When Push Comes to Shove - Creating a Better Place to Race

The 2014 season was the year that nearly sent me packing my racing gear-bags.  While there was notable success, the drama was high enough to drive anyone crazy. By the time the season ended and the dust had settled, I was left wondering where all the fun had gone.

Many moons ago, I started my participation in motorsports doing track days and autocross, where I didn’t really know anything about competition driving. In my carefree, naive everyone-is-equal driving world, nothing about a track day was upsetting nor challenging. It was just plain, simple, expensive fun! While I disliked having to get up so early for track days, I always wanted to come back and drive again. Over time, I discovered that I wanted to compete, drive faster and become an overall better driver. In fact, the reason why I started doing any of this at all was because someone told me “…women make shitty race car drivers.” 

Needless to say, I was up for the challenge!

Eight years later I’ve made tremendous progress, but the journey has been very difficult and emotionally trying. The shiny side of the story is that my hard work has paid off, for the most part anyway. On my driver CV I have three regional championships, including one in the San Francisco Region—which was one of my original goals that remained unchecked for a number of years. I’ve been extremely fortunate to instruct at a professional driving school (the Audi Sportscar Experience and Simraceway), which also served to better my skills as a driver as well. I’ve been blessed to drive cars some people only dream about; formula cars, Mclaren’s, Ferrari’s, Maserati’s, race-prepped Miata’s and BMW’s, the list goes on. I even get to coach people in some of the finest exotics on the market today.

So what is my problem you might ask? The problem resides in the underbelly of my story, not in the spirit of driving. It’s the rusty side of the shiny coin that very few people know anything about.

If a woman is to remain in motorsports for any lengthy duration, possessing a thick-skin is a requirement. I do not know any women in racing who can drive as hard as their male counterparts, who do not also have a strong personality.  I have heard the analogy describing women who race as “women who are entering the men’s gladiator pit” many times, it’s not terribly far from the truth. We might pretend the sexist comments do not bother us, but they sometimes do. They can be annoying and hurtful, and are simply out of place, leaving us to wonder how the 1950s made a comeback. Other times we are forced to go head-to-head with lowly stereotypes that automatically pigeonhole us into the lesser end of racer competitiveness. And gawd-forbid a woman hit anything while on-track, lest those stereotypes come at us in full-force.

It can be extremely exhausting to work twice as hard to prove oneself, and it’s equally frustrating that women keep having to do so. Sometimes it down right sucks to put on that plastic smile when someone is talking down to you for no apparent reason other than your gender.  It’s especially challenging when you are bullied or threatened, and nobody is around to help you when you really, truly, need it.

The majority of my competitors have been great to race with, but it only takes one person to make the season miserable. It is especially hard when a male competitor hates losing to women and reacts to those emotions outwardly. Before and after races, I had the displeasure of having several interactions with a fellow competitor who began to exercise specific intimidation tactics. From premeditated warnings, random statements about “women drivers”, along with other dubious threats, all were directly targeted to disarm my mental game. Conveniently, he would do this when nobody else was around, or at least in an earshot. This driver is very much the adult version of a school-age bully who tries to dominate the schoolyard by intimidation.

This driver was also known to be an annoyance to other drivers and some volunteers (male and female alike), and had been known to make rude comments to other female drivers and crew. Because of how close the championship points race was, I was to remain in his cross-hairs for the entire year. This behavior went on for months and I did everything I could to set it aside, not fully realizing that the more I attempted to avoid dealing with the situation, the more it evolved in its level of seriousness.

Skipping ahead, one of the last events in 2014 was at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca. I was still in the points lead at the time, but the chase was incredibly close. I was determined to make this weekend as drama-free as possible, and likewise kept my socializing to a minimum. Out of sight, out of mind was more or less my strategy.

The first race was smooth as silk, with no trouble to speak of. Later in the day, I received a visitor at my trailer—it was my competitor who had a few words to share with me. It was the first time someone entered my trailer uninvited, refusing to leave. He went on, explaining how I and another racer ruined his race (and by ruined, I assume he meant lost). He was also blocking the sole exit to my trailer, and was rather pursuant on not removing himself until his point had been made.  Perhaps he unknowingly stanced himself aggressively, but an angry man weighing in at over 200lbs blocking me in my own trailer left me feeling uneasy.

