One of the unique elements of auto racing is that compared to other professional sports that have separate classes on the basis of gender, men and women are able to compete in the very same arena against one another behind the wheel of a racecar. But despite that, the very highest level of NASCAR has not seen a lady start her engine alongside gentlemen in some time.
Presently, zero women drivers are competing in the NASCAR Cup Series, a number which has persisted over the past several years since the retirement of former Daytona 500 polesitter and racing icon Danica Patrick. That number is one that Busch Light has set out to change with a new first-of-its-kind commitment to bringing women drivers to the highest level of racing.
On Monday, just ahead of the Daytona 500, Busch Light announced the creation of the Busch Light Accelerate Her Program, a $10 million commitment to sponsor every female driver 21 years or older over the next three years. The Accelerate Her program will help women racers by providing them the funding necessary to get more track time, as well as more media exposure and other training.
The program's inaugural recipients include current female racers in NASCAR's ladder system such as Xfinity Series driver Natalie Decker, Camping World Truck Series driver Jennifer Jo Cobb, ARCA Menards Series drivers Toni Breidinger, Amber Balcaen, Brittney Zamora and Stephanie Moyer, and NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour driver Melissa Fifield.
Decker, Breidinger, and Balcaen spoke with CBS Sports to discuss the launch of the program as well as its importance.
"The Accelerate Her program is a really great step in the right direction to get women competing at the highest level of NASCAR," Breidinger said. "Busch Light's really a trailblazer in this aspect. They're really one of the first brands – or might even be the first brand – to be doing any sort of program like this. So I really do think it's gonna create a snowball effect, have other brands be like 'Oh hey, we should get in on this too and support female athletes and women drivers in general.'"
The significance of a major brand like Busch Light backing women in racing cannot be understated. Over the past several generations of racers, multiple women have made an impression on the top levels of NASCAR: Shawna Robinson won a pole in what is now the Xfinity Series and became one of only three women to qualify for the Daytona 500, and former Snowball Derby winner Johanna Long showed great promise during several years in NASCAR a decade ago.
However, lack of sponsorship kept those and other female racers from reaching their potential. And while finding sponsorship is a major hurdle for all racers, there is an extra burden on women to prove that they are to be taken seriously.
"We have to work harder to gain that respect. A lot of times when I'm talking with companies, they're like 'Well, you're a girl. Are you even good?'" Balcaen said. "And it's just having to constantly prove yourself and reiterate 'Yes, I'm capable. I have the talent. I have the ability both on and off the track to market your brand and also drive a racecar to the best of my ability and win races.'
"So I think this program is really gonna help open that and break that stigma of 'Women can do this, and you should get behind women because we can offer a lot of great things to you. That's why this Busch partnership is so important to us all."
Decker, Breidinger, Balcaen and more are following in the paths blazed by female drivers before them, such as Louise Smith, Janet Guthrie, Patty Moise and others. But compared to other women in racing, none captivated and gained the support of corporate America quite like Danica Patrick, who enjoyed a full career in both IndyCar and NASCAR with major sponsorship backing her throughout.
When discussing having the support of a major brand like Busch Light, Decker mentioned Patrick's career as having shown women in racing what is possible with the right backing.
"It is really hard to find that company that believes in you and wants to be a part of your career, or maybe make you the face of their company," Decker said. "It's so hard to find that. But watching her do it has really inspired all of us to try and go and achieve that.
"And having Busch Light back us is just gonna open the door for other really big companies to say 'Hey, Busch believes in these females, so we should too.' And I really believe that's gonna happen, and that's why I feel so lucky and I know the other girls definitely feel very lucky too to be a part of this program. Because it's really gonna be able to open off the doors for us."
In addition to the inaugural recipients of the program, a portion of Busch Light's $10 million commitment will also be reserved as a standing sponsorship fund for up-and-coming talent.