These History-Making Women Are Proving That NASCAR Isn't Just For The Boys

"You just have to keep going and going and going and going."

Those who have only glimpsed NASCAR on sports bar televisions may think driver Danica Patrick has been the extent of female representation in American motorsport, but they would be mistaken.

While it certainly remains a male-dominated sport, women have been involved in NASCAR since the racing organization's inception. In 1949, female driver Sara Christian competed in NASCAR's first-ever race — not to mention women were racing cars for decades before that. 

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These days, statistics show that around 40 percent of NASCAR fans are female. In the midst of Danica Patrick's retirement earlier this year, ESPN pointed to up-and-coming female drivers such as Natalie Decker and Hailie Deegan as possibilities to take up the mantle for women behind the wheel. 

But women are making an impact from more than just the cars and the crowd. They're also engineers, pit crew workers, and executives. Three of those women share their experiences with A Plus — from how they got their start in the field to what advice they would give others.

Alba Colón

Photo: NASCAR / Getty Images

In January of this year, Alba Colón was named the director of competition systems for Hendrick Motorsports. She studied mechanical engineering at the University of Puerto Rico in the hope of becoming an astronaut, but after working on a solar car and helping to build a Formula SAE car, her path changed. 

"It gave me an opportunity to come to the United States for competitions, and I fell in love with racing," Colón tells A Plus. "Because of that, I had the chance to interview with General Motors. The rest is history. I remember telling my mother that I would probably only work one year in racing. Now here I am 24 years later. I love what I do."

Colón started at General Motors in 1994 as a data acquisition engineer, before being promoted in 2001 to Chevrolet's program manager for the NASCAR Cup Series. She tells A Plus how she dealt with the challenge of being accepted into the field.

"I was not only a woman but a Hispanic and an engineer. Of those three, there were not too many in the sport. People didn't know exactly what I was doing and why I was there," she shares. "I learned that people are not going to respect you for the sake of respecting you. I tried to work hard and earn their respect. Now, thanks to the work of many people, including NASCAR, there are more opportunities for females and other underrepresented groups to enter the sport and grow in the sport."

She would like to contribute to that growth, sharing her belief in helping the "next generation" get through the door. According to NBC News, Colón has helped recruit graduates from Puerto Rico into General Motors. Last year, she received the Hispanic Heritage Foundation's STEM Award for her decades of work. 

Colón advises other women who are pursuing careers in male-dominated fields not to be afraid and to focus on education and preparation. "You need to have the patience and a never-give-up attitude," she tells A Plus. "There will be obstacles, but you just have to keep going and going and going and going."

Brehanna Daniels

Photo: NASCAR / Getty Images

Brehanna Daniels, who is believed to be the first Black female pit crew member to work a NASCAR national series, tells A Plus that she wasn't even a fan of the sport growing up. "The only time I came across NASCAR was when I was looking for a basketball or a football game to watch, I would see the cars driving super fast around the track and say, 'Dang, people really enjoy driving in circles for a living? Those cars are way too fast.' Then I would immediately turn the channel."

However, when NASCAR's Drive for Diversity showed up at Norfolk University in 2016, she was encouraged to try out for the pit crew program. Daniels, who at the time was interning as a sports videographer and training to play basketball overseas, was the only woman to show up to try-outs. She received an invitation to the National Pit Crew Combine and made it into the top 10 to train as a professional.

"I remember when my roommate and I reported to a team, letting the crew chief know that we would be his two tire-changers for the day," Daniels recalls. "And he just looked at us, and asked, 'You serious?' As if he didn't believe me or just doubted us because we are women. It's sad how people just assume that women can't do certain things without even giving us a chance to do those things first. It's all good, though, because the better we're getting, the more we're taking the guys' jobs!"

Daniels encourages women in similar positions to "be yourself" and have confidence. "We can do anything and absolutely everything a man can do," she says. "All you have to do is believe in yourself. If you believe you can do it, it will happen."

According to NASCAR, Daniels is the sixth female Drive for Diversity crew member to reach the organization's highest level. She admits that it's not always easy. "Being the very first to do something comes with a lot," she tells A Plus. "I just thank God for allowing me to be very strong and allowing me to have an amazing support system along the way."

Jill Gregory

Photo: NASCAR / Getty Images

NASCAR's Executive Vice President and Chief Marketing Officer Jill Gregory is the first woman to hold the position of CMO in the company's history. Under her direction, NASCAR was honored for Overall Social Media Excellence at the 2017 Cynopsis Sports Media Awards. She was previously recognized by SportsBusiness Journal and SportsBusiness Daily in the first class of "Game Changers: Women in Sports Business."

"The more exposure I had to NASCAR, the more I knew I wanted to be involved," Gregory tells A Plus of her start in the field. "The sport is exciting and fast-paced with millions of incredibly passionate fans, but it's also very close-knit and family-oriented. We have amazing people working at NASCAR and across the industry."

Gregory also applauds the organization for prioritizing diversity. "That's important to me and having worked in the NASCAR industry for several years, I've taken on a leadership role to help ensure women and minorities have opportunities to demonstrate their abilities and experience success," she says, going on to praise Brehanna Daniels for "inspiring other young women to consider NASCAR as a career option."

As a woman in the industry, Gregory says she challenges herself to "work hard, build relationships and earn respect." She advises other women to "take a seat at the table," adding, "Don't wait for the perfect opportunity or worry that you'll be wrong — just step up and participate. We all have strong voices, and we should use them to add value by offering suggestions and solutions. When you do, you'll earn trust and respect, and create more opportunities to contribute and grow."

"Every day, women are working among the most talented individuals in the industry — whether it's driving the race car, on pit road, in the race shop or in an office environment," Gregory continues. "There's no role in NASCAR that a woman can't perform and we take great pride in that."

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