The last race of the weekend would ultimately reveal what a season’s worth of off-track bullying can manifest. Nearly the entire race was a nose-to-tail battle, typically the kind of race I like. With this driver however, I knew something was up. If I might be so descriptive as to say, his actions on-track turned out to be somewhat vengeful. Early in the race, he deliberately delivered me a strong shunt from behind, which later gave him an advantage up a hill and into the next corner for a pass.

We went back and forth for a couple laps. I attempted to re-pass him, a move that could have worked but ultimately didn’t. I dove in at the apex and he turned in early. Our timing was obviously less than perfect, resulting in light contact where he partially spun 180-degrees. He remained on track, so I waited several moments for him to get moving again. I knew he was going to turn this incident into a huge ordeal in impound, regardless of how polite I could be for the remainder of the race. Traffic from behind was gaining and had to continue. I won the race, but hated every minute of it.

Driving directly into impound, I waited to see how things were going to pan out. It was Sunday and only one run-group left, everyone was packing up to go home. Knowing this, I was originally planning to withhold any protests and perhaps have a driver-to-driver discussion to sort things out.  We soon discovered that I was being protested by my competitor, for obvious reasons. I was entertaining some guests at the event, one of which had a very young boy with her. Little did I know I would need them as witnesses. As I entertained race car questions from a very inquisitive little boy, I spotted my competitor in the corner of my eye, approaching me in a hastened pace.

He began to raise his voice at me, demanding that I admit to hitting him on purpose.  It’s true that Miata’s bump and rub, but I never make it my style to punt anyone out of their game. Raising his voice further, he stated there was an “easy way and a hard way” of dealing with things, and was at that point he began reaching for me. His hands and arms were outstretched, as if he were going to grab or shove me in some way.

Standing still, I was absorbing what was happening. It was almost too ridiculous to believe. I’ve seen guys throw helmets and water bottles at each other, but what I didn’t understand what all this ruckus was supposed to achieve. As my competitor grew much closer to contacting me, my arm was abruptly tugged to the side, nearly causing me to lose my balance.  Perry, my boyfriend, had pulled me out of reach and kept me moving furthest away from a very angry man standing next to my race car. My competitor continued to shout at me as I was being led towards the registration building. As he continued to demand I admit guilt and not walk away from him, I was soon reduced to a compromised emotional state.

Filing a protest while emotionally upset is actually a lot harder than it sounds. You only have 30-minutes to file a protest, so time is of the essence. I wasn’t allowed to have anyone help me write the protest statements, so I gave it my best in-between the tears. It quickly became clear that the SCCA system really wasn’t at all prepared to deal with a situation like mine. Through the deliberation process, my competitor and I were both penalized, specifically addressing the incidents on-track. The caveat to this story is that nothing was done to penalize my competitor’s off-track behavior. I was told that I could protest his behavior, but that’s exactly what I was trying to do! This circular debate went on for some time. Penalizing this competitor somehow became a moot argument.

As the debate came to an end, my spirit for the sport was left incredibly deadened. Not only was the situation handled poorly, it seemed that my rights as a competitor were left in part, unsupported. Worse yet the officials, some who had nothing to do with this protest, had to stay as late as we did. This made for a very exhausting and long day that could have been resolved earlier if all the emotions weren’t involved. Perry and I didn’t leave the track on Sunday until 9:30pm. Long day indeed.

Returning home, I was determined to find resolve. I had to try to go outside of the system that appeared to fail me. In my view existing unsportsmanlike conduct rule in the SCCA General Competition Rules (GCR) was stupendously ineffective. Sadly, what I learned far too late after this situation occurred was that I needed to specifically mention the unsportsmanlike conduct rule verbatim in my protest, to make my complaints actionable.

While I did complain of what happened off-track to the stewards reviewing the case, an actionable protest is one that seeks to address the violation of specific rules in the GCR. While it might seem obvious that this was unsportsmanlike, I had no idea that what I was describing was also against a rule that could have been actionable, until it was too late. Had I known the exact rule to form my protests with, this would have been a very different story (hence the importance of reviewing the GCR before you even begin racing). But even if I did I’m not sure I would have been able to clearly articulate my cause in that moment. Because this doesn’t happen everyday in the club, this rule is often not the first thing that come to mind. It can become a he-said-she-said scenario because there is almost never physical evidence (like video) to review, unlike on-track incidents where there is almost always video from a competitors car.

