Op-Ed: The Lady Box – A Classing Dilemma

Proposed Club Class Details (Click to Open)

You may or may not have seen discussion about a proposed change to dissolve Ladies classes and replace them with a “Club” Class.  The primary people behind this movement are Heidi Ellison and Rachel Baker, so NAXN has invited them to detail their reasoning behind the proposal.  We also invite anyone with a counter argument to reach out to us.  Reasonable discourse has the ability to improve our sport for everyone involved.

Thomas Thompson
Senior Editor

The Lady Box: A Classing Dilemma

Heidi Ellison at the 2018 Solo Nationals STR-Open

Rachel smiles from under her wide brim hat and reminds me that the showcase drops off at the bottom as the clipboard guy moves out of my way and I ease out of grid. Michelle makes eye contact and throws up the “V” sign as my co driver reminds me the car feels perfect and to trust it as he turns on the camera and moves his toes out of the way. Jen turns, locks eyes with me and says, “No reason.” I lock back, “No reason.” There’s no reason I can’t compete with these guys and that I can’t drive just as fast, I think all the way to the line. A karter girl runs up fresh from her win, quickly fist bumps me and says, “you got this!” I go out feeling nervous, empowered and supported.

I’ve always been a strong person. As a girl I played sports with boys and equally embraced my femininity. Coming from another club with the highest participation of women of all the local clubs and no gender division, I did well in Open in 2014. Yet somehow it still happened. I got pressured into ladies’ class without even realizing it. “Oh, you’ll do really well in Ladies” people said, “here’s a free seat for Ladies’” and “here’s our main lady, you can totally beat her in Ladies’”. “Come drive with us because this is where you belong.” I started to feel like I couldn’t be as good as the guys. I didn’t see any female role models in Open, no one who looked like me. I got trapped in this kind of box. -Heidi

Rachel Baker running B-Street Open

Ladies class… right, that’s where I drive because I’m a female. Yes, there is an option to run open, but how was I to know that that was for me, seeing almost no women running there? Not until a few of my male mentors told me how they believed in me and told me I could run open did I actually go there. I’ve never been interested in being “one of the guys” but some of my favorite hobbies are male dominated.

Am I “too female” to autocross? I wear dresses and fancy hats. The car certainly doesn’t care what I’m wearing. If men and women were all running together I would have seen all the support available sooner and not separated myself from it. I have met some of my dearest friends at autocross and not because we ran the same class. It’s so rewarding to have people of all genders come up and wish me luck, congratulate me, tell me they believe in me, or ask for my help. We all love this sport and making everyone feel supported together is the best way to grow it. -Rachel

Women make up 15% of autocrossers. 79% of those choose to run in Ladies’ class where 4 drivers can share a car, and there is the possibility of easier contingencies and Championships. Men aren’t allowed. As we look into the system that has been in place since 1973, let’s try to examine the data as objectively as possible like autocrossers do, devoid of emotion, while recognizing that some have a personal stake. Let’s set aside any bias and keep the greater significance of women’s roles in Motorsports in mind. We respect the history of the program and recognize our different experiences and backgrounds; however, if we pool our resources and strengths together we can begin to look forward, not only for us but also for the girls and women coming into the sport. Everyone’s opinion on our classing system counts. It’s not fair for anyone to decide the worth of one woman’s view over another, nor to devalue those of men, as this issue affects us all. There is a fatal flaw in only letting women running Ladies’ classes have their voices heard, as they are direct recipients of the benefits which aren’t available to or chosen by everyone. This doesn’t mean we don’t believe in women, quite the opposite, it means we do.

Ladies’ classes don’t support all women in autocross, they only support those who opt to be separated. This separation makes the women who choose to run Open anomalies, going against the lady-grain and many are continually pressured back. It marginalizes us literally and figuratively, even if by choice. Ladies’ classes are the manifestation of accepting negative traits, projecting them onto all of us and reinforcing the falsity that we can’t drive as well, handle the pressure of competing with everyone, and that men are inherently harmful creatures. The “just leave us alone” tactic doesn’t work, not only because the “biological weaknesses” and “nurture deficiencies” excuses get projected onto all women in autocross, but because the class and its benefits (4 in a car, lower bar for Challenges, etc.) lock out the majority of members based on a driver’s license gender designation, which is being expanded from F and M in some states. This divisiveness multiplies and becomes kind of “Handmaid’s Tale-y” when you add in the narrative being officially whispered to us… “women need a gentler approach”, “husbands and bf’s please don’t scare your lady on ride alongs”, “Ladies, karters are the future-remember this is a family sport”, “Open is the men’s class”, “focus on fun not data”, “camaraderie, not driving”. It becomes this vortex where we aren’t surrounded by diverse mentors, talent, and competitors, and the issues we have in general as women get compounded and we end up limiting our potential.

Our current class structure leads to a tiny fraction of top female drivers vying in Open at Tours, where they often can’t make class numbers in ladies, and then “cleaning up” in Pro L classes. Some justify this by saying it’s “to support their team” and while we understand racing is expensive, it’s expensive for everyone. Using gender as a qualifier leads to car owners trying to fill their Open seats with only men and asking women to take the easier chances at contingencies in Ladies’, and persistent pressure from other women to help fill classes so they can win. This dynamic creates an imbalance and contributes to an unspoken hierarchy where women have been referred to as “golden gooses” and make us “less valued” for Open seats. We support all women wherever they choose to drive, however the issue is with the unfairness and the negative effects of that system, especially on women. Many say Ladies’ classes helped them when they started, but that was the only system in place. The number of participants running Ladies’ classes are on a downward trend and women in Open on the rise. Mazda is leading the support and encouraging this trend with a new contingency in 2018 for women running Open. Women don’t need separate Ladies’ classes to start autocrossing, they just need to see women.

Picture a new landscape where we all compete alongside each other but still have choices.  Women in autocross are still a minority and we want to preserve the positive aspects of ladies class, but in the form of support, not exclusion-ism, a tactic often used against us.  We should begin to set up a viable transition away from this antiquated system. Let’s build strong, encouraging women’s groups that focus on us as drivers with data sharing and course walks, as well as camaraderie.  We need to develop mentoring programs, replace lady-contingencies with need-based lady scholarships, develop recruitment programs that focus not only on wives and girlfriends on the sidelines, but reach women likely to have an interest and aptitude such as in engineering schools, car clubs, IT and automotive programs. Let’s get women into visible positions in our clubs as instructors, novice chiefs, safety stewards, board members, and role models competing together and not off in the margins.  We can recognize our differences while focusing on our strengths.  Women tend to be better listeners, have better memories, lower body weight, think in a web (watch the tree, contemplate course layout, driving plan), multitask better, be less ego-driven, connect both sides of our brains better, have more acute senses in sight, sound and touch (which helps to read in-car data), and are more flexible in learning. These attributes enable us to train in the strengths we lack.  We appreciate that the old system was relevant in the 1970’s, but it doesn’t mean we need to hold on to it forever.  Let’s align in practice with the new Welcoming Environment Statement and work towards a class system defined by car parts not body parts, and we ask that you support this ideology as we work the details out together.  Sometimes you have to think outside of your box and make a change.

Every member’s voice matters. If you want to work towards a non-gender classing system please submit a letter to https://www.crbscca.com (Solo Events Board, EO, Title: Support for Non-gender Based Classing).

Rachel Baker & Heidi K. Ellison