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AUTO RACING

Something Different About the Driver

Shawna Robinson will try to become the first woman to compete in a Winston Cup race in almost 12 years.

April 26, 2001|MARTIN HENDERSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

In a good ol' boys sport, Shawna Robinson hopes to make a good ol' impression this weekend in the NAPA Auto Parts 500 at the California Speedway.

Trying to become the first woman in almost 12 years to compete in a NASCAR Winston Cup race, Robinson steps to the front of the publicity parade in her Aarons Ford for team owner Michael Kranefuss.

But Robinson is about more than publicity.

"The woman is fast," Kranefuss said. "I couldn't get [engine builder] Robert Yates to give us good motors if it was a PR stunt."

There's no getting around the public relations angle, though. Robinson is racing in five other events this season, all in major markets--Michigan Speedway near Detroit; Chicago, Indianapolis, Kansas City and Miami--in the hopes of landing a sponsor deal that will carry the team through a full 2002 season and beyond. The Aarons package is for four of the six races.

With an obvious eye toward selling the hood of the car, Robinson is also selling herself as a credible racer.

"The hardest part is, I'm doing these interviews and I'm getting a lot of attention, but I would rather have it because of performance, not because I'm a girl who's going to be racing this weekend," Robinson said.

But the attention is there, and it's because Robinson is a Winston Cup anomaly. Patty Moise is the last woman who raced in a Winston Cup event, at Talladega in 1989. Robin McCall, the last to have raced in as many as two events, did so in 1982.

By racing in six events--assuming she can qualify--Robinson will be going off the Winston Cup charts.

"Because of her gender, we're getting 10 times more publicity than if we were running Joe Blow," said Kranefuss, who was co-owner with Roger Penske of Jeremy Mayfield's car until selling his 50% interest in October. "There will be a fair amount of publicity, and we are going for it. Because of that, she will be under more heavy scrutiny than Joe Blow, and she has to deal with that."

But judging her on one race, or maybe even six, would be unfair.

"She's a rookie," Kranefuss said. "A rookie who gets a lot more attention than any other rookie would get."

But there is some rookie talent.

Even though she crashed in her first two Busch series races this season, driving for Michael Waltrip Racing, Robinson has 14 top-10 finishes in 25 starts in minor league ARCA's RE/MAX series. She was sixth last year for Kranefuss' MK Racing, and took third on April 13 in Nashville. Two years ago, Robinson raced three ARCA events and was second at Daytona and fourth at Lowe's Motor Speedway in the two races she finished. Still, Kranefuss' decision to use Robinson as his driver has caused its share of resentment.

"There were a lot of guys in the Busch garages who were thinking, 'Why didn't you pick me?' " Kranefuss said.

"I believe she will be a contender. I'm a racer, not a marketing guy or a PR guy. But there was nothing out there I could get excited about."

Except Robinson.

She is the daughter of the late Richard "Lefty" Robinson, who raced USAC stocks and who taught his little girl that if she wants something, she "can go after it," Robinson said.

Shawna, 36, went after it in 1988, competing in what is now the Goody's Dash series. In her first two years, she started 30 races, won three and finished in the top 10 21 times.

She was the first woman to win a NASCAR touring event, at New Ashville Raceway in 1988. She was also named most popular driver and rookie of the year in 1988 after finishing third.

She moved into the Busch Grand National series, and is the only woman to win a Busch pole, with an Atlanta Motor Speedway-record 174.330-mph lap in 1994. Her best finish in the Busch series was 10th. Despite her ups, there were downs. She was perpetually worried that a bad weekend could get her dumped from the team, and there was little consistency in her racing life.

She hit a crossroads after the 1995 season.

"I felt like I wasn't going anywhere, I was becoming a 'She can't make it,' " Robinson said. "I always had a good reputation within the garage area, but on the outside, I think I was beginning to feel like I wasn't a racer because I was getting out of the way all the time."

Unhappy about running partial seasons with inferior equipment and teams, she said, "I decided one day I need to put the right deal together." She wanted the right team chemistry, the right equipment, the right package. "I took a year off to get the right financing," she said, "and I never got it."

There were other considerations as well.

"I was 30 years old, I wanted kids, and this was the time to have them," she said. "I went through a period and said, 'I'm not going to do this anymore,' but I never felt complete without the racing. It has always been a part of me, and it it always will be."

She has two children, Tanner, who will be 5 on race day, and Samantha, 3. Robinson returned to racing in 1999 in the ARCA series, and hooked up with Kranefuss last year.

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