Chris Rattue is a sports columnist for the New Zealand Herald.

Motorsport: Racing to bridge the gender gap

Girls are often told they can do anything but the obstacles in motor racing are considerable. Chris Rattue takes a look at New Zealand to see what is happening in the pit lanes here.

Mark Petch has done more than anyone to promote Kiwi women race drivers.

He's also had just about enough of the opposite sex.

"I was determined to prove a female driver could make it," says the 72-year-old, who won three national championships in his racing prime. "But I've given up trying. I'm over it. Someone will emerge one day, but it will be a very rare girl."

Motorsport is a tough enough place to succeed anyway, especially considering the expense. But women continue to face added obstacles from men like British Formula 1 overlord Bernie Ecclestone.

Octogenarian Ecclestone, prone to outlandish statements, claimed women would "not be taken seriously" in F1 and could not compete physically. Petch has strong and sometimes surprising views on why so few women make it to the top.

As a brand promoter, he seeks women drivers for the successful, televised SsangYong ute series - there were six in the 2016 races. He doesn't hold back, however, when asked why more woman don'tmake it to the top.

"I targeted female drivers [for the utes] as a strategy, a point of difference," says Petch, who even encouraged a SsangYong employee Jessica Antonievic to take part.

"I've been trying to find a top, dedicated driver for years. I have sponsored them... but I've run into all the typical problems. It's not that they can't do it. But [the problem] is as basic as DNA... they are pre-programmed in evolution.

"Once they discover boys... they are no longer completely focused. A male can get into a relationship and still deal with things in compartments. I've seen the women come and go. They can't retain a single-minded pursuit."

Which brings us to Christina Orr-West, who Petch has backed and rates as the most talented female Kiwi driver. He also sees her as a prime example of his "DNA" theories.

The 28-year-old Orr-West, who lives with husband Jarrad on her parents' dairy farm in Edgcumbe near Whakatane, was born into racing.

Her father Will won a national standard production rally title in 1992. Wife Heather was his co-driver. Just as importantly, Christina's godfather, the late Chris Barns, was a rally driver and world jetsprint champion who encouraged her race career.

She has raced just about everything, from karts to Bathurst. Her many successes include lining up in three American Indy Lights races. Her biggest regret will probably always be turning down a test drive for the legendary Sam Schmidt Motorsports team, who offered her a cut-price deal.

As a female who was better than many blokes, Orr-West knows the hurdles for women better than most.

She understands some of Petch's controversial observations, saying: "We don't have the same mongrel a guy does...we find a different way of driving.

"When you look back millions of years, the female has been the caretaker. It's hard to stop that and just concentrate on a career. I was always going to have a family."

But she has returned a "tougher and smarter" driver since dropping out for two years to have Lucas (aged 3) and Lainey (2) and still dreams of driving in things like the V8s. She was a beacon who is now seeing some light for women in motor racing.

"The spotlight was always on me," she says. "When I started winning or doing well, the boys would suddenly remember I was female and take to me. I was never encouraged to be there. I would hear fathers saying, 'don't let that girl beat you or your are going to get it'.

"When you are young, it is amusing but when you get older those hits hurt the body and the soul. I just dealt with it. It made me more determined to be there. Screw you."

A Formula First rival even yanked Orr-West from the seat and shook her after his showboating allowed her to pip him on the line. She sees herself as a tough pioneer, alongside the now-retired Heather Spurle.

"It has changed a lot and it pisses me off when I hear girls talking about getting taken out. These new generations wouldn't have lasted two seconds in our day," says Orr-West.

"I have found it so easy coming back since having a family and the sport is starting to recognise us. Things like the CRC Speedshow women's promotion are awesome.

"I never had any females to race and suddenly there are all these women. It's amazing. They are doing all sorts of stuff and being successful. But it's still a man's sport and I've got no idea why. It is still very hard for females."

Back to Petch, who believed Orr-West could make it in America, and remains frustrated she hasn't.

"It will be nothing short of a minor miracle," Petch says, "but to a man we'd all love to see a girl in a top team go out and beat the boys."

A few female racing trailblazers, here and abroad

Danica Patrick

A world sports star, groundbreaking results at Indianapolis and Daytona, won in Japan ... but has struggled to keep up the pace on race day. Has polarised opinions but said: "Racing is, by all means, very male-driven. It's mostly men, but in this day and age those things are shifting."

Suzie Wolff

The 33-year-old Brit, who is now a TV analyst, was a development driver for Williams' F1 team. On retiring from the track she said: "Do I think F1 is ready for a competitive female racing driver who can perform at the highest level? Yes. Do I think it is achievable as a woman? Most definitely. Do I think it will happen soon? Sadly, no." She launched 'Dare to be Different' this year, a scheme to promote women in motorsport.

Lella Lombardi

There have been only five female F1 entrants and the late Italian is the only one to have notched championship points.

Leanne Tander
The Australian raised the F3 bar for women around the world. "People like to have a go at us. They will try and tell us girls can't race ... but there's a possibility for my daughter to grow up and see girls at the top and they'll think ,'OK, that's an option," she said in a News Corp interview last year.

Shirley Muldowney

Women have a relatively strong place in American drag racing, and Muldowney (now aged 75) was a celebrated pioneer who beat the opposition on and off the track.

Avalon Biddle

The 23-year-old Orewa motorbike racer won the inaugural eight-race women's European title last year.

Emma Gilmour

The Dunedinite was formerly ranked the world's best women's rally driver.

Courtney Duncan

The 20-year-old from near Dunedin is close to the top of the world women's motocross standings.

Katherine Prumm

Raced against Kiwi men, and won the women's world motocross titles in 2006/07 before a terrible training accident in Auckland intervened.

- NZ Herald

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