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Bohls: Female racers stay on track

By Kirk Bohls - American-Statesman Staff

Lara Tallman’s been into cars all her life.

Her dad rebuilt hot rods in the family garage, so from the time she was 9, the Southern California native was right alongside, preferring wrenches over dolls. And once she enrolled in the Bob Bondurant School of High Performance Driving in Phoenix years later, her life changed forever.

Never mind that she was one of the few female drivers there.

Some others did, however.

An older gentleman stepped out of his Bentley, sized up the vivacious, 5-foot-11 blonde and offered some, uh, advice.

“Honey,” the man said condescendingly, “stay out of our way and go to the back.”

Tallman did nothing of the sort.

“I started from the back and passed them all,” she recalled. “But I kept my mouth shut.”

She’s let her driving speak for her, and Tallman’s Nissan had a lot to say when her Skullcandy Team Nissan won its first event in six years at Daytona in late January. Her reaction? “We were relieved,” she said. “It was a long time coming.”

Don’t she know it.

Auto racing has come light years from the days when Janet Guthrie had to endure sexism and harassment at its worst when she finished ninth in the Indy 500 in 1978. She once aspired to be an astronaut, but settled for being an auto racing pioneer to pave the way for the Danica Patricks of the sport as one 10 females to race in the Indy 500 and 16 to compete on the NASCAR circuit, but not before suffering ugly sexual slights like suggestions she’d be unable to race in certain times of the month.

Before her Indy 500 race, ESPN’s Ryan McGee wrote recently, “Today” show host Jane Pauley flew in for an interview and asked if Guthrie would wear makeup during the race.

Tallman, a 45-year-old, divorced mother of two teen-aged sons, was one of three women to compete in the Grand-Am Continental Tire Sports Car Challenge, coming in 28th in the Street Tuner race on a windy, sun-dashed Saturday at the Circuit of the Americas. A female, Tani Corthell, waved the green flag to start the race. Another, Katie Crawford, is the sole female to work as a team engineer, overseeing Team Sahlen.

Besides racing, Tallman’s the team owner and in charge of everything from feeding the pit crew to arranging transportation. By her count, she hasn’t had more than six hours’ sleep in any night in over a week. This is no hobby. She recently built two new cars, an expensive proposition since it costs about $110,000 to buy one.

Has she turned a profit yet in racing? “Not yet,” she said.

In her spare time — right — she runs her own marketing company.

Ashley McCalmont, a 26-year-old Canadian, finished 15th in a Camaro for CKS Autosport Saturday, and Sarah Cattaneo, a 26-year-old Arizonan, came in 24th after just missing becoming the overall Street Tuner series champion in 2011 when a clutch failure in the final 15 minutes doomed her car in the finale at Mid-Ohio.

McCalmont’s a feisty sort. She took issue with the starter at last month’s Daytona 500 where Patrick finished eighth.

“The announcer said, ‘Drivers and Danica, start your engines.’ I think somebody messed up,” McCalmont said. “She’s a driver just like everyone else.”

None of the three figure to become the next Danica Patrick in this sub-Formula One class, but all three are absolutely passionate about their profession and eager to continue racing despite obstacles as diverse as attracting sponsors to — as Cattaneo put it — reaching the pedals in their sports cars.

Is she joking?

“No, I wish,” said the petite, 5-foot-4 driver with nails painted black and bright hazel eyes. “I have to put a big pad in the back of the seat.”

The 5-4 McCalmont, a long-haired blonde who has been racing in some form for 18 years but is also pursuing a career in television broadcasting at Mohawk College in Ontario, Canada, has the same problem.

“You have to decide if you want to see over the steering wheel or reach the pedals,” she said.

She’s reached them well enough to finish in the top three in three events and doesn’t lack for confidence.

“When I brought it in, we were first,” she said after leading briefly. “It’s up to my co-driver. I kept it clean. I choose my moves wisely. A lot of people get hot-headed, but you can go fast for one lap and end up in the wall. That won’t get you anywhere.”

All three drivers were inspired more by their race-loving fathers than by Patrick or Guthrie, but Tallman’s working to try to raise money for female racers by promoting a Race4Girls.com website.

“I think Danica’s been a great inspiration,” Tallman said. “She proved it can be done. It’s been hard for her to be in the spotlight so much and having been so unfairly criticized. In 10 years, you will see a very high percentage of women going into racing. So many young women drivers are coming up.”

Sexism may be a thing of the past. Has Cattaneo witnessed any?

“Absolutely not,” she said. “Not to my face anyway. There are certain instances on the track. Getting passed by a girl isn’t their favorite thing in the world.”

Marc Miller, who joined with teammate Strevan McAleer to win the Grand Am Street Tuner race, seems totally gender-blind.

“I don’t like it whenever I get passed by anybody,” he said. “I know a couple of drivers had pink helmets on, but I couldn’t tell if it was a guy or a girl.”

Which is just the way the girls like it.

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