Behind the Wheel, Behind the Eight Ball

Jackie Heinricher, a professional racecar driver and a biotech executive, set out a few years ago to create an all-star team of female drivers.

She knew it would take millions of dollars to run a team properly, but she said she felt confident that companies owned by women, or run by women, or interested in marketing their products to women, would quickly deliver all the sponsorships her team would need.

“By now I would have thought the car would be covered in tampon ads and Massengill and whatever,” she said. “I didn’t get any bites.”

Instead, the team found its main support from Caterpillar, the construction equipment manufacturer. That financing was enough to get her dream rolling, and in late January 2019, Heinricher Racing made its debut in the GT Daytona Class of sports car racing in the International Motor Sports Association. In the association’s 50 years of racing, the team was the first to complete a season using exclusively female drivers — and it finished the season in October in the top 10.

When Heinricher visited Caterpillar in September to discuss plans for this season, however, she was told the company had decided it would no longer bankroll her team. As the 2020 season got underway, Heinricher raced the clock to find a sponsor to keep her team together.

But another owner wooed away her drivers, leaving Heinricher to affect change as the only woman team owner and, at least this season, not from behind the wheel.

Auto racing has come a long way since the 1970s, when men threatened to boycott races if women were allowed to compete. There are highly qualified women behind the wheel, in the pits and on engineering teams, in numbers as never before. But finding sponsors for the necessary $3 million to $6 million in financing for teams, always a difficult part of racing, has been a barrier for women, who are often treated as marketing gimmicks rather than serious competitors.

“Gimmick,” Heinricher said. “I hate that word.”

Heinricher said she had sought to put together an all-female team “to demonstrate that women can compete head-to-head with their male counterparts and win if they have legitimate support.”

That should have attracted sponsors. Among her drivers was Katherine Legge, who owns a track record at Laguna Seca, a marquee track in Northern California. There was also Simona De Silvestro, who has a win in the IndyCar series, which includes the Indianapolis 500.

Then there is Heinricher, the founder and president of BooShoot, which pioneered commercial bamboo production. She was the first woman to compete in the Lamborghini Super Trofeo. In 2017, she and Pippa Mann were the first all-female team in the Trofeo series, taking third in the pro-am event.

The Heinricher Racing team made its debut at the Rolex 24 at Daytona, an annual endurance race in late January 2019. The first all-female teams raced there in 1966, when two teams of women drove small baby-blue Sunbeam Alpines for an oil company sponsor that called them the “Ring-Free Motor Maids.”

One of those drivers, Janet Guthrie, would become the first woman to compete in the Daytona 500 and the Indianapolis 500. But the 1966 campaign “was embarrassing,” she said in a telephone interview, because the women had no hope of contending with such underpowered cars. The all-female teams came in third from last and last, but ahead of 26 cars that did not finish.

Back then, using women as an attention-getting stunt was considered smart marketing. But as recently as 2016, Bernie Ecclestone, the chief executive of Formula One at the time, told the Canadian network TSN that a female driver “would not be taken seriously.” That was years after Danica Patrick had won an IndyCar race and earned the pole position at the Daytona 500. Patrick, who retired in 2018, got plenty of sponsorship and media attention, but a healthy portion of it played up her sex appeal rather than her driving skill.

The motor sports industry has made efforts to battle the perception it isn’t female-friendly — creating commissions and diversity programs — but tangible change has been harder to come by. In June, for example, when Heinricher Racing applied for a spot in 24 Hours of Le Mans, one of sport’s most prestigious events, it was turned down.

Asked why in a BBC interview, Michelle Mouton, president of the Women’s Commission for the racing governing body, said she had been told one female team was the limit. “It was the answer I got,” she said. “‘We can have only one.’”

The chosen team, Kessel Racing, was held up as an example of how egalitarian racing had become. An article on the LeMans website carried the headline, “Kessel Racing Proves That Motorsport Isn’t Just for Men.”

Caterpillar later told Heinricher in an email that one of its reasons for parting ways with her team was her inability to get its car into LeMans. “An all-female team has been invited and raced in the LeMans, so now it is not a first that we can promote,” the email said.

The organizations governing LeMans denied that there was sexual discrimination, and Heinricher publicly shrugged it off.

“You could call it sexism, you could say it’s discriminatory, you could say many things,” she told the BBC, “but the fact is that we’re not privy to the room.”

In interviews, Heinricher carefully parses what she says, concerned that being outspoken might count against her as a team owner who needs to court sponsors. She even expressed reservations about being interviewed for this article, saying, “I don’t want this to become a controversy.”

Caterpillar did not respond to multiple requests for comment about Heinricher and the decision to drop her team.

But the 11th-hour lack of sponsors cost Heinricher: Her drivers were recruited to another team for this season.

Heinricher remains the only woman team owner in the International Motor Sports Association, one of the primary organizers of auto racing, and Exxon Mobil last month committed to the team, although all the drivers will be men.

Part of the difficulty Heinricher had in attracting sponsors could be that women remain a small percentage of the racing audience, and where there is diversity, it has not translated into significantly larger audiences. The National Hot Rod Association, for example, has a long history of female champions.

“There is not a more diverse group, and it hasn’t helped them,” said Ron Schneider, chief executive of Sport Dimension, which specializes in race marketing. “Why didn’t the N.H.R.A. take off if this is important?”

The W Series, an all-female Formula Three circuit that began this year in Europe as part of an effort to get more women into racing, eliminated the sponsorship concern by raising the money itself to pay 20 drivers and supply them with cars.

The system was criticized at first by some notable racers, including Mann, a British driver who has competed at six Indianapolis 500s.

“Those with funding to help female racers are choosing to segregate them as opposed to supporting them,” Mann wrote on Twitter, adding the hashtag #HandmaidsRacingSeries.

By the end of the first season in August, though, many doubters had been won over. The W Series fielded credible drivers and proved to be sincere about providing women a long-term path to Formula One.

Heinricher said she remained undaunted in trying to usher more women into the top ranks of racing. She is mentoring Loni Unser, the 22-year-old fourth-generation progeny of the Unser racing dynasty who is in lower-tier races this season.

“What I want is to engage true talent,” she said. “I have my eyes on young female drivers, but it’s not enough to be a girl driver. You have to be a girl driver who wins.”