Stock car driver Alexandra Fearn was starting second on the outside lane in her division’s 20-lap race at Connecticut’s Stafford Motor Speedway.
One week ago Fearn, 20, led the field for most of the race before her axel cap fell off in a frustrating finish at the Stafford, Connecticut, track. This time she felt confident about her chances.
“A lot of people do not like the outside lane but I know I can run there,” Fearn said. “I can pass people. I’ve won races on the outside lane. I have that to my advantage.”
She got a good start and led every lap after the first run around the 147-year-old track. Fearn knew there were faster cars behind her but she kept her focus while blocking their advances.
By the 18th lap, the driver directly behind her tapped her bumper and tried to pass her, sliding into the inside lane.
“I was thinking ‘Oh no that’s pretty aggressive. I hope I’m not in trouble right now,’ This is not the time when I want someone trying to pass me,” she said. “I was definitely nervous. Then I started getting inconsistent which was how he started to get next to me.”
But Fearn kept her cool and sped past him on the outside lane to take the checkered flag.
“He tried to pass me and most people would rather get passed than run on the outside, but I thought ‘There are three or two to go, I’m going to stay out here, I can win this way.’”
Fearn spoke with her competitor after they got out of their cars and headed to the winner’s circle on a stretch of grass in the middle of the track. He said ‘OK, I’m sorry,’ and I said ‘No, it’s OK.’ I don’t want to start any problems with anyone before the end of the season,” she said.
Welcome to NASCAR short track racing.
The motorsport’s minor league is perhaps the only place in American professional sports where female athletes compete with men on a level footing, or rather a half-mile paved oval that banks along its edges.
It’s a sports paradox. The league that markets itself as conservative, good-ole-boy entertainment—that President Trump lauded for threatening to fire drivers who protest during the national anthem—has been paving the way for gender equality in professional sports for nearly three-quarters of a century.
NASCAR has been a mixed-gender league since 1949, when Sara Christian competed in the inaugural NASCAR race at the Charlotte Speedway in North Carolina and finished 14th out of 33 drivers.
Women have raced at all levels of the sport since its inception, although their participation in the top echelon that tours throughout the country is rare and victories are rarer still.
In 1976, Janet Guthrie became the first woman to race in a superspeedway. Driver Shawna Robinson became the first woman to win a NASCAR touring series event 12 years later, and Patty Moise raced a record 133 starts in the Xfinity Series, the sport’s second highest level, between 1986 and 1998.
But it wasn’t until Danika Patrick joined NASCAR full-time in 2013 that casual sports fans and the media began to notice women’s success in motorsports. She graced magazine covers and was voted NASCAR’s most popular driver in 2012.
“When Danika started racing that was a big deal,” said Fearn. “She’s so different and such a unique marketing tool and she was a big advocate for girls in the sport.”
Only four women are active drivers in NASCAR touring series races and another dozen or so made periodic starts in touring events in the past year. Even Patrick has not secured a team for next season after separating from Stewart-Haas Racing last month.
New Hampshire native Melissa Fifield is the only woman on the Wheelan Modified Tour, which visits short track speedways around the country from March through October.
“I kind of consider myself just another driver out there. I don’t look at myself as a female,” she said. “They can’t tell when your helmet is on whether you’re female.”
The sport is intensely demanding on drivers of either gender.
“It’s 130 degrees in the car, your heart rate is at 155, you’re making split-second decisions,” said Ken Fifield, Melissa’s father and team co-owner. “You have to learn to deal with that feeling of being on the edge.”
Fifield, 25, has been racing since she was 12 years old, although she had plenty of practice driving ATVs and snowmobiles on her family’s property near the Maine border.
She owns her racing team with her father, which mean she keeps up her team’s fundraising and marketing as well as her car’s maintenance and plans her driving strategy. On top of that, she works full time as an internet manager for a car dealership in New Hampshire in order to support her weekend competitions.
She hasn’t had a top 10 finish or led a race since she joined the tour in 2014. But Fifield has courted a strong fan base who selected her Wheelan’s most popular driver three years in a row. She plans to be back on tour next year and hopes to land more sponsors so she can focus on her driving.
“On higher-level teams the driver is just a driver and doesn’t have to worry about funding and other teams have multiple cars, multiple engines, and better equipment,” she said. “Hopefully someday we’ll get near that.”
The next generation of female NASCAR stars hone their skills in regional stock car competitions like the Stafford Motor Speedway.
On the last day of the racing season, Stafford opens its track to fans for a “pit party” to meet drivers who park their cars on the track’s straightaway below the grandstands and give away autographs.
This year, seven women between the ages of 14 and 20 raced weekly in three divisions at the speedway which has developed a reputation in racing circles for fostering female drivers.
“It’s just a competitive track,” said 22-year-old driver David Arute whose family has owned the speedway since 1969. “It doesn’t matter if you’re male or female, you’re here for the same thing, to get the win. No matter who you are, you can come here, you can race and be competitive and everyone will respect you.”
One key is to start racing at an early age. Another is to have racing in your blood.
Nicole Chambrello has both. The 19-year-old Connecticut native comes from a third-generation racing family with deep ties to Stafford—her uncle Pat was a two-time champion. She started racing on a quarter midget track when she was 8.
“I didn’t want to be a ballerina anymore. It wasn’t for me. I needed something more,” she said.
Fearn, whose father and cousin also raced, jumped into go-karts when she was 8. And her brother also competes in the same division, but not everyone is used to her success.
“We get to the end of the year and people come in and say, ‘Oh wow you’re a girl we didn’t know that the whole season,’” How could they not know?” she said.
Another key may be blending in with other teams in the pit and keeping a low profile. That includes politics. Most drivers appeared to be on the same page as their audience—right of center—even as President Trump tweeted he was proud of NASCAR because they “won’t put up with disrespecting our Country or our Flag” while professional football players kneeled during the national anthem.
Driver Cassandra Cole, 19, said there was “no way” any of the stock car drivers at the speedway would demonstrate during the pre-race ceremonies. “Generally most people are in agreement with the president although there are a couple of people against him, but everyone stands for the national anthem,” she said.
Fifield, who was at Stafford for a 150-lap contest on Sunday, said that the drivers usually keep to themselves and try to block out any distractions.
“I don’t really pay attention to politics or the news media,” she said. “There’s not a lot of time to mingle. Most cases we’re in our race cars when the anthem is playing.”
Fifield stood in front of her magenta, white, and black modified stock car, wearing a fireproof Nomex racing suit in the same colors and pink-tinted reflective aviator sunglasses. A constant flow of little girls approached her and asked for autographs.
“My granddaughter loves you, she said ‘I want to be just like you,’” one fan told her.
At the end of the row, Amanda West, a 17-year-old high school senior from Colchester, Connecticut, leaned on the front right wheel of her car. A handful of glossy postcards with a photo of her car and a wicker basket of Halloween candy rested on the hood.
“A girl came up to me the other day and asked, ‘How old were you when you got into this?’ and I said ‘4 years old,’” West said. “And her mother said, ‘See you can do it!’ So I want to encourage little girls.”