Changing the good ol' boys' sport forever

On Motor Sports

June 27, 1999|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,SUN STAFF

When I go to Winston Cup races now, I see so many women working. They are reporters, photographers, public relations representatives, lawyers and television producers.

There weren't always so many women covering racing. It used to be a man's world.

Not long ago, Humpy Wheeler, president and general manager of Lowe's Motor Speedway, referred to me as a pioneer in the covering of Winston Cup racing. And when I started back in 1976, working for The Evening Sun, there were only a few women who would be seen regularly on the beat. The first one I met was Pat Singer, and it was Singer who truly pioneered.

In the early 1970s, she was the editor of a small paper, Auto Racing Monthly. By the time she retired in the early '90s, after having worked for the now-defunct Philadelphia Journal and the Trenton Times, we could go anywhere the male reporters went. But Pat never felt really comfortable in the Winston Cup garages because of all she went through to be there.

"By 1973, I had been jerked around by NASCAR and/or the track promoter at every track where I tried to get press credentials," Singer told me. "Each blamed the other for the no-women policy. They looked at me as a `fence-hanger,' a groupie, who just wanted to find myself a man or to share his spotlight. One PR clown even said to me, `Oh, you just want to get in the pits so you can see the drivers changing clothes in the back of their trucks.' "

Singer finally got her first garage pass at Rockingham, N.C., in 1974. She got it because when the Associated Press' venerable motor sports writer, the late Bloys Britt, learned that she had been denied, he promptly walked into the credentials office and declared: "I am turning in my Associated Press credentials in protest of the discrimination of one of our working press members."

"Thank God for Bloys Britt," Singer said. "My troubles suddenly were over. At least as far as NASCAR was concerned. The hundreds of women who cover auto racing today probably never heard of a man named Bloys Britt, but he, almost single-handedly, opened the doors for them to come inside."

By the time I showed up, most of the battles were over. The garage areas, Winston Cup racing's version of pro sports locker rooms, were open. The battle had been won in early 1974, more than four years before Sports Illustrated reporter Melissa Ludtke would win her lawsuit for equal access in major-league baseball.

It almost seems illogical that stock car racing, a sport born from the male passion for fast cars and white lightning in the conservative South, should be among the first to open its inner doors to women.

But that's what happened -- and today, equally improbably, Winston Cup racing enjoys an ever-expanding fan base that is more than 40 percent female.

Oh, there were still a few insults to be felt in the late '70s -- like at Darlington, where the working press pass I received in 1977 still said "No dogs or women allowed." When another young woman, Deb Williams, showed up in 1979, the "no women allowed" was still there.

However, Williams, now editor of Winston Cup Scene, a weekly newspaper covering the sport, said recently: "I was treated with more respect covering Winston Cup racing than I had in some stick and ball sports."

She was helped because she worked for United Press International, and because she had some veteran male reporters who took her under their wings and gave her a dos and don'ts list.

Yes, we all knew the list. Don't date anyone in the sport. If you go in the garage, go strictly on business, don't linger. Don't wear suggestive clothing. Always be professional. It wasn't a bad list.

And having someone to speak for you helped. In my case, I met two drivers and a car owner who helped me gain credibility fast: Benny Parsons, David Pearson and Junior Johnson.

Parsons was the gracious one who helped me learn the sport. He was the one I went to with all my basic questions. He was the one who taught me about racing. Pearson was the funny one and the one who was at the top of his game on the track. He was always accessible and provided the great news stories. And Johnson was the former driver who was about to become the winningest car owner of the late 1970s and throughout the 1980s.

He was the one everyone in the garage area looked up to. If Junior Johnson talked to you, you were all right. Junior talked to me.

Today, the Association for Women in Sports Media has between 600 and 700 members. The National Motorsports Press Association and the American Auto Racing Writers and Broadcasting Association have memberships totaling 550, and 60 of them are women motor sports journalists.

NASCAR officials report about two dozen women regularly cover Winston Cup racing.

Nearly all of us who were there at the beginning can say covering racing has changed dramatically over the years. And we've changed how racing is covered, too.

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