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When curves are a liability for women in auto racing

While women auto racers are successfully competing with men, physiology still poses some curvaceous challenges.

Published July 12, 2010
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The image of the race car driver emerging from sleek speed machine to unveil cascading hair and tightly-fitted jumpsuit has become an alluring cultural reference.

In the traditionally testosterone-laden world of auto racing, women have become provocative figures in the sport’s modern narrative, and not just because of the optics.

Female drivers such as Lyn St. James and Danica Patrick have had meaningful successes in one of the few professional sports where men and women go head-to-head.

The sport’s sexual desegregation raises an intriguing physiological question: How have women racers managed to successfully compete with brawnier men during physically demanding races that go on for up to three hours?

“Given the differences between men and women, the man enjoys an advantage in upper body strength and potentially more upper body muscular endurance,” says Dr. Jacques Dallaire, an Oshawa-born exercise physiologist and high-performance trainer who has worked with hundreds of professional racers since the 1980s.

Add to that the fact that women, in general, tend to have higher body fat levels.

“If you’re carrying 13 to 16 per cent body fat and your competitor is carrying 7 or 8 per cent body fat, that’s not exactly going to help you in the car,” said Dallaire, a pioneer in auto racing performance who now runs a training company in North Carolina.

“You’re carrying more weight that is non-functional and that adds insulation that’s not generally good in a high heat, humidity environment.”

To level out the genetic strength imbalance, women racers undergo intensive muscular endurance and cardiovascular stamina training including workouts at least five days a week that include running and weight training.

Among the three women scheduled to line up at the Honda Toronto Indy this weekend is the diminutive (5’ 2”, 100 lb.) Patrick, a raven-haired beauty considered the most popular driver on the circuit (Simona de Silvestro and Milka Duno are the others).

Patrick finished fifth in the overall standings last year with five top-five finishes including a third-place finish in the Indy 500. A year earlier she became the first woman to win an Indy race.

She placed sixth in the Toronto Indy last year, the best finish ever for a woman.

It’s a track record many men in her profession can’t claim.

So how do she and her female colleagues successfully jostle with fast and furious men at 200 m.p.h.?

“When there are difficult and uncommon situations, (women) should handle it better,” said Luc Tremblay, a specialist in perceptual-motor behaviour at the University of Toronto.

It seems the female central nervous system is better at processing multiple sensory cues such as sense of balance, vision and receptors that allow “feeling their bodies in space.”

“It costs more to insure a male driver than a female. While a lot of people attribute that to cognitive factors, one can also explain the difference to how women use their senses,” he said.

Men, it seems are more impulsive creatures, often acting on one or a few sensory cues. Women, by contrast, consistently contrast all of their senses and act on more comprehensive data.

“A crude analogy is to think of the man as a working set of RCA cables with different inputs (separate video and sound signals) while women’s sensory processing is more like a coaxial cable with the audio and video in one wire.”

The big wildcard for female success on the track is the track itself, some experts say.

Women tend to perform better on oval tracks than they do on winding, hairpin-curve street courses, at least partly because of the very different physical demands of the two, experts say.

Height is a surprisingly key advantage for women, says Dr. Len Goodman, an exercise and aerospace physiologist with Defence Research and Development Canada, an agency of the federal Department of National Defence.

His research on the impact of g-force on fighter pilots found a generally shorter stature means less distance for the heart to pump blood to the brain and eyes.

“At 5-foot-2 (Patrick) will have a lot less difficulty tolerating g-force on a bank (oval track) than the guys,” said Goodman.

But that oval track advantage is lost on road circuits — like Toronto’s Indy course — which feature lots of lateral g-force generating curves where upper body strength becomes more important, he said.

Dallaire agrees.

“On an oval, the male strength advantage becomes neutralized because that physicality doesn’t bring that much of an advantage. On a road course, where physicality is more important . . . then the male advantage is expressed.”

St. James, the 1992 Indianapolis 500 Rookie of the Year who raced in seven Indy races between 1992 and 2000, agrees the physical demands of road courses like the Toronto race are far different from ovals.

“It’s like being a boxer versus a ballet dancer in terms of the strategy that can go into an oval versus the brute force with which you have to fight the car on a road course,” she says.

“You don’t have time to think. You just have to do.”

St. James, who concedes she struggled on road courses, denies that the shape of the track determines the fate of female success.

“It may be a piece of the puzzle, but it’s not the defining factor.”

The mental advantage in auto racing’s battle of the sexes is essentially a wash with a possible slight advantage to women, Dallaire says.

“Women are generally better at simply focusing on the task where men are so often worried about how they’re going to look and that can sabotage their performance.”

Whatever the physical differences, auto racing’s head-to-head gender battles have enhanced the sport’s profile and interest.

“Competent, high-performing females are a competitive weapon,” says Terry Angstadt, president, commercial division of the Indy Racing League, adding up to 80 per cent of media storyline requests focus on female drivers.

Carole Oglesby, a sport psychology consultant and professor of kinesiology at California State University, Northridge, says fascination with gender competition is buried deep in our collective DNA.

“Even in elementary school, if teachers are trying to get boys and girls to try harder they’ll have a competition between boys and girls. There’s something about male/female competition.”