Jenna Breitenfeldt is one of several female drivers racing this summer at tracks near Wausau.
Throughout this summer, 16-year-old Jenna Breitenfeldt spends about three days a week at an area racetrack. She doesn't sit in the stands eating cheese curds and cheering her favorite drivers. Breitenfeldt straps on a neon painted helmet and a racing suit, slides into her battered, bright yellow Saturn, then puts the pedal to the floor, driving at speeds topping 100 mph alongside about a dozen men.
On any given race day at the three local tracks, you’ll now see roughly a dozen female drivers among the 100 or so competitors. Breitenfeldt is one of four who regularly compete at these places: Golden Sands in Plover, State Park Speedway in Rib Mountain, and Spring Lake Speedway in Unity (western Marathon County).
Breitenfeldt isn’t intimidated by the boys club of competitive racing. The Wausau East junior grew up on a farm just outside of Wausau, with an older brother (19-year-old Rex races right alongside her), mostly male cousins, and a father who raced competitively for years. A few days after she turned 13, she came home from school to find an unfamiliar car in the driveway.
"See that car?" her dad, Wayne Breitenfeldt told her. "That's going to be your race car. And I'm going to teach you how to drive it."
After racing for three years, Jenna got her driver's license last week. "Thank God I passed," she says, laughing.
There are few more masculine environments than a race track. You can almost smell the testosterone mixed with the scent of oil, exhaust, and tires on hot pavement. Just saying “NASCAR” evokes images of men throwing back a beer, hootin' and hollerin' as their heroes thunder past in ridiculously fast cars until the final flag flies.
Looking at Jenna, with her long, honey-colored hair and bright smile, you'd never guess she'd fit right in in such a male-controlled environment. In fact, when she isn't racing, she's dancing competitively, wearing beautiful costumes and carefully-applied makeup.
"I'm just as competitive when I dance, but I do love to drive," she says.
Certainly, racing always has been dominated by men, with few female drivers competing professionally. It wasn't until 1953 when a group of women formed the Women's Sports Car Club that a handful of women broke the gender barrier, finally competing head to head against the men. Denise McCluggage famously started racing in 1956 and quickly beat out most of her male competitors. Her rise to the top paved the way for other women to enter the sport.
Though stock car racing today is still largely a male sport, women are starting to emerge as contenders. Janet Guthrie was the first woman to compete regularly in NASCAR's premier series, with 33 starts in her career and five top-ten finishes between 1976 and 1980, including a career-best sixth place at Bristol Motor Speedway in 1977.
Danica Patrick, arguably the most successful woman in the history of racing, is pretty much a household name. In May 2005, in her first Indianapolis 500 race, Patrick became the fastest woman in Speedway history with a practice lap of 229.880, and the first women ever to lead the race, finishing fourth overall.
Patrick is one of Jenna Breitenfeldt's racing idols. But locally, Jenna points to another female driver, Jenny Nitzsche, as one she looks up to.
"I think all of us, the younger girls, want to be like her," Jenna says. "We look up to her."
Sports' great equalizer
Like Jenna, 34-year-old Jenny Nitzsche's interest in racing started with her family. She spent plenty of summer nights watching the races at State Park Speedway. But in sports, Nitzsche's family always thought she'd be a natural at basketball because of her height. That wasn’t the case, as she struggled to compete on the court.
"I found out pretty quickly that I wasn't coordinated enough to play basketball or really any other kind of traditional sport," Nitzsche says. "But racing turned out to be the great equalizer for me. When I tried it, I found out I was pretty good at it. And I've been competing ever since."
Nitzsche says she's never been intimidated by men. She even works in a male dominated environment, as a project manager for Miron Construction. "I love all that stuff, living in a man's world," Nitzsche says. And on the track. "the guys might roll their eyes at me at first, but that stops pretty quickly when I get behind the wheel."
When Nitzsche first started racing, most racetrack guys assumed she was there for "powder puff" races, where only women compete. Some men were skeptical, she says, thinking she was just another girl trying to prove a point. That is, until she started winning. A lot. She won her first race at 14, then collected victory after victory. Nitzsche is a two-time seasonal champion at Golden Sands Speedway, and has won scores of races throughout central Wisconsin.
