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Column: Does motorsports really need an all-female racing series?

W Series car 2019

Motorsports has always talked the talk – but not always walked the walk – when it comes to female racecar drivers.

Sure, there’s been tons of discourse over the years on giving opportunities to female racers -- but in practice, well, not so much.

Look at Formula One: will it ever have a full-time female driver who will be successful going head to head with the likes of Lewis Hamilton, Max Verstappen and others? There have only been five female drivers in F1 history -- all briefly, and the last being in 1992. That’s 26 years ago. Shame, shame on F1 officials.

But there are other examples of series or races that have embraced female drivers, too:

* The Indianapolis 500 has been one of the leaders in not only allowing but also encouraging females to compete in the Greatest Spectacle In Racing. The list of females that have raced at the Brickyard include Lyn St. James, Janet Guthrie, Desire Wilson, Amber Furst, Milka Duno, Sarah Fisher, Danica Patrick, Katherine Legge, Simona Di Silvestro, Ana Beatriz and Pippa Mann.

* NASCAR has had its Drive For Diversity program for more than a decade, as well as its NASCAR Now program, to encourage minorities and particularly females to pursue their racing dreams either behind the wheel or from the pit box.

* NHRA drag racing has been one of the biggest proponents of female racers over the years, with such stars as Shirley Muldowney, Erica Enders, Courtney and Brittany Force and dozens others. Look at NHRA’s Junior Dragster program -- it’s almost 50 percent made up of female racers.

* Last week, Michael Shank Racing announced it will have an all-female team in the 2019 IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship. MSR isn’t looking for cheap publicity with the all-female lineup. Rather, it has four very capable drivers signed not for their gender but for their talent and ability: Legge, Beatriz, De Silvestro ad Jackie Heinricher.

But last week’s announcement of the formation of the so-called “W Series” has many in the motorsports world questioning the legitimacy and need of an all-female racing series.

At first glance, the Formula 3 W Series seems like a good idea, offering opportunities for up to 20 women to battle it out for their own six-race championship in 2019 and a hefty $500,000 prize to the eventual series champion.

On the surface, looking at it with a glass half-full outlook, the W Series also appears to be well-funded, with millions of dollars to spare and spend.

Or burn, if you look at things from a glass half-empty point of view.

The interesting aspect of this new series is that while organizers claim to have “dozens” of female drivers from around the world interested in joining the series, where are the big names? Only about a dozen junior-level racers appear committed thus far.

There’s plenty of time to add to that list of drivers, as the series doesn’t kick off until next May.

But it is interesting that at least two well-known current or former female racers – Pippa Mann and Lyn St. James – are not in favor of an all-female series.

Mann has been the most vocal. When the W Series was first floated as an idea last season, Mann took to Twitter to voice her displeasure with the concept.

When the series was officially announced last week, Mann once again took to Twitter to further blast the overall idea now that it appears headed toward reality.

Add then there’s this poignant tweet from Leilani Munter:

This past weekend during the NASCAR weekend at Talladega Superspeedway, St. James also questioned the logic and legitimacy of the W Series, as well.

“Any opportunities that present themselves to put women in race cars, you have to at least take a hard look at it,” St. James said. “I’m for any opportunities that can put women in race cars.

“Do we need a women-only series? No, I really don’t think there’s a need for that. But before I can really have a hard-core response and make a statement that puts me on record, I want to know where the funding source for this is.

“When you read what they’re proposing, no cost to the drivers, a $1.5 million dollar points fund and a $500,000 prize to the winner, I want to know where the funding source is and what the mission of that funding source is. How real is that? That’s a lot of money. And if that money could be spread in different ways to have a good result, have a better result potentially maybe.

“I have a bigger question than I do an answer, the short answer being that if it presents opportunities to women drivers, you’ve got to take a hard look at it and not throw it under the bus. Do we need an all-woman series? I don’t think so, not at all. I can’t support that that’s necessary.”

St. James knows what she’s talking about, particularly when it comes to opportunities for female racers. She launched the Women in Motorsports Scholarship program more than two decades ago to aid female racers in securing opportunities.

In addition to St. James’ legitimate concerns questioning the funding of the W Series, there are several other questions that need to be answered:

* By having an all-female series, while it may fall under the umbrella of diversity and opportunity, isn’t it also a form of segregation?

* To follow that question up, where does a line ultimately become drawn? Does that mean we eventually could see a variety of new racing series based upon a person’s gender, sexual identity, ethnic or racial makeup, religious beliefs, etc.? Motorsports are based upon talent and ability, not segregation.

* While it may have good intentions going in, could the W Series ultimately do more damage than good to women racers in the long run? Will women who compete in that series perhaps lose other opportunities in “male” forms of motorsports that could ultimately be more beneficial and rewarding?

* While it is one of the W Series’ hopes, can anyone legitimately – at least at this point – call the series a true developmental series for female racers to get more opportunities in entities such as Formula 1, IndyCar, Global Rallycross and even NASCAR? Time will be the real judge, but at this point, opportunities down the road are suspect at best until proven otherwise.

* Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, how does the W Series prevent itself from becoming nothing more than a curiosity or sideshow, where gender and sex appeal is more important than actual racing talent? Will W Series officials do the smart thing and showcase female driving talent, rather than how they may look in a firesuit or bikini or what have you? Remember, that type of thing had countless people question Danica Patrick’s serious commitment to racing in her career for how she was promoted and some of the ad campaigns that featured her more for her looks than her talent behind the wheel.

Will the W Series be able to sustain at length? Will people take in a race or two and conclude that the competition isn’t very good – especially when there are no male equivalent drivers to compete be judged against?

While the W Series says it’s about promoting and showcasing women racers, in the overall scheme it really shouldn’t be just about women -- it should be about opportunity. That’s why St. James may have the best answer of all to those questions:

“Hey, if you want to start a new series, that’s great. But put half-women and half-men in it. That would give some guys a chance that maybe wouldn’t have an opportunity as well.”

Follow @JerryBonkowski