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Monday, Sep 24, 2018
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After Danica Patrick, why aren’t there more women in auto racing?

If you assumed Danica Patrick's success would lead to a tidal wave of female drivers into racing's top series, you're not alone.

"I kind of thought the Danica thing would bring out a lot of people, honestly," said Tampa's Megan Rae Meyer, a 21-year-old who races dirt late models.

So why hasn't it?

Pippa Mann — a six-time Indianapolis 500 participant — has a few theories.

RELATED: Indianapolis 500: How Danica Patrick changed racing

Female drivers often quit the sport around the time they graduate from go-karts (which are expensive) to cars (which are even more expensive). The move can be financially draining, and Mann said girls are generally more cognizant of the strain it puts on their family. That adjustment also happens around puberty, when some girls lose their confidence.

"When you combine these two factors right at this vulnerable age," Mann said, "it's easy to see how so many female racers drop out of the sport after karting and never take that next step."

If they even get the chance to take that step at all.

Racing is predicated on sponsorships, and the executives who control those dwindling opportunities are often male — another hurdle female drivers must overcome.

Social media makes matters worse.

Because male drivers still outnumber female drivers, women get a disproportionate amount of attention. The extra support is great, but the online vitriol after a bad day is so extreme that it becomes an added risk for sponsors.

Consider what happened last week, when Mann and fan favorite James Hinchcliffe failed to qualify for the 33-car field. Twitter trolls blamed Mann for taking up the limited track time Hinchcliffe could have used for another run. The backlash was so intense that Hinchcliffe had to begin his news conference by defending Mann and telling those critics to "keep your mouth shut."

"This isn't about growing a thick skin and learning to ignore the abuse that people will hurl in your direction," Mann said before the controversy. "This is about the fact that anyone backing you, supporting you, helping you achieve your dreams is now opening themselves, and their brand, up to this level of attack potentially, too."

Mann and others are trying to help close the financial gap so more female drivers will funnel through the ranks. She and New Port Richey's Neil Enerson offer scholarships for young female drivers through Enerson's Florida-based Lucas Oil School of Racing. NASCAR's Drive for Diversity program places women and minorities into its developmental series.

"It's a matter of numbers, of us getting more people involved and getting more opportunities to see who the next Danica, the next Lynn St. James, the next Janet Guthrie, is," Enerson said. "Who is it?"

If Mann and others get their wish, we're not far away from finding out.

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