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Speed Barrier

Robinson Latest Female Driver Seeking Sponsor


It has been 25 years since Janet Guthrie knocked down big-time motor racing's gender barrier by driving in the Indianapolis 500 and Daytona 500.

In those 25 years, no other woman drove in the Daytona 500, stock car racing's premier Winston Cup race, until Shawna Robinson qualified last February.

It's not that there were no female drivers good enough. Mostly, it was lack of sponsorship funds to finance the effort.

Is it more difficult for a woman to find sponsor money than for a male driver? In discussing the case of Indy Racing League favorite Sarah Fisher, who began the season on the sidelines for lack of sponsorship money--and finished fourth as a substitute driver in Sunday's IRL race--one high-ranking race official, who asked not to be identified, said:

"Let's face it, no corporate sponsor wants to take the risk of having his name on a car in which a woman is killed, or injured critically. That's no knock on women drivers.... Something like that could happen to anyone. What if a woman had been in that car instead of Dale Earnhardt last year [when he was killed in the Daytona 500]?"

Guthrie has written a book about her experiences at the top levels of motor sports, the Indianapolis 500 and the Daytona 500. She has been unable to find a publisher for her manuscript, the writer's equivalent of not finding a sponsor for her car.

Robinson is running only 24 Winston Cup races this season--instead of all 36--because she has no major sponsor. She is entered in this week's NAPA Auto Parts 500 at California Speedway in a year-old Dodge Intrepid that is privately underwritten by Beth Ann and Tony Morgenthau.

"It's the same old sponsorship issue," said Guthrie from her home in Aspen, Colo., where she moved in 1985 to finish her book. "There is no doubt in my mind that I could have won a Winston Cup race, but without sponsors, no chance. That is why I finally gave it up, not because I'd lost my ability."

Robinson, 37, who restarted her career in 1999 after a brief retirement to start a family, is facing the same problem. She has a proven record--a pole in an Atlanta Busch series race, a second in an ARCA race at Daytona and three victories in what is now the Goody's Dash series.

Said Dale Earnhardt Jr. after being involved in an accident with Robinson at Texas Motor Speedway three weeks ago: "I think Shawna got into me a little bit. She's a good race car driver. They need to get her in a better race car."

Said Robinson: "It's remarkable we've done as much as we have in such a short time. We started from scratch with only four guys in the shop five weeks before Daytona. We didn't even have a car. Now [chief mechanic] Eddie Jones has a full crew of 22 with eight cars ready to go."

The 5-foot 7, 110-pound Robinson, a native of Des Moines, Iowa, qualified the No. 49 BAM Racing Dodge and completed 187 of 200 laps, finishing 24th, at Daytona.

BAM is the monogram of co-owner Beth Ann Morgenthau, whose husband is an investment banker in Coral Gables, Fla.

"Shawna works hard, and I think her effort can make a difference," said Jones, who formerly worked with Dale Earnhardt, Darrell Waltrip and Morgan Shepard. "Our main objective is to make the car comfortable so that she can go out and run at a race pace."

The team had a setback last week when she failed to qualify for Sunday's race at Talladega, Ala.

"It's tough when your team doesn't have any provisionals [starting positions based on car-owner standings] and you've got to [qualify] in two laps," she said. "I just hope I have better luck at Fontana than I had last year."

Driving then for Michael Kranefuss, her Ford Taurus broke a gear in a qualifying warmup lap and did not make the race.

"You can't compare the cars," she said. "The one I'm driving now is much better. It compares favorably with the other Dodges. When we were out here testing, our speeds were not far off [Sterling] Marlin's."

Marlin, who drives for the Dodge factory, is the Winston Cup points leader.

Robinson is a bit bitter, however, at the lack of support from Dodge, which had announced last year that all the Dodge teams would work together as one big happy family.

"We haven't had a bit of help from the factory," she said.

"But the Morgenthaus have given me more seat time in testing than I have ever had. I think I've had almost as much as a full-time driver. They've invested $8 million in a partial season, and they'd like to at least break even, but without a sponsor it is difficult. Finding a sponsor is the toughest part of racing, tougher than driving."

About as tough as Guthrie's finding a publisher for a book.

"Knowing what I went through, I'm not surprised that there have been so few women at the top level," Guthrie said. "I thought it might take even longer. I've been pleased to read a couple of magazine articles on a number of women in the lower ranks. That's encouraging."

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