Auto racing is often thought of as a male-dominated sport. If you were to turn on a NASCAR Cup Series race, you could see how folks could come to that conclusion. But to get a true grasp of the future of women in motorsports, you need to look beyond the Cup Series. At drag racing beasts like Leah Pritchett and Brittany Force. At incredible up-and-comers like Hailie Deegan and Natalie Decker. You might not hear the names or see their highlights plastered all over ESPN, but they’re definitely doing big things in the sport.
Here, we’ll look at a number of female race car drivers, across several different series, who should definitely be on your radar, whether they be seasoned vets or promising prodigies.
Women in the NHRA
You can’t talk drag racing in the National Hot Rod Association without mentioning the Force family. Ashley Force Hood, Brittany Force, and Courtney Force have done their dad, 16-time NHRA champion John Force, proud. On January 24, Courtney, the winningest female Funny Car driver in NHRA history, retired from the sport after racking up 12 victories and 17 runner-up finishes in 167 pro drag races. Back in 2008, Ashley, the oldest Force sister, became the first woman to ever win an NHRA Funny Car event. She’s also retired. That leaves 31-year-old Brittany to actively carry on the family legacy, and she’s doing so quite effectively.
With 10 career Top Fuel wins and 22 career final rounds, Courtney is a Force to be reckoned with. In 2017, she became the second woman in history to win a Top Fuel Championship, after Shirley Muldowney in 1982. In 2019, Force became the first woman driver to be the Number 1 qualifier in Top Fuel at the U.S. Nationals. Oh, yeah, and then there was the time she made the fastest pass in Top Fuel history, setting a national-record run of 338.17 MPH in 3.659 seconds. No big deal.
The Forces aren’t the only ones who’ve made strides for women in drag racing. Audrey Worm, one of the few female owner/drivers in NHRA Top Fuel history, announced that she would be fielding an all-female-led Top Fuel team for the 2020 season. Other top women in the sport include Erica Enders (26 career wins, 52 career final rounds), Megan Meyer (the first woman to win a Top Alcohol Dragster championship), and Leah Pritchett (11 career wins, 19 final rounds).
Besides her accomplishments on the drag strip, Pritchett has been very outspoken about the disparity between men and women in racing.
“Drag racing has embraced it (driver diversity) from the series to the teams to the fans,” she told USA Today back in 2018. “NHRA prides itself on that diversity. It’s a stereotype that’s already been stepped over. Females are perfectly capable of driving.”
“NASCAR, I think, is still in retrograde, still in a ‘good old boy’ mindset,” she said. “This is NASCARland – a male-dominated sport, by far. Between the competitors and the fan base, they just have not come along as far and as quickly as the NHRA has come.”
But, more on women in NASCAR later.
Women in Formula One
Only six women have taken part in a Formula One Grand Prix weekend, but the tide appears to be shifting when it comes to women in F1. The W Series, a women-only racing series that launched in 2019, is already showing promise as a stepping stone for more female drivers to grace the F1 stage.
“[In the W Series] we’ve really put a big spotlight on the female talent that’s out there right now, and I think there’s a few of the competitors who are capable of driving in Formula 1,” David Coulthard, a former F1 driver who is the advisory board chairman for the W Series, told F1.com back in August 2019.
“Now the question is, is being capable enough, or are you looking for a Lewis [Hamilton], a Max [Verstappen], a Charles [Leclerc]? You’re looking for the female equivalent of them, because unless you’re as good as a Lewis, a Max, a Charles etc. you’re not going to beat them.”
Despite the steep competition from her male counterparts, Jamie Chadwick, who won the W Series’ inaugural championship, is confident that women will soon be able to compete at Formula One’s highest level.
“From my point of view is I would expect that I want to be there in three or four years,” she told ITV. “The goal is to one day be in a position to win Championships and win races in Formula One and I think the ultimate goal is to be there and be there on merit.”
While many have been critical of the W Series for segregating women from F1, Chadwick, along with other W Series drivers like Shea Holbrook, Vicky Piria, and Formula Renault champion Alice Powell, is using her platform to prove the skeptics wrong.
“I see it as motivation and I genuinely believe that women are strong enough to make it to Formula One and the ultimate goal is to prove that,” Chadwick said.
NASCAR and the Danica Patrick Comparison
Danica Patrick wasn’t the first woman to compete in a NASCAR race. Not by a long shot. Sara Christian was the first female driver in NASCAR history, competing in the sanctioning body’s first race on June 19, 1949 at Charlotte Motor Speedway. To this day, her fifth-place finish at Heidelberg Raceway (which, in 1960, became the first track to fall off NASCAR’s tour) remains the only top-five finish for a woman in NASCAR. In 1976, Janet Guthrie became the first woman to race a NASCAR superspeedway event, at Charlotte’s World 600. She finished 15th.
While she wasn’t the first to compete on the NASCAR circuit, Danica Patrick is typically the first name that comes to mind when people think of women in NASCAR. To be sure, Danica played a significant part in expanding the lens for the modern female NASCAR driver. When it comes NASCAR Cup Series accolades alone, she is the first woman to clinch a pole position, has the most starts for a woman (191), holds the most laps led, and the most top-10s (7). She also has the highest finish by a woman in the Daytona 500 (8th). As for her IndyCar Series accomplishments, the 2005 Indianapolis 500 Rookie of the Year is also the first woman to win an IndyCar race and has the highest finish by a woman in the Indy 500 (4th).
While Danica’s racing career is certainly one for the history books, her acclaim also brought an unfortunate, and unintended, side effect for women trying to break into IndyCar and NASCAR. Everyone gets the Danica Patrick comparison.
Take Hailie Deegan, for example. The daughter of motocross legend Brian Deegan, the 18-year-old Hailie rose in the ranks from dirt racing to the becoming the only woman to have won races in the K&N Pro Series. Currently, she’s signed to Ford Performance’s driver development program and is slated for a full 20-race season in the ARCA Menards Series. Given her impressive performances at such a young age, she is expected to rise to NASCAR’s premier levels in short order. Yet, because of her marketing savvy and good looks, she’s already getting the Danica comparisons. But, the Temecula, California native doesn’t want to be the next Danica Patrick. She wants to be the first Hailie Deegan.
22-year-old Natalie Decker is another driver who’s gotten the Danica comparisons. But, Decker, who competes part-time in the NASCAR Gander RV & Outdoors Truck Series, she isn’t letting those comparisons get her down.
“I feel pressure from myself, but from other people or what Danica did, I don’t feel that kind of pressure from that,” Decker told Frontstretch back in 2019. “I really do want to be up there and be one of the females racing in NASCAR. And it’s not going to just be me, there’s going to be more.”
The Future for Female Race Car Drivers
Simply put, the future for female race car drivers is bright. This time next year, Brittany Force may have already won another Top Fuel championship. Jamie Chadwick may be one year closer to racing in a Formula One Grand Prix. Natalie Decker could be basking in her first NASCAR Truck Series win as a full-time driver.
The mainstream hype for women in racing won’t occur overnight, but with a number of female racers competing and making names for themselves in several different series, change is definitely coming.