As it read at the time, there were very few statements in the GCR that addresses competitor behavior, “Section 2.1.7.  Acting in an unsportsmanlike manner”. There is also “Section 2.1.8. Committing physical violence upon any other participant or spectator”. Both are descriptions partially applicable, and are obviously serious GCR infractions, but 2.1.7 doesn’t offer a definition nor a remedy.

I emailed several officials asking for help. I was advised that if this man were to exhibit this behavior again, I could file a protest. However, the GCR doesn’t clearly say I can protest sexism or bullying. The vagueness in the rulebook clearly doesn’t ensure me of anything, and that no matter what I protest on paper, I won’t be entitled to a fair opportunity to stand up for myself, unless the rule is made clearer. I resolved to contact the person at the top of SCCA National, President and CEO, Lisa Noble. In the very least, I figured SHE would have something to say about this.

I wrote her a very concise letter explaining my situation, and forwarded the same letter to the San Francisco regional board. The letter was NOT about points or penalties, it was focused solely on the system of rules and the responsibility SCCA has to both welcome and protect all competitors. Because of the vague nature of the unsportsmanlike conduct rule, I was also proposing that the rule be expanded to clearly define what is not tolerated, so that it better serves its intended purpose.

Only a day after sending my letter, I received a response from Ms. Noble. We agreed to meet in person at the 2014 Runoffs event at Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca to discuss the matter.  She received my story with a very open mind, understanding my concern that my competitor might try to escalate his behavior at the last event.

Ms. Noble ensured me that the correct officials would be informed as to what has been happening between myself and my competitor, and that his actions would be closely monitored and intervention will be taken if necessary at the Thunderhill season finale event. After my meeting with Ms. Noble, I returned to my trailer to help Perry prepare his car. I quickly learned that the competitor who had been giving me grief all year was caught lurking around my trailer. He wasn’t competing in the Runoffs, but certainly made an effort to find my trailer. This meeting couldn’t have been timelier!

After the Runoffs (and the dust settled for the Spec Miata guys/gals) I wrote several letters to (now former) board member Brian Ghidinelli, who did a wonderful job sharing my story with the board and was working to get the rule change applied.

Another board member, Viet Tam Luu was also in agreement for expanding the rule to a larger, clearer definition. In fact, he was solely responsible for writing the supplemental rules.

After some points of rejection, the board finally came to a level of agreement. A new regional supplemental rule would be passed! It reads as follows:

The SCCA San Francisco Region aims to provide an inclusive, welcoming environment for all participants. To that end, behaviors such as the following will be considered egregious examples of GCR 2.1.7, “Acting in an unsportsmanlike manner”, and will be penalized as such:

1. Discriminating against, disparaging or verbally abusing a participant because of their gender identity, ethnicity, marital status, sexual orientation, religion, age, or disability;

2. Harassing, intimidating, threatening or bullying any participant;

3. Doing any of the above outside the confines of an event, or in print or electronic media, in a way that affects that person’s participation at an event.

While I understand that this is a regional supplemental rule, I still consider it a worthwhile victory. The SCCA is looked at as the foundation of grassroots motorsports, and has an enormous influence on how other organizations function as well. The club is a place where all racers should be welcome and encouraged to grow and develop as competitors. In essence, the SCCA sets the standard for conduct, rules for fairness and the protection of competitors.

The face of motorsports is clearly evolving, with more women and girls getting into race cars and wishing to compete. Bullying may happen between any two or more people of any gender, sexual orientation or ethnicity. Either way you look at it, it’s still power-based, involves oppression, and has its roots in societal and cultural upbringing. But our society as a whole is evolving quickly and progressively, with great interest in equality and protection of our rights. It’s clearly time to review areas of the rulebook that could be far too vague, and have not been properly updated in accordance with modern day.

The unfortunate side of stories like mine reveal why some women are driven away from the sport altogether. I know of several women that have quit racing with the SCCA (and racing in general) because of experiences such as this. Women shouldn’t have to fight in the men’s “gladiator pit”. In fact, it shouldn’t be a gladiator pit at all!  The GCR does a fair job keeping racing safe and orderly, but what is lacking is the right mindset and awareness that situations like the one I experienced, can and do occur. No competitors should expect to feel physically threatened. If one of them happens to be a woman, it should be the same expectation.

I realize it’s not always popular to be the one to step out and speak up for change. But if doing so helps bring fourth effective steps in making the environment in racing healthier for women, minorities, and everyone for that matter, then it was definitely well worth the risk.

Posted on 01/07

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