Times have changed. In the 1920’s women were first allowed to vote here in the U.S. In 1976 the first women were admitted into the U.S. Military Academy. The following year Janet Guthrie became the first woman to qualify for the Indy500. She was by no means the first woman to compete alongside men on a racetrack, but that feat is heralded as a groundbreaking moment for women in motorsports. Since, there have been numerous females to make their mark on the racing world, but even in 2018 there are far fewer women wearing a driver’s suit than men—and fewer still at the top tiers of the sport. This is a problem and one that is not easy to solve. Coming in 2019 is an attempted answer: an all women’s Formula1 feeder division called the ‘W Series’.
Here are the facts—or the ones we can discern at this point. The Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile (FIA) is the ultimate governing body for Formula1 and all of its affiliating series. This W Series would fall under their jurisdiction. Similar in kind to Formula 3, the W Series will be an open wheel, open cockpit spec series that plans to feed into Formula1. Starting in May, the 2019 schedule will include 6 thirty-minute races all over Europe. All W Series races are scheduled to support the Deutsche Tourenwagen Masters or DTM class. Over $1.5 million will be awarded to the field of drivers in prize money and the overall championship winner will take home $500,000 to help further their career.
The biggest challenge for any aspiring professional race driver is funding. This has historically been the largest barrier for women in racing. The W Series has an answer for that. Aside from the season’s-end purse, the W Series is supposedly an all-expense paid racing experience. Cars are owned and run by the sanctioning body and expenses will be paid for as well as travel fees.
Racing is not cheap and it took a wealthy financial backer to get this idea off the ground. British businessman, Sean Wadsworth sold his successful recruiting company for over $200 million a couple of years ago and plans to be the main money source for the first season. Drivers selected to race need only bring a helmet and talent in hand, so to speak.
The W Series says that prospective driver applications have been pouring in from all over the globe. The deadline to submit was October 31st. From those applicants, 55 have been chosen for open skills evaluation test, and then 18 drivers will be selected for the first season of racing. In that initial pool includes 8 from the USA—Courtney Crone representing American short track racing, Natalie Decker of the NASCAR development ranks and Shea Holbrook from the sportscar side of life to name a few. Not only do they come from everywhere—but the pool of candidates drive just about everything. In a couple of months we will have our starting roster.
A women’s-only series in racing is not a new idea. A couple examples include a GT series back in 1999 and Formula Woman in 2004. The former example was moderately successful for a couple of years and included some talented female drivers. Some of those names had success after the GT series, but they also entered the program with momentum. Formula Woman was originally structured to be more like a reality TV show where contestants were eliminated from week to week. Prior to production, however, that caveat was lifted and it was run more like a regular racing series. Both opportunities petered out after a handful of seasons due to lack of interest from fans and sponsors.
It is hard to say what the W Series will really look like, how it will impact the industry and if it will succeed. Do women need a segregated series to climb the ladder of racing? No. Is the added emphasis of women in racing and STEM programs a bad thing? Also no. The W Series was born with a positive motive but its reception is divided.
Critics ask why the sponsorship money attained for the W Series didn’t just go to helping existing drivers further their careers. Others poke holes at the idea of separating female competitors in order to succeed. The reality of all of this is a means to an end. We are talking about more women racing, it is globally being acknowledged as an issue to be addressed in the industry. That alone is a success.
Would the W Series survive better or worse in America? Will it survive at all? How will fans respond? Will there be additional sponsor interest moving forward? It is entirely too early to see the ramifications of such a series. Only time will tell.