PRINGLE — Kasey Dalessandro and Rebecca Simko like to work on cars, and each hopes to one day have her own business. Dalessandro, 15, wants to be an auto mechanic, and Simko, 17, favors auto body repair.
The two West Side Career & Technology Center students say the success of NASCAR driver Danica Patrick has been an inspiration to them.
Patrick, the most successful woman in NASCAR history after a convincing showing at last week’s Daytona 500, is inspiring many women to expand their horizons, said Jennifer Thomas, associate professor of psychology at Wilkes University in Wilkes-Barre. She noted women are more likely to enter non-traditional professions when they have female role models.
“When a woman sees another woman working as a politician, that woman is transformed, empowered and inspired to become more politically active,” Thomas said. “I would expect that Danica Patrick could have the same effect on women who want to enter automotive fields. However, these women will face prejudice and discrimination for breaking from traditional gender roles.”
Brandon Igdalsky, president and CEO at Pocono Raceway in Long Pond — the site of two NASCAR races each year — said he is very much aware of the “Danica effect.”
Her influence is seen in all aspects of the NASCAR racing circuit, he said. More women are not only working with NASCAR teams, said Igdalsky, but more female fans are purchasing tickets to races and more Danica T-shirts are being worn by women and men.
“Danica has brought notoriety to the sport for women,” he said. “It’s a combination of everything she brings to the table — she’s got the skills to drive and she is very marketable. She’s a good representative of her sponsors. But she has worked hard and she has the ability. She’s proven she can do it.”
West Side students Simko and Dalessandro have been interested in pursuing the male-dominated, auto-repair careers since childhood — long before Patrick came on the scene. But Patrick’s success has reinforced their confidence.
Both students have impressed their teacher, Jim Sabol, who said they are good students and possess the ability to reach their goals. “The biggest thing is maintaining that interest level,” said Sabol. “And Danica Patrick’s popularity will inspire more young women to look into auto repair as a career, and I’m sure her success will open more and more doors for women.”
Simko said she grew up around auto repair — her dad is a mechanic. Once she realized she enjoyed fixing cars, she set her mind to making it her career, she said.
A fan of NASCAR driver Tony Stewart, Simko said she appreciates what Patrick has done for women in the sport and its supportive career areas. “Yes, Danica has been an inspiration for me, but this is something you have to really want to do to be successful,” Simko said. “She has opened a lot of doors for women, but you really have to work hard to get what you want.”
Simko predicts more women will get involved in auto-related jobs. She would like to work on a NASCAR crew, but not drive — she’s more at home driving on dirt tracks.
“My dad encouraged me to get involved,” she said. “I want to get past people saying ‘look at her, she’s a girl’ because I’m doing a job they expect men to do.”
Thomas, of Wilkes, said women still face harsh criticism, sexism and discrimination when they try to succeed in male-dominated fields such as business, finance and STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics fields). Having a role model, like Patrick, helps to inspire women to fight the system and reach success in fields dominated by men.
“A plethora of research studies has shown that women’s contributions in the workplace are undervalued and when women succeed, their success are more likely to be attributed to ‘luck’ instead of hard work, effort and skill as compared to their male counterparts,” Thomas said.
“Women’s contributions are further diminished when instead of focusing on their aptitude or skill, we focus on their appearance and judge them harshly when they do not meet traditional standards for beauty,” she said. “Also note that nearly one in three women is raped during her service in the military. This reflects a backlash against women who want to pursue nontraditional gender roles.”
Although women have made great strides in professions traditionally dominated by men, they still have a long way to go to reach gender equity, Thomas said.
At the races
Igdalsky said he has noticed more women at the raceway in the stands and in the garage areas. There are more women racing at the grassroots level, he said, and Patrick’s success has served as an inspiration.
“All of this publicity has been good for the sport,” Igdalsky said. “There are more officials working the NASCAR circuit; it’s not strictly a man’s job.”
Igdalsky estimated the male-to-female ratio of NASCAR fans is now 60 percent male, 40 percent female — with an upswing of female fans in recent years. “Call it the ‘Danica effect’ if you want, but whatever the reason,” he said, “we are definitely seeing more women at our races.”
Patrick has earned the respect of her NASCAR colleagues and of the fans, Igdalsky said. “She has proven herself to be a good race driver,” he said. “She’s never been given anything.”
And that, as Thomas said, provides a good role model for young women looking to enter a male-dominated career.
A fan’s perspective
NASCAR fan and Wilkes-Barre resident Bill Williams, 52, has been attending races since the 1980s. He and his wife, Beth, have fence-line seats on the infield at Pocono Raceway.
Williams said Patrick has proven herself through hard work and driving ability, earning the respect of NASCAR fans. “She won the pole at Daytona,” said Williams. “Most race fans don’t care if a driver is a man or a woman. They earn their fans by their abilities as drivers.”
Patrick has expanded the NASCAR fan base, said Williams, and he has noticed many more fans wearing Danica shirts and race team colors.
NASCAR races have become more family-oriented, he said. “And now fans have a woman to root for,” he said. “Anytime a race driver become successful, he or she becomes more popular with fans. Danica has attracted more female fans and young girls, as well as males. She is pretty good-looking.”
But it isn’t Patrick’s looks or marketability that has made her a fan favorite, Williams said.
It’s her driving.
“In the long run, I think she will inspire more females to get into racing and related careers,” he said. “More power to her.”