By Marty O'Brien Daily Press (Newport News, Va.)
Any short list of national motorsports highlights in 2013 has to include Danica Patrick's historic run to the pole in the Daytona 500.
That's just the most visible sign of something increasingly clear at any local dragway or stock-car track: Women are here to stay in auto racing.
Half of the nearly 40 Drive for Diversity participants competing the past two years at Langley Speedway for a handful of slots to be groomed by NASCAR were female. Menchville High senior Rachael Whitney says those numbers aren't unusual in drag racing, a sport in which Ashley Force has multiple wins in the Funny Car Division of the National Hot Rod Association-- the major league of drag racing.
"About half of the field in the drag races I compete in are females," Whitney said.
And they are making their mark. Whitney, 17, won her third consecutive Junior Dragster Division championship at Richmond Dragway this past season, before reaching the semifinals in that class at the International Hot Rod Association World Championships in Memphis, Tenn.
Macy Causey, 12, made a splash when she began driving Bandolero cars at age 8, landing interviews with the New York Times and NBC's "Today Show." But if she drew much of the attention at that time because she was a cute little girl, the recognition she earned for finishing fifth this season in the Sportsman Division at Virginia Motor Speedway in a full-bodied car against men was all merit.
Madyson Mulligan, 15, began her 2013 season by setting a Bandolero track qualifying record at Langley Speedway and ended it by setting another at Southern National in Kenley, N.C. In between, she won the Bandolero title at Langley and set four qualifying records at three tracks.
"It was a great season," said Mulligan, who cheered on the sidelines for the Great Bridge High football team in Chesapeake when she wasn't racing. "The record at Southern just topped everything off."
Mulligan will follow in Causey's footsteps next season, when she moves into a full-bodied car. Mulligan's parents gave her a Pro-Six car for Christmas, and she'll race it at Langley.
"It's definitely going to be a challenge," Mulligan said. "I'll just do the best that I can."
After several years in a tiny Bandolero, Causey took up the intimidating challenge of driving a full-bodied car at 11, making her the youngest driver ever to start a race at VMS, located in the Middle Peninsula town of Jamaica.
The granddaughter of racing pioneer Diane Teel, the first woman to win a NASCAR Late Model race, Causey was clearly overmatched in her first season but displayed enough talent to keep her fenders clean week after week. By 2013, she was ready to compete and even led some laps.
Not only did she finish fifth in a race, she finished fifth in points in a division that featured more than 15 adult regulars weekly. Perhaps most amazing, Causey, who was lapped in the first few laps of many 2012 races, finished every race in 2013 and was on the lead lap for 212 of 215 total laps.
"Last year was the funnest year I've had so far," said Causey, a seventh-grader at Yorktown Middle School. "It was really cool to lead laps for the first time at VMS in 2013, and I can't wait to go back there in 2014.
"I'm excited about the new Late Model car and we've already tested it at Langley. It was kind of cool to go faster than my nana (Teel) and dad (former Langley Late Model driver Rette Causey) have ever gone around there before."
Whitney will drive a larger dragster soon. She has created what one article labeled a "dynasty" in the 2003 half-scale dragster she's run the past several years. Whitney clinched track title No. 3 before the final race for the first time. "I think my dad (crew chief Michael Whitney) liked it that we clinched early, but I think it's more exciting and competitive to do it in the last race," Whitney said.
Whitney found plenty of competition waiting in the bigger events but was terrific there too. She finished second in the Race of Champions at Piedmont Dragway in North Carolina against a field of nine other track champions.
That qualified her for the IHRA World Championships in Memphis. There, she reached the semifinals of the 16-car field. "I think that was my biggest accomplishment ever," said Whitney, who credited her six years of experience to her increasing success. "I didn't think I would make the finals at Piedmont or the semifinals at Memphis.
"It was new, exciting and nerve-racking to race against that level of competition."
Maybe, but it's something females, from Danica to your local track, are doing with more frequency and success.
"We're showing the boys they're not the only ones who can race," Mulligan said. "A lot of girls are coming into the sport, and our mind-set is to go out and have fun."