There's no good reason women can't be competitive with men on the race track. And while Danica Patrick arguably is the most famous female racer in the world, she by no means is the only one. In fact, there now is a race team entirely consisting of women.
TrueCar.com, through its "Women Empowered" initiative, has signed six high-potential drivers in six different racing series, making their first major debut at the upcoming Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg weekend this Friday through Sunday . The weekend features the season-opening race of the IZOD IndyCar series as well as the Pirelli World Challenge and "Road to Indy" Star Mazda Series race. The USF2000 Series (another "Road to Indy" development series) will also be running that weekend after their season-opener in Sebring the week before.
Katherine Legge, probably the best-known racer on the team, will be competing in the IndyCar race on Sunday. Legge is the only woman ever to win a major open-wheel race in North America – in the Toyota Atlantic Series – and was the first woman to race full-time in the Champ Car World Series (and lead a lap in that series too).
This year she'll be paired with four-time Champ Car Series champion and race-win record holder Sebastian Bourdais in the IZOD IndyCar Series, where both will drive Lotus-powered Dallaras for Dragon Racing, owned by Jay Penske, media mogul and son of the legendary Roger Penske.
TrueCar.com, an online car pricing and buying resource for consumers and dealers, is the company behind the team. It also has tapped Shea Holbrook, Ashley Freiberg, Shannon McIntosh, Verena Mei, and Emilee Tominovich to drive as part of its movement to help talented young women succeed at the highest levels of auto racing.
"These women are here to show that the racetrack is no longer largely the domain of men; it is now open to be challenged, and challenge they will," said TrueCar director of motorsports Charles Kim, who added that the team is trying to "change the face of motorsports."
The series the women will be competing in are the IZOD IndyCar Series, Pirelli World Challenge, Star Mazda, USF2000, Rally America, and Mazda MX5 Cup.
The biggest spotlight may be on Legge, who has been racing since she was 10.
"What we'd like is to get women involved in every aspect of racing, not just driving," she said. "Like engineering and mechanics and car design. I don't think many women even know that these are possible career choices."
All six women got into racing cars at different stages in life, and for completely different reasons; nobody was groomed by an overbearing sports father. With Legge and Freiberg it was simply an early love of the thrill of go-karts that got them hooked.
"We were on holiday in Spain and tried 'fun-karts' as a family," Legge said. "I just loved it. When we got home, I started racing at the local go-kart track."
"My family took us to go-kart school in California when I was 13," Freiberg said. "The second I was in that car, I knew I never wanted to get out."
Holbrook and Tominovich were highly competitive athletes in other areas (water skiing and soccer, respectively) and happened to try racing cars just for fun when they were teens. "It was a rush I’d never felt before," Tominovich said. "And I was a natural at driving," Holbrook said.
Mei developed her need for speed after attending stunt school in her 20s, and McIntosh got hooked after watching a race when she was just four years old. She was racing quarter midgets (and constantly winning) by the time she was five. "I actually got two trophies at my first race," McIntosh said. "One for just competing, and one for winning."
For these women, being females in a male-dominated sport really isn't that big of a deal – they're just doing what they love to do.
"When I get behind the wheel, I'm a driver first, and a female second," Freiberg said. "The car doesn't know if you're a chick. You just have to know how to drive."
Legge agrees: "This is the one sport where men and women are on an even playing field. In every other sport there's a physical aspect that separates us."
Legge says she would actually feel incredibly insulted if there were ever a "women's division" in motorsports.
"There's just no reason physically why we can't race against men," she said.
Still, there is a little disparity when it comes down to it. Tominovich says one problem with being female is that you automatically stand out a little bit more.
"That has its advantage, because when you do well, it looks good," she said. "But when you don't do well, you're still noticed."
Holbrook says one of her problems is the way women are treated when they have crashes.
"Even if you walk away from a wreck, people are like, 'Ooh, are you ever going to get behind the wheel again?'." she said. "They don't do that to men."
Another one of her issues is the misconception about how hard you have to work at it.
"People assume it's easy to get a sponsorship just because you're attractive, but it isn't. In motorsports, people don't spend money on you just because it looks good to have a girl on the track. They spend money because they want to win championships."
Asked if they ever get nervous, all six TrueCar racers said the exact same thing: Only because they wanted desperately to do well in their races.
"I've never been scared," Holbrook said. "Even after a wreck. I just wanted to get back behind the wheel."
As Freiberg notes, "I just want to do everything, and be the best at it all."