Some male drivers still don't take her seriously if they haven't heard her name before or ever seen her #13 Dodge Neon race car. But that skepticism quickly turns to respect when the green flag waves to start the race, and Nitzsche roars to the front of the pack.
"I expect the slightly surprised looks when people first see me in my racing suit," Nitzsche says. "I don't expect to be welcomed right away.”
Now a mother of a three-year-old daughter, Nitzsche doesn't compete as often as she used to, but she still spends time tinkering with her car, and gets on the track whenever she can.
Being a race car driver isn't for the faint of heart, but it isn't just for men anymore. Women can realistically compete because sheer physical strength and size aren’t huge factors. It takes skill, coordination, concentration, teamwork with your crew, and sometimes nerves of steel. Racers must know how to be smooth drivers, know their limits, and be able to react instantly to the unexpected.
"You have to be willing to take risks, willing to put yourself out there," Jenna Breitenfeldt says. "You also have to be smart and realize that how you drive affects everyone else on the track."
What gives her an edge, she says, is a naturally competitive spirit and a clear head.
There's a technical aspect to racing that Jenna is now starting to learn. She spends hours each week in the garage, learning to understand the car and how to make it better.
A huge part of the sport is learning about the car itself: its engine, how to fix things when they break, how to optimize a race car for the best efficiency and performance. Drivers often spend more time tinkering in the garage than driving on the track. Nitzsche says time in the garage is one of the best facets of racing, especially when that time is spent with her father, John Nitzsche.
"I love spending time in the garage working on the car and BS-ing with my dad," Jenny Nitzsche says. "Let's admit, more BS-ing than work normally gets done. But my dad had faith in me to do things I may not have thought I could otherwise. Thanks to him, I got into racing, and he's probably a big reason I'm still competing."
Champions in the making
Until she was 7, Hannah Wolfe took dance lessons—a traditional sport for girls. But when she first saw her uncle, Lyle Nowak, race at State Park Speedway, she ditched her dance shoes for a shiny pink helmet to race go-karts on ice at a track in Gleason.
"She can be a very girly girl," says Heidi Wolfe, Hannah's mom. "But she can also be a real spitfire, and she loves to race."
Ice is a traditional first step in racing, says Heidi Wolfe, and Hannah, who is now 13, proved to be a fierce competitor. At age 8, Hannah shifted to racing go-karts at the now-defunct Ringle Brickyard Speedway, then shifted to asphalt racing last year after the Ringle track closed. This season, Hannah is racing a full season (every race) at State Park Speedway in the Bandoleros class—a smaller version of a traditional race car with a top speed of 70 mph— and is hoping to be named Rookie of the Year.
"As a rookie girl driver, you have to try twice as hard to prove that you have what it takes to run with the big boys," Hannah says. "Now that I'm becoming competitive they just might see that I'm more than just a girl getting in the way. They see me as one to outrun."
Racing isn't cheap. Even a typical Bandolero race car can cost, used, between $2,000 and $4,000, for example, and engine work adds even more to the price. But Heidi Wolfe says the overall expense isn't really much more than playing on a traveling hockey team, for example.
"It can be expensive, sure," Wolfe says. "You're never going to get rich at it."
That is, unless she finds her way someday to the national stage, to compete with racing legends who are now her heroes.
"I would love to be in NASCAR one day," Hannah says. "I'd love to be the next Danica Patrick. Racing is more than a sport to me. It's in my blood."
To date, no female driver has won a national NASCAR race, but that could change as more women become interested in the sport and rise up through the regional ranks.
"It wouldn't surprise me to see a female winner in the next few years," Nitzsche says. "We compete at the same level and can be every bit as good a driver as a man. That's just a fact."
In 2004, NASCAR established the Drive for Diversity program as a way to engage minorities and women in the sport. A new round of ‘non-traditional’ race car drivers is invited to participate in the program each year, encouraging interest in the sport to grow at impressive rates.
On a national level, the NASCAR racing season lasts nine months. It is the longest season of any professional sport, ranking second only to football in TV rankings. With 75 million fans and counting, it's no secret that America craves a good round of burning rubber on a Saturday afternoon. And there's no doubt that a good chunk of that 75 million includes a great number of need-for-speed girls, thanks to the inspiration and influence by some fast and fearless females.
And someday one of those fearless women might finally take that first lap down Victory Lane.