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Women in Motorsports: How the Landscape of Riding is Changing

07/09/2021

The number of women participating in motorsports is on the rise, and we couldn’t be more stoked to see it.

There are many recent reports that indicate female participation is, as this Autosport article succinctly states, set to “explode” over the course of the next decade. And yet, it wasn’t so long ago that women were seemingly nowhere to be found in motorsports.

What is driving this evolution in the field, and what will the landscape of riding look like in the not-too-distant future?

A history of women in motorsports

To get a better sense of how we got to where we are today and the historic nature of this boom in female participation, we need to take a look back at the history of motorsports and how women have (or haven’t, in many cases) been involved.

As is so often the case, many of today’s female drivers have been influenced by pioneers in the sport who helped to open doors for all who followed them.

While the first known motorized vehicle race took place in 1867 when two road steam motors raced each other in Manchester, UK, it wasn’t for another 30 years that we have a recorded incident of women racing motorized vehicles. And even then, that was much more of a novelty.

But in the 1900s, there were a number of women who made history in a male-dominated sport:

  • 1901: Camille du Gast, a wealthy French enthusiast of many extreme sports, broke through at the Paris-Berlin race. She was given a last-place start out of 122 entrants and finished 33rd, a significant achievement.
  • 1921: Gwenda Janson, an ambulance driver in WWI, began motorcycle racing, a career that would last for the next decade-plus.
  • 1932: Odette Siko finished in fourth at the 24 Hours of Le Mans, which still remains the best finish by any woman ever to race at the event.
  • 1949: Sara Christian became one of the first women to make her mark in the world of racing after the war. She competed in NASCAR’s first race at Charlotte Speedway, and later that season finished fifth at Heidelberg Speedway, which remains the only ever top-five finish for a woman in NASCAR.
  • 1960: Annie Hall won the Morecambe Road Rally, the first woman to win any rally event.
  • 1976: Janet Guthrie, a flight instructor and aerospace engineer, became the very first woman to race a superspeedway event in NASCAR. She finished 15th. The following year she entered both the Indianapolis 500 and the Daytona 500, the very first woman to enter either race. Eventually she achieved a 5th-place finish at the Indy 500 several years later.
  • 1986: Carol “Bunny” Burkett takes home the HIRA Alcohol Funny Car drag race championship, the only woman to accomplish this feat.
  • 1992: Giovanna Amati signs with Brabham F1, becoming the most recent woman to have entered an F1 race.
  • 2000: Indy car driver Sarah Fisher becomes the first woman to post a podium at the series.
  • 2009: At the Indy 500, Danica Patrick got to start 10th and finished third, the best finish any woman has ever achieved in the history of the race. She eventually became a regular in NASCAR.
Michelle Abbate driving
Michelle Abbate of GRRRacing doing what she loves on the track

Current advocacy

Women continue to make advancements in motorsports, thanks in large part to the many trailblazing women listed above and their numerous colleagues and companions.

We’ve also seen more intentional efforts to uplift women in motorsports in recent years.

Part of this is the Empowersports Women’s Riding Council, an initiative sponsored by Polaris.

Polaris Empowersports Women's Riding Council
Polaris Inc. created the Empowersports Women's Riding Council made of 12 powerful women from all backgrounds to uplift the passions that fuel women and put forth deliberate efforts for increased representation, inclusion and participation of women in powersports. Image courtesy of Polaris.

The purpose of this council is "to uplift the passions that fuel women and put forth deliberate efforts for increased representation, inclusion and participation of women in powersports." The council comprises many women from a wide variety of riding backgrounds from different motorsports, with the goal of having regular meetings with leaders at Polaris to discuss everything from representation to gear, safety and fighting against biases.

It is incredible and refreshing to see so many women entering the world of motorsports these days. However, there is still a long way to go to overcome the many biases that exist in the field, and the preconceptions people have about women in racing. We’re looking forward to seeing the landscape continue to change in the years to come.

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