GAINESVILLE — A few ago weeks ago when NASCAR kicked off its season with the Daytona 500, major attention was focused on Danica Patrick, the only female driver in NASCAR's Sprint Cup series. Her quest to become successful in stock car racing dominates headlines almost daily.
But when the NHRA drag racing series returns to Gainesville this weekend for the annual Gatornationals, female drivers won't be in short supply. It's just not that unusual in the NHRA.
"Obviously it was (once) a male-dominated sport," said Courtney Force, a 23-year-old Funny Car driver and a daughter of legendary driver John Force. Her older sister, Ashley Force Hood, raced Funny Cars as well. "Shirley Muldowney went in and totally paved the way for all us women to go in there and be able to start racing.
"As a kid, I knew this is something I wanted to do. Racing against the guys, I don't think they really hold it against me that I'm a woman. I think it's pretty accepted now. I don't think it's how it used to be."
In fact, Barbara Hamilton was the first woman to obtain an NHRA license in 1964. In NHRA history, 16 women have competed in Top Fuel, 13 in Funny Car, six in Pro Stock and 14 in Pro Stock Motorcycle. Muldowney, the first woman to obtain a Top Fuel license, is the Top Fuel leader among women with 18 victories — and the Hall of Famer known as "Cha Cha" is a three-time Top Fuel champion (1977, '80 and '82). Ten women have qualified No. 1 in a pro category in NHRA history.
"I think it's important to understand that we've had women in our sport for a very long time," NHRA legend Kenny Bernstein said. "There have been many women. Our sport has been more diversified for a longer period of time than other motorsports. It's not new to us. It's basically old hat. We're used to it. We're happy with it. We've been happy with it for years. I think it's not something new here, whereas in NASCAR they've had some girls come in, but Danica is at a different plateau, so the attention is much higher. Our sport has been exposed to the girl side of things for many years. We as male drivers have accepted that a long time ago. Let me tell you, you better have your hat on when you pull up against the girls."
That diversity extends beyond women in all four professional categories. From Hispanic brothers Cruz and Tony Pedregon, to Dubai native Kahlid alBalooshi, to U. S. Nationals winner Antron Brown, who is African-American, the NHRA prides itself on the diversity it has cultivated over the years, without having to legislate with special regulations.
"I mean, there's women, guys, different races, and that just brings everybody in to watch NHRA," said champion Pro Stock motorcyclist Hector Arana. "Everybody is equal in the NHRA. They're all able to have the same equipment. Everybody can have whatever they want. … That's a big reason why NHRA is so good. Just anybody who has the drive, the will to win, can race NHRA."
Drivers said a major reason the NHRA has been able to successfully diversify is because it's more cost-feasible than other motorsports. Brown, a 36-year-old New Jersey native, had family involved in drag racing before he was born. He grew up in an area with five race tracks within 90 minutes of his home. He said the accessibility of "hometown tracks" and the diversity of people who flock to them lends itself to a more diverse sport.
"To have a drag car race to bring in, you don't have to have a lot of money into it," he said. "A lot of racing is grass roots where we come in at, and you didn't see a color barrier, you didn't see any barriers. You didn't have to have millions of dollars in events, or $50,000 to $100,000 to race a go-cart for a year. I got into it when you could take some normal stuff and make a hot rod out of it, go to a drag strip and have fun with it. I think that's why NHRA drag racing is a more diverse sport than NASCAR is."