New Look Needed

Shawna Robinson's somewhat historic attempt to become a regular in the Winston Cup Series hasn't worked out quite as well as her team, or she planned.

So far, she's only qualified for one of three races where they've unloaded her car. And there, of course, she finished way back in the field.

It’s too bad things aren't going well. Having Robinson in the race - while something of a novelty at this point - adds an interesting diversion to the day-to-day foibles of NASCAR.

Fact is, guys like Tony Stewart and Jimmy Spencer need Robinson around to take away some of the media attention from their own issues.

On a larger level, though, Robinson is needed around the sport simply to add some diversity to the field.

Opponents to diversity could argue NASCAR's field doesn't need to be multi-race or multi-genders, citing other sports, such as professional football, where the players are all male.

Others could argue everyone has a fair chance to participate, so the fact they’re not isn't any fault of NASCAR's.

They'd be wrong.

A while ago, diversity was a buzzword around NASCAR circles, right around the same time the broadcast networks were being hammered by the NAACP for not having enough minorities on the small screen.

NASCAR officials then announced initiatives to boost minority involvement in the sport.

Diversity has always been an issue with stock-car racing, for reasons no one has yet been able to articulate clearly - nor probably ever will. Walk through the crowd at a NHRA event, and the crowd is decidedly mixed. And to a much lesser extent, there is some diversity among the drivers, albeit limited.

But scan the faces at a Winston Cup race and you're going to find a lack of ethnic diversity.

Again, finding reasons for the lack of minority interest - at least in the stands or participating - is like trying to get Robert Yates to spill engine-building secrets. It's just not going to happen.

Some have tried to attribute the failure of minorities to break into the sport to the fact there isn't a grassroots, low-cost training program. A kid can get started in Little League baseball for a minimal amount of money, but racing costs big bucks, even at the children's level.

That may be part of it. Certainly, the lack of drivers of color or women drivers on the top level may be part of it, as well. Upcoming participants look for inspiration in stars of today, but without role models, budding drivers have nothing to shoot for.

Asked about her role models, Robinson frequently mentions A.J. Foyt, Sammy Swindell and Steve Kinser as drivers that inspired her to go on And with Foyt, she says she followed the legend because her father rooted for him.

The ironic part of the diversity issue is that the Miller company, a big-time Winston Cup and motorsports sponsor, has been running a generic television commercial promoting racing. The spot simply shows a bunch of race fans, black, white and others, while touting its brew.

However, anyone walking through the crowd of a Winston Cup race would be hard pressed to match the diversity level of that Miller commercial.

So it is, at a time when much of the media and sporting world is under fire for not being diverse enough, we need Shawna to make it - and on several levels.

In all of sports, auto racing may really be the only one where women could compete on the same level as men. Really.

Given the same cars, there's no reason that a woman couldn't drive as well as a man. Playing football or a sport that depends on intense strength, size and stamina, women are at a clear disadvantage.

Yet, in today's cars, provided they're equally prepared, a woman should be able to run door-to-door with NASCAR's best.

Likewise, there is already a small crop of women in the sport, although without the financial wherewithal to make the break to the big time. Around the country at short tracks on Saturday nights, women are running with men.

NASCAR could clearly do more to get them moving ahead. The surprising thing about Robinson's attempts to race so far is that a big-bucks sponsor hasn't publicly stepped up to fund a full-season effort, though there have been plenty of rumored suitors.

At a time when companies are fighting for media attention, what a better way to stand out than to back the only female driver in the field? Heck, they've funded other male drivers' years of losing without a peep.

Also, full-funding would clearly put Robinson on the same level equipment-wise as the others, leaving only her to prove whether she's got the goods to run with the best.

When and if that happens, Robinson and women who follow, won't be novelties any more. They won't be the first to do something anymore. They will simply be racers.

Before trying to qualify at Chicago, Robinson said: "A time will come when crawling into my car will be more of a routine than anything, and that's what I'm looking for. I appreciate the attention and I appreciate the fans and I appreciate people pulling for me. That's a great feeling. But I want to be where I am a regular part of the sport."

And that’s when we'll know for sure the sport has reached a good level of diversity.

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