Danica Patrick not the only woman in the spotlight

Guest column by Cathy Elliott

The Lucas Oil Slick Mist 200 ARCA race at Daytona International Speedway may be commonly referred to as “Dani-palooza,” but there is a larger issue at stake. This race may actually be breaking new ground in the realm of coed sports.
Admittedly, using the word “realm” may be a bit of a reach. Is there really any such thing as a true coed sport? Do we even WANT there to be a true coed sport?

The definitive answer is … we’re not sure.

Tennis has probably done the best job of giving it a go. Billie Jean King trounced a much older Bobby Riggs in straight sets in 1973, and guys will begrudgingly submit to a mixed doubles match now and again, although they never look all that thrilled about it.

Michelle Wie and Annika Sorenstam have competed in PGA events, but their lack of success made those appearances look more like publicity stunts than legitimate shots at a win in golf’s highest level.

And professional bowler Kelly Kulick got a lot of attention on January 24 when she made history by becoming the first woman to win a PBA Tour title.

In stock cars, women like Louise Smith, Janet Guthrie and Shawna Robinson have tried, but let’s be honest. For the most part, they haven’t been taken all that seriously.

That may be changing. IRL superstar Danica Patrick, probably the most famous female race car driver in history, is climbing into a stock car in 2010 — running the ARCA race at Daytona in addition to a part-time NASCAR Nationwide Series schedule — and the move has generated nearly as much speculation and debate as any NASCAR driver announcement in recent memory.

Yes, Patrick was a notable name on the ARCA entry list, but somewhat overlooked is the fact that she is not the only female driver in the race. Six women qualified for the Lucas Oil Slick Mist 200 — Patrick (12th); Alli Owens (20th); Leilani Munter (25th); Milka Duno (32nd); Jennifer Jo Cobb (35th); and Jill George (41st).

Patrick’s accomplishments are well known. But who are these other women? Why do they belong in this race?

I’m glad you asked.

Daytona Beach native Alli Owens began her racing career at the age of 8. She worked her way through the ranks, competing in quarter midgets, Mini Stocks, Late Models and the NASCAR Whelen All American Series before landing in the ARCA RE/MAX Series in 2008.

In a December 2009 test session at Daytona, Owens was the only female driver to consistently place in the top three. In fact, she posted the fastest time of any of the female drivers.

Leilani Munter began racing in California in 2001 in the Allison Legacy Series. She made her first speedway start in 2004 at Texas Motor Speedway, where she set a new qualifying effort for a female driver at the track.

In 2006, in just her fifth race of the season, she finished fourth, setting a new record at Texas Motor Speedway for the highest finish by a female driver in the history of the track. In 2007 she made the move to open wheel racing, then got back in a stock car in December 2008, testing an ARCA car at Daytona.

In the December 2009 ARCA practice session at Daytona, Munter posted the seventh quickest lap. Sports Illustrated magazine has named her one of the top 10 female race car drivers in the world.

Milka Duno began her racing career in 1996 in her native Venezuela, finishing second in the Venezuelan GT championship. She was the first woman in history to win a Ferrari Challenge, and in 2007, she became the highest-finishing female in the history of the 24 Hours of Daytona; her team finished in second place. That same year, she competed in the Indianapolis 500.

Duno made her stock car debut at the ARCA open test at Daytona in December 2009. With no prior practice or seat time in any type of stock car, at the end of the sessions on Saturday, she had delivered the 13th quickest time, and was the second fastest woman, behind Owens.

Kansas City native Jennifer Jo Cobb has competed in the NASCAR Nationwide Series in addition to the ARCA RE/MAX Series and NASCAR Camping World Truck Series. She has announced plans to run full time in the truck series in 2010, where she will compete for Rookie of the Year honors.

Cobb’s previous ARCA results include three top 10 finishes in as many starts in 2004. She has eight starts in the series overall.

Jill George was the first woman driver to run the Deery Brothers, WDRL, World of Outlaws and Lucas Oil Dirt Late Model series events. She was also the first woman to enter the prestigious Knoxville Late Model Nationals, running against drivers including Tony Stewart and Ken Schrader.

In 2007 she was selected out of 300 applicants to participate in the NASCAR Drive for Diversity Program held in South Boston, Va. And she knows more than a little bit about fighting to win; George was the Iowa Golden Gloves boxing champion in 2003 and 2004.

So, who are these women?

They are race car drivers, and competitors.

Why do they belong in this race?

Because they have earned it.

I am honestly curious, just like everyone else. I hope all of us, myself included, can resist the temptation to look at female racers like a seasonal flavor of ice cream, introduced by our good friends Ben and Jerry to incorporate some novelty into our comfortable and familiar Cherry Garcia and Chunky Monkey world.

Will we ever see lady linebackers or left fielders? Probably not. But being a professional athlete is like any other job; the qualifications required to excel in one area don’t necessarily transfer to all areas. Things like stamina, reflexes and hand-eye coordination don’t have to be specifically associated with one particular gender. Throw in some excellent equipment and a little experience and you’ve got yourself a potential contender.

I think it’s safe to say that our attention has officially been grabbed. In addition to Patrick, we are watching Owens, Munter, Duno, Cobb and George. This is going to be interesting.

I can’t wait to see what they have to show us.

The opinions expressed in this articles are solely those of the author and not this website.