make changes to the racing world that make racing a more inclusive place. The more we normalize these folks, the more likely it is that it won’t be a big deal that there’s a female driver, or a gay driver, or a black driver. The more we talk about the fact that minorities can be just as competitive now, the less we’ll have to in the future. As we’re fond of saying around here, speed belongs to everyone.
And, while we’re at it, it might just open up the racing world to a whole new world of people and, you know, raise those viewer ratings we’ve all been worrying about.