The Uphill Battle of 20 year old NASCAR driver Johanna Long

Photo by Jerry Markland/Getty Images North America

Imagine you’re a woman trying to ‘break in’ to the male-dominant sport like NASCAR.  Beyond that, you’re the youngest woman to ever do that … and hold your own in your first season. You would think that the press and major TV networks would be pushing that story to the forefront, especially if you were articulate and considerate (which you are).  But no one says a word.  Instead they focus on another female driver, one who has the financial backing of one of NASCAR’s most significant corporate sponsors.  She gets mentioned in every article, even when she spins or wrecks and you finish first. She gets camera time during the race even when you’ve been racing better and are in front of her.

Such is the plight of Johanna Long, one of NASCAR’s best stories on the Nationwide Series who has received hardly any coverage.  And announcers hardly talk about her.  There are few, if any, mentions by television commentators.  Oh sure, the Washington Post had a little article, but at the Michigan race this past Saturday (where Johanna held her own), you would’ve thought there was only one female driver in the race (in a bright green car).  Compound that with the fact that every time the media talks with you, they talk about your gender (being a woman) and about the other woman driver.  And all you want to do is drive.  And win. [To be fair, Danica Patrick and Dale Earnhardt, Jr. are NASCAR’s two most famous drivers, so mentioning them often (even when spinning out or having difficulties) is good business.Also, it seems like Johanna is starting to receive attention as a legitimate top 10 contender in the near future and sponsors are starting to take notice]

I have never followed the Nationwide NASCAR series, nor do I watch their races. But, I do love sport … any sport.  As I travel the world, I find sport and art to be so tied to cultural understanding and awareness. Americans think their form of football is the best while South Africans find it boring when compared to rugby.  Europeans look at NASCAR and find it a bit silly but they’ll watch biathlon competitions on television. Americans love their baseball and its traditional slow pace but think soccer is a bit second rate.

I think if we can move beyond our own bias, we can find the competitive element in all sport.  And Johanna’s Long story represents three classic struggles most of us can identify with.

  1. David vs. Goliath – The first battle is the classic story of a small company, ML Motorsports (from nearby Warsaw, IN), and their super talented 20-year-old driver trying to make a go of it against the multi-sponsored teams that may have drivers with no more talent/ability.
  2. Youth – As a youth worker, this is the one I cheer on the most, a teenager who wants to succeed while others want to look down on her because she’s young.   On the same weekend that 17-year-old Beau Hossler was leading the 2012 US Open (Golf), Johanna was driving in the top 15 of  a major motorsports weekend.  I loved it!
  3. Gender – Johanna wants to be a winner. She’s not there to break gender barriers, receive different/extra attention because she’s a woman.  She focuses on racing cars, what she loves, and you won’t see her on TV as a race car driver being a spokesperson staring at , or wearing, a string bikini to get sponsorships.

As I’ve reflected on this story, I wondered about the people and organizations around me that I’m not paying attention to, who feel like they’ve got to work hard to get respect with the ‘giants’ around them.  I think there are more people like this around organizations that we lead. Second, who are the young people who are crazy-talented, but they just need a break and an advocate?

Finally, and this is probably my big point, when we talk to someone ‘different’ from the norm, do we reduce them to gender, race, or other social category?  Do we men talk about, or to, the youth or women in our organizations differently than we do men?  If we have people from other ethnicities in our organizations, do we talk about that aspect of their lives a lot?  Is it emphasized to a degree more than other ethnicities?

Perhaps all of the people around us want the exact same thing:  They aren’t interested in the social markers that others may find fascinating: They just want to take off in life … and win.  Just like everyone else, yet they feel held back.  Pay attention this week to those around you who may be feeling like they’re a David in a Goliath world, or are young and the old folks are holding them back.