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Chauvinism rears its ugly gearhead

Behind every pioneer is an unwitting accomplice.

Consider them history's foils. The dupes. The dopes. The bumblers unable or unwilling to get out of the way of common sense.

Sort of like the bus driver who told Rosa Parks to keep on moving. Or the Little Pigs who chose straw and sticks.

Which brings us to a speedway in Nashville and a group of good ol' boys blundering their way into feminism's good graces.

If you have not heard the story, a bunch of male drivers ganged up on the track's only female competitor in a shameful display of piston envy.

The men gathered before a Saturday night race to pass a hat and collect enough money to file a protest against Deborah Renshaw's car. Then, to make sure she did not finish last, which would negate the protest, they put a mechanic in a spare car and had him quit after a half-dozen laps to guarantee she would finish ahead of at least one car.

The track president was so angry, he told Renshaw he was denying the protest. Confident in her engine, she asked him to follow through with it.

They commonly refer to this type of protest as tearing down a car. Which is exactly what track officials did to Renshaw's engine. After three hours of taking her car apart, piece by piece, they discovered a cylinder head was 1/6,000th of an inch larger than regulation.

"I thought her motor was illegal," said driver Mark Day, who organized the protest, "and sure enough it was."

The competition director called the violation one of the most insignificant he had seen. He said 25 percent of the other cars would have failed a similar inspection. And added that was a conservative estimate.

This episode cost Renshaw $500 in prize money.

And it could earn her thousands in the future.

You see, not every stock car driver, official and fan is as backward-thinking as the louts in Nashville. Some recognize that women make up about 50 percent of NASCAR's fan base. Some simply believe in fair play.

Which means the fallout from the incident was probably not what the fellas had in mind when they hatched their sleazy little plot.

In the aftermath, a sponsor withdrew financial support for one of the male drivers. The track changed its rules for protests. NASCAR president Mike Helton condemned the drivers and gave Renshaw his cell phone number in case she encountered further problems.

Most important of all, after Renshaw said she would not finish the season in Nashville, the Fairgrounds Speedway president assured her she and her family would be safe from harassment.

"That was my biggest concern," Renshaw told the Tennessean. "Also, I didn't want to leave the perception that the boys ran the girl off. When I leave, I want it to be on my own terms."

So it will be.

If nothing else, her fellow drivers have ensured a quicker path to fame.

Renshaw, 24, already was the most interesting female driver in NASCAR's lower circuits. A college graduate who grew up following her father's racing career on local tracks, Renshaw began to attract attention this season when she became the first woman to lead the series standings.

She had earned a part-time ride on the ARCA circuit and placed in the top 10 in her first race this month.

This, apparently, was her crime.

The talk around the Nashville track was other drivers were envious of her success. That her measure of notoriety was not commensurate with her dues. That they were supposed to be the next Darrell Waltrip or Sterling Marlin to emerge from Nashville's pit roads, not some hot-shot girl.

In a small way, their complaints had merit. Renshaw's growing popularity owed more to her gender than her skills. She is a promising driver, but not yet a great one. She never had led a lap in Nashville, let alone won a race.

But this is where the men missed the point.

Renshaw had not traded on her gender to get ahead. In 2001, her first year in Nashville, she began every race at the back of the pack, no matter where she qualified. It was her way of acknowledging she had much to learn.

Even during this latest flap, Renshaw was reluctant to accept interview requests from Connie Chung and Bryant Gumbel. If fame is to come, she prefers it be as a victor and not a victim.

There is much to be learned here.

Lessons in shame. And in dignity.

Most of all, it is a reminder that this still is a man's world.

Which explains a lot.