With the motorsport world still seemingly debating the issue of women racers, it was heartening to see two female friends achieving success at the weekend. Vicky Piria recorded her first F3 podium at Paul Ricard, while Alice Powell romped to yet another F3 victory at her home circuit of Silverstone. It was further proof, if it was needed, that women do, of course, have the requisite mental aptitude not only to race but to race fast, hard and successfully.
I’ve been thinking about the topic quite a lot recently. Why haven’t we seen more women racing in F1? And it has led me down many paths. Paths based not simply upon gender, but upon nationality, race and, latterly, paths based upon sexuality.
Today, my attention was drawn to a tweet to an article from NBC Sports, announcing that an active NBA star had come out as homosexual. Jason Collins has made his admission via the front cover of the American sporting bible that is Sports Illustrated, and to the American sports world it is a very big deal.
The issue of sexuality in sports remains a taboo topic. Think about it. How many sportsmen and women can you think of who are openly gay? Actually, it isn’t too hard to think of a few in almost each major sporting discipline, be they active in the present day or having long since hung up their training shoes. But if we are discussing why there haven’t been more women racers in F1, I started to wonder why we haven’t yet, at least to my knowledge, encountered many, if any openly gay racing drivers in our field?
Motorsport is a male dominated world. It is still inherently sexist. From the grid girls and the post race “tunnel of totty,” even in this politically correct era, motor racing and particularly Formula 1 remains defiantly stuck in the past. Oh how we tittered when grid boys first appeared in Valencia. It remains, despite the world having seemingly moved on, unflinchingly macho.
In the UK, Gareth Thomas, the third most capped Welsh International rugby player in history came out in 2009, but even such an admission from such a huge star in a sport usually deemed to be so macho, has seemingly not served to open the floodgates.
British football (soccer) still struggles hugely with the subject of homosexuality. The BBC ran a fascinating investigation into the subject by Amal Fashanu, whose Uncle Justin was the first and thus far only openly gay English footballer in the UK, and who tragically committed suicide over non-footballing issues in 1998. The findings of this documentary were that there are numerous players within the sport who are homosexual, but that almost all still feel incapable of admitting it.
One notable exception to this is Robbie Rogers, the US International footballer (Soccer star) who until recently played for Leeds United. Having revealed his sexuality, he walked away from the game.
Ever since I first became a Formula 1 journalist a decade ago there have been rumours, hushed whispers, over whether certain drivers are gay. It’s nothing new. The rumours have always existed. Nelson Piquet reportedly once insinuated Ayrton Senna was gay… but this was around the same time that Senna had insinuated he’d been a naughty boy with Piquet’s wife.
There are openly homosexual members of the F1 paddock. Matt Bishop, former Editor of F1 Racing and now Group Head of Communications and PR at McLaren came out to friends and family when he was in his teens. He has worked with some of the sport’s biggest names over the past two decades. His civil partner Angel Bautista attends many races with him. Matt’s sexuality is not an issue in the paddock. It never has been.
But of our sport’s greatest stars, in spite of swirling whispers that some have wanted to, nobody has yet felt comfortable enough to come out.
If true, if there are now or have ever been drivers who felt incapable of being honest about their sexuality, isn’t that an incredibly sad indictment of our sport?
It is tough to find examples anywhere of openly gay men or women racing drivers. But there are a few.
Mike Beuttler was perhaps the only openly gay racer in the 70s and his story is a truly tragic one. A talented F3 star, he graduated to race in one of Formula 1’s most dangerous eras, and survived it, only to succumb to complications arising from AIDS shortly after his retirement from racing at the age of 48.
Evan Darling raced in the US in a world of closed wheel racing and NASCAR where, perhaps even more so than Formula 1, perceptions of masculinity rule the roost. He was openly homosexual from the age of 18, but said he found it tough to find sponsors owing to his sexuality. I know too little of him to debate his talents as a racer and whether that had more to do with it, but it is alarming that, certainly in the modern era, his is the only name upon which I can stumble.
Fascinatingly, however, NASCAR now operates a “Drive for Diversity” program which is intended to see a wider range of racer than your average white male. Danica Patrick, of course, is evidence of this program at work inspite of her history in single seaters, but reigning champion Brad Keseolowski has already spoken out openly in favour of welcoming homosexual drivers to NASCAR.
“I don’t think anyone cares (if a driver is gay)” he told Queers4Gears. “If you can win, you’ll have a ride in NASCAR. I can’t speak for the fans, I can only speak for myself, but in this garage, if you can win, people will want to be a part of what you can do.”
It’s a tough business. But incredibly, one example crosses the lines between our quest to find an openly gay racer and a female one. Robert Cowell, a successful pre-war racer, went through gender reassignment surgery and continued to race post war as Roberta. She won the 1957 Shelsey Walsh Speed Hill Climb.
I understand why we are having the debate about female racing drivers reaching the top level, but as Edd Straw pointed out in his fabulous article on the subject, we must not give undue attention to average performance simply because it has been achieved by a woman. The only way to get a woman to an F1 race seat is on merit.
For me, it’s the same argument as race or nationality. Did Lewis Hamilton get to Formula 1 because of the colour of his skin? No. He got there because he is one of the finest talents of his generation. Talent must win over every other consideration. Will we see a Chinese F1 driver? Will we see a Russian F1 race winner? A Qatari World Champion? In generations to come, as grass roots racing is established in these new F1 heartlands, there is an increasing chance that we will.
It is tough to get to the top, just ask any karter who never made it into single seaters. And there are enough boys out there, let alone girls, with their own stories of what might have been.
Women will make it on merit, when one who truly has the talent emerges. Just look at the results at the weekend. Piria on the podium. Powell on the top step… again. Women have the talent. It’s only a matter of time.
But women are making their way and forging their paths in plain view. Yes they will face hurdles, but they will face them head on and overcome them.
What my recent musings have left heavy on my mind however, is how many drivers have made it to F1, but have never been able to admit to who they really are. It is more than statistically likely that somewhere in the motorsports ladder today there are boys and girls, men and women, who are fighting not just against their rivals on track, but against prejudice off track. Because of their sexuality and a life they have to keep hidden.
While NASCAR’s “Drive for Diversity” is not without its detractors that it will promote diversity for diversity’s sake over and above the most talented out there, to have the reigning champion speak out openly in favour of welcoming homosexual drivers to NASCAR is a huge leap.
In this most masculine of sports, while we must not lose focus on the talented female racers out there struggling to make it to the top, perhaps it is also time to take a closer look at the hundreds of boys and men racing around the world and to realise that they may not fit the 1970s macho mold that this sport seems to exist upon. Perhaps it is time to become more accepting of those who make up our current grids and to allow them the same respect that we are offering to women.
To judge them on their merits as racers, and on these merits alone.