In case you missed it, Danica Patrick finished 17th in Saturday's NASCAR Nationwide Series race at Phoenix International Speedway (AZ). Then again, that might be hard to miss since she probably got more media attention for that top 20 run that anyone else in the field except race winner Kyle Busch - who just happened to lead every single lap of the race.
Yes, we are entering into the second season of Danica-Mania: Stock Car Style and to date, her results in the JR Motorsports equipment have been less than stellar. Yes, she did lead at Daytona before finishing one lap of the pace in the 14th position. Nevertheless, her results haven't even come close to the level of media attention that she has gotten for her experiment to try out stock car racing by branching out from her full-time IRL Indy Car effort.
If you use Patrick's results, or lack thereof, as a yardstick to measure the outlook for a young female driver to become a winner in big-time stock car racing, you might get a little bit depressed. But don't worry. All it would take for the mainstream racing media to see some real talent and dedication of some female racers is a look towards the short tracks of America. There has never been more of it in so many places.
Carrying the banner of “Girl Power” into the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series this year is Johanna Long. At just 18 years old, Long has built the kind of racing resume that would be more than impressive whether it belonged to a man, woman or Martian. She has won a Pro Late Model title at Five Flags Speedway (FL). She has won a Blizzard Series champion. She won last year's Snowball Derby.
Now Long is embarking on a battle to go after the Rookie of the Year title in the Truck Series. She'll be up against a few drivers who have used NASCAR's feeder system of the K&N Pro Series East like Miguel Paludo, Jeffrey Earnhardt and Craig Goess, but nobody expects that she won't be in the thick of the battle for the rookie crown as the season eventually winds down.
Long, and fellow Truck Series driver Jennifer Jo Cobb, might have some other female company in the top three levels of NASCAR before too long as well.
Just a short drive from Daytona over the recent Florida Speedweeks, you could find Wisconsin native Becca Kasten running a Super Late Model at New Smyrna Speedway. Kasten wasn't satisfied with a strong of runner-up finishes early in the week and broke through to victory lane in the competitive division mid-week. She was ready to challenge Florida Super Late Model ace Tim Russell and former East Series Rookie of the Year Ryan Moore for the SLM championship as well before mechanical problems took her out of the running late in the week. Kasten is only 20 years old and attracted the eye of more than a few NASCAR insiders with her New Smyrna success.
Kasten wasn't the only female winner at New Smyrna Speedway. Jessica Murphy won in the Limited Late Model ranks and was even more impressive when she hopped into a Modified for the first time and lapped the track in the low 18-second bracket in her first ever practice session. Those times would have put her in the middle of the pack during qualifying for the Tour-type Modified race at the track over Speedweeks.
In the open wheel ranks, New Englanders have known for awhile that Erica Santos is the real deal. She has won at the NEMA Midget level and has beaten her more well-known brother, 2010 NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour champion Bobby Santos, III, on occasion.
Other notable females out there are ARCA driver Ali Owens, former NASCAR K&N Pro Series East regular Mackena Bell and Maine native Katie Hagar - who has experience in PASS North Super Late Models, PASS Modifieds and Late Model Stock Cars, Alabama driver Kristen Wallace and Florida high school student Whitney Poole - who built a racecar as her senior year school project.
What is even more encouraging though is the level of interest that female drivers have in grassroots racing currently. It used to be that a woman race car driver was a rarity. When I grew up for example, the only one that I could remember at the local tracks was Heidi Brown wheeling a Volkswagen Rabbit around, sometimes on three wheels, in the Enduro classes at Star and Hudson Speedway in New Hampshire.
These days, there are plenty of good female drivers racing at tracks around my area of Northern New England. Vanna Brackett has won 35 feature races in the Ladies division at Oxford Plains Speedway (ME) and now is moving up to the Strictly Stock division this coming year.
Beech Ridge Motor Speedway (ME) might have the most complete roster of ladies racing in New England. Sally Gherardi has won the competitive Sports Series title at Beech Ridge and is a threat to win every week in that division. Tasha Dyer won multiple Roadrunner races there this past year. Laura McKeage had a strong showing in the Wildcat division and is preparing a move up to the Sports Series ranks in 2011. Nicole Timmons and Kari Thibodeau are two standout Roadrunner drivers. Kelsey Babb ran strong in a Sport Series car before taking some time off from racing. She hasn't strayed far from the sport though. Just this past weekend, she won an indoor karting championship over such notables as NASCAR K&N Pro Series East driver D.J. Shaw and PASS North regular Joey Doiron.
Elsewhere in Northern New England, Katrina Canney has been learning the ropes of Late Model racing at Lee USA Speedway (NH) - which is also the home track for Late Model Sportsman driver Michelle Fushpanski. Up at Thunder Road Speedbowl in Vermont, Tracie Bellerose is a former track champion while Street Stock drivers Jennifer Getty and Amanda Habel hope to move up and follow in her footsteps someday.
A few states away in Connecticut, we are seeing drivers like Heather DesRochers, Lauren Cooper, Victoria Bergenty and Nichole Morgillo all competeing in either the SK Modified or SK Light divisions.
And those are just a few of the female drivers from my neck of the woods. It's a great sign that more and more lady racers are not just getting out there to drive, but doing a pretty good job of it. Short track racing isn't just a game for boys anymore.