ANAHEIM, CA, November 23, 2004 - Over the past few racing seasons, there's been a lot of talk about minority hiring. I was present and covered CART's Black Driver Development and Woman's Driver Development programs that cropped up and fell faster than a downed clay pigeon.
With Magic Johnson currently handling the dark-skinned side of the minority-hiring dilemma (with emphasis on NASCAR-style racing) and trying to engorge the ranks of certain ethnic groups as participants, I will accept partial responsibility for justifying the right of women in motor racing.
Actually, after further review I can't logically do that because it ought to be the best qualified human beings who earn racing jobs on their merit. But at the same time I agree with former driver Lyn St. James that most women in racing have to be better than guys just to get a glance from team owners. That creates some real promotional difficulties for qualified women.
A few weeks ago I drove from LA to Dallas/Ft Worth to witness a six-woman shootout for a possible Menards Infiniti Pro Series ride with Nunn Motorsports, owned my Kathryn Nunn. Please emphasize the word "possible".
Kathryn, wife of Morris Nunn - the man who recognized and encouraged the great talent of Alessandro Zanardi - got into the Indy Racing League's 2004 Menards Infiniti Pro Series in a big way at the middle of the season, hiring first P.J. and then James Chesson from open wheel competition including World of Outlaws to pilot her two-car Dallara/Infiniti/Firestone fleet.
Nunn was well rewarded with four victories in the final six races with these brothers from New Jersey, but their attitude infusion was more than either Kathryn or [likely] the Indy Racing League could handle.
A little 'tude goes a long way in motorsports but the Chessons have a wee bit much to say with their actions on and off the track and even had some verbal disagreements on driving protocol with Pro series advisor Rick Mears that were, to put it simply, stupid.
So Kathryn Nunn was receptive to Lyn St. James when the former Ford-backed Indy 500 and IMSA Sports Car ace came calling with suggestions of appealing to drivers without balls (sorry). The duo asked for and received 21 viable proposals for their intended exclusionary test and whittled the field down to six female drivers they believed were qualified.
A three-day program was devised to take place on Texas Motor Speedway's 1.5-mile high banked oval November 8-10 and invites went out to the chosen half dozen. They all accepted the opportunity of course but so did one who wasn't asked.
"May I come?" asked Katherine Legge, 24, a driving instructor who lives and works at the Silverstone Grand Prix circuit in the UK. She paid her own way, was intelligent enough to bring her own fire-retardant equipment and became "the alternate". Kathryn Nunn felt she had no choice but to let Legge drive.
Like two of the chosen six drivers, Katherine Legge had never driven on a paved oval circuit, much less one so imposing as the Texas bowl that managed to knock out some CART drivers a few years back with its severe vertical and horizontal G forces at the extremely high speeds the Champ cars were turning back then.
After all seven gals had gotten their first go-rounds of 90 minutes each (Legge got 60), Nunn, St. James and the Nunn Motorsports IPS crew whittled the field to five for the following morning's finale. Katherine Legge was amongst the survivors.
Canadian kart standout Juliana Chiovitti and Florida sprint car driver Wendy Mathis, according to the judges could have used a wee bit more experience before tackling these Pro series cars. They were told to pack it up, which they unwillingly did. There were even a few sniffles in the process.
The longer the test went on, the more certain Nunn and her crew chief Butch Winkle, together with engineers Brian Welling and Jerry Gordon became that they had a good group. This test might yield a professional driver for the upcoming 14-race 2005 Pro Series season that includes four road courses for the first time (including a nod as support event for the US Grand Prix)
What were they looking for? Drivers who can listen to instruction, drivers who can adapt to changing conditions and drivers who have that extra something that takes them to victory lane. Speed is nice; cognition with speed even better, they determined.
In continuing to test Becca Anderson, 25, of Lincoln, DE near Dover Downs, a United Racing Club winner; tall Sondi Eden, 27 from Crawfordsville, IN who was North American Midget Auto Racing Series rookie of the year - and a regional USAC midget champion this year; 35-year-old former Dallara trackside liaison and engineer Rossella Manfrinato from Milan, Italy; Sarah McCune, 26, hailing from Perrysburg, OH who has tested both a Menards Infiniti Pro Series before and an Indy car along with Legge, the Nunn team has the right nucleus.
Making a choice of driver or drivers and finding commercial partners to back those choices is the next hurdle for Nunn Motorsports and owner Kathryn Nunn is pounding the pavement to find sponsors for the girls her team chooses.
Why does it have to be so difficult for these particular drivers (and others of their gender in the pits) to find acceptable jobs and money? Do they really have to be that much better than the men against whom they'll compete?
After watching what transpired in Texas and understanding the challenges Nunn Motorsports faced this year even while winning races, I'm hoping the right driver for this Menards Infiniti Pro Series team just might be a woman. Or two.