Monday, March 31, 2008

Sizism or Sexism? (the answer is "yes")

A friend of mine pointed out an ongoing buzz in the Indy racing world, where the main regulators of the sport have mandated a minimum weight limit for each vehicle/driver combination. One driver, Danica Patrick, believes that the new mandate is pointed directly at her. At 5'2" and 100 pounds she's the lightest driver on the circuit by about 20 pounds.

And boy oh good'ol'boy, are the male drivers in a tiff.

Claiming that her weight gives her a significant and unfair advantage in racing (you know, demonstrated by the fact that she hasn't actually ever won a race), several male drivers have petitioned hard for this minimum weight ruling, some even refusing to race with Patrick until such a ruling was in place.

Patrick (rightly) feels that she's being penalized for being a small woman in a primarily male-dominated field, and that the weight restrictions are one more form of bullying to keep women drivers from succeeding as anything but a PR sound-byte in racing.

When I first heard about this, I had very mixed emotions. First I wondered how much difference 20 pounds (or even 100) could really make in a 3200 pound car. Since I don't follow car racing at all, I'm still not sure (although the head of the Indy Racing League states that it doesn't make any significant difference). Then I thought about how this might actually level the field, as all drivers under 200 pounds would need to add weighted ballast to the car to bring the driver/vehicle combo up to the minimum. They've been doing it in horse racing for many, many moons to make up the difference between the weight a horse is assigned to carry (their "handicap") and the weight of the jockey (who often live in a semi-permanent state of anorexic dieting to stay under weight limits).

But the more comments I read from bloggers and commenters, the more I'm convinced that this is pretty much a pacifier move for the boys who want the feminists to think they allow girls in their club, but don't actually want them to be competitive.


Anonymous said...

Considering that racing is considered a sport, this comes down to them saying that natural physical advantages in a sport are not allowed. So, basically, to apply to the NFL, football players under the average size should not be allowed to be tackled, as that is the larger players using their physical edge!

vesta44 said...

When I was in college (to be an auto mechanic), one of the problems we were assigned in my applied mathematics class was how the weight of a car affected the speed at which it would spin out on a banked, oval track. We were each given a different weight of car, and this huge equation to figure out at what speed each car would spin out. I can tell you that graph we ended up with showed that the heavier the car, the higher the speed it took for it to spin out. I would imagine that there are equations out there that can figure out how the weight of the car, the weight of the driver, and aerodynamics all affect the speed of the car.
The first thing I thought when I read the article was that it was sexism on the part of the male drivers. They don't want women in the sport, and they really don't want sexy women in the sport. How manly is it for a (relatively) tiny, sexy woman to beat a macho he-man? Threatened much? She doesn't have to actually win races to threaten them, all she has to do is place in the top 5 or 10 (or even ahead of just one male driver) and that makes her a threat.

occhiblu said...

Adding weight to jockeys makes sense, because horse racing doesn't (officially) measure the jockeys' skills, it measures the horses' talent or speed. The same horse could compete with different jockeys, but the record follows the horse, not the jockey. Adding weight allows that process of shifting jockeys around to be more or less fair.

Car racing doesn't seem to measure the same thing -- I'm not a huge fan, but from my limited understanding they seem to be focusing on the drivers' skill, not on the cars' technical abilities. If the same driver drove different cars in different races, I somehow doubt the wins stay with the *car* rather than with the driver. In that case, it makes no sense to handicap the driver.

Anonymous said...

I live in central IN, and actually know a guy who works for Andretti Green Racing doing computer modeling and number crunching on these very equations. So I'll ask him if it's sexism or if there's any element of legitimacy to this.

I suspect there could be, but it's something that could be offset by other adjustments to the car. But I'll ask, and come back and post the answer.

Ducky said...

I don't have much of an opinion on this topic one way or the other...

What I do have an issue with is how the media is spinning this story. When I first saw an article on this, the headline was something along the lines of "Danica's Weight Problem!" My first thought was, you've got to be kidding me?! But upon further reading, I realized I didn't have enough knowledge of the sport to form much of an opinion. I just hate that if it were a male driver, no one would make any mention of a "weight problem" would be "Blah Driver in Battle Over Racing Rules" or something like that.

Anonymous said...

Ok, I talked to my friend in the business of doing such calculations for an IRL racing team, and here is what he had to say....

The 100 pound driver, of either gender, isn't advantaged over the other drivers any more, they've mandated changes to the cars to equalize it out. In the past, it was a very slight advantage, mostly on road courses, less so in banked ovals. He cited the road course at Kentucky, and said that on that fifty pounds less was worth a quarter-mile an hour more. Which is not huge, but in the pinch it can win you a race.

He further said that as a rule, you don't see too many large heavy guys in racing. They tend to be very slenderly built, instead. Danica Patrick is not, according to him, the lightest driver in IRL, and IRL has several male drivers who weigh the same as she does. This was an overall tweak to make the conditions as level as they could be for everybody.

He said that two years ago part of his work for Andretti Green was to run simulations on the computer of various driver weights and how they affected performance under various conditions and on various courses, so he had that answer right at his fingertips.

If anything, I suspect there's pressure in racing that if you want to race you want to stay as light as you can, and it probably bears on both sexes.