When Shawna Robinson was racing trucks a few years ago, her sponsor came to her one day with a new racing suit he wanted her to wear. Robinson looked at it in dismay. It was solid pink. “I told him I wanted to be recognized as a good driver, not a girl driver,” she says.
On the NASCAR (National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing) circuit where Robinson races now, her fellow drivers recognize her as exactly that—though that doesn’t stop them from hugging her a lot in the pits while telling her she’s “jess the sweetest ol’ thang.” Which was why they voted her Most Popular Driver on NASCAR’s Dash division (for four-cylinder subcompacts) at their recent awards banquet in Charlotte, N.C. She also won Rookie of the Year honors behind the wheel of a Pontiac Sunbird, finished third overall in the 1988 point standings, and during the season became the first woman ever to win a major NASCAR race, the AC Delco 100 at Asheville, N.C, last June. A month later the Pontiac Motor Division and team owner David Watson donated the car to the International Motorsports Hall of Fame in Talladega, Ala. “It’ll be there forever,” says Robinson proudly.
This Friday the stock-car season revs up anew in Daytona Beach, Fla., where Robinson will compete in the Florida 200 for Dash cars such as the 160-mph Sun-bird. Sunday’s Winston Cup Daytona 500 brings out the full-size, 8-cylinder, 200-mph stockers, which the 24-year-old expects to be piloting next year.
And she might. While Robinson is neither the only woman driver in NASCAR nor the first (that was Louise Smith in 1949), she may well be the best. NASCAR races are dominated by good ol’ boys who began by racing pickup trucks over red clay roads. They are known to get nasty on the track, bumping one another’s cars at more than 200 mph before, on occasion, pulling into the pits to settle their disputes with their fists.
“I can do a bit of dirty driving if I have to,” Robinson says. “If they bump me to see if I’ll back down, I’ll bump ’em right back.”
“Her being female is not a factor,” says Mike Waltrip, the 1983 Dash champion and presently a driver on the Winston Cup circuit. “The only drawback a woman has is maybe in the strength department. The big cars are 10 times harder to control.”
At 5’6″, 110 lbs., Robinson is not worried about her strength, partly because she works out with weights, partly because she began her career racing 14,000-pound diesel trucks (minus their trailers) around oval tracks and road courses at speeds up to 130 mph. “I’m used to feeling those big trucks under my butt,” she says. “That’s why I’m anxious to start running the bigger cars. I don’t want to get too used to these light ones.”
Robinson, an Iowa native, got involved in truck racing through her father, Dick Robinson, who sponsored diesel truck races throughout the Midwest. When Shawna was 18, her father taught her how to shift gears in a truck and then, the same day, looked up in astonishment to see her roaring down the backstretch in her first race. She finished second.
“She’s just a natural,” says Dick. “She was the first person in line for her driver’s license at 16, and the first woman ever to win a big truck race. But them truckers gave her a hard time.”
“Some of them were plain rude,” says Shawna. “One guy tied a pair of pink panties around his antenna, and another guy told me he knew how I could get an extra 300 horsepower from my truck. When I said ‘How?’ he handed me two metal balls.”
Robinson raced trucks for four years and caught the attention of Pat Patterson’s sports-marketing group in Charlotte, which found her a NASCAR ride for ’88 with Boone, N.C., car owner David Watson. Robinson admits she lacks the mechanical knowledge of cars that most male NASCAR drivers have, but that doesn’t bother Watson. “She doesn’t know the right words,” he says, “but she knows what’s wrong with a car.” At a recent practice session for this Friday’s race, Robinson pulled her car into the pits after a few laps. Her features twisted with annoyance. “It isn’t fast enough,” she told her engine builder, Jan Smith. Smith admitted that he had fiddled with the carburetor and maybe the engine wasn’t getting enough fuel. Still, that day Shawna turned the fastest lap time of all the Dash cars in practice. “You feel this power,” she says, “as if the car was on a string going around a grooved track.”
Between races Robinson returns to her new ranch house on an acre in Spartanburg, S.C., where she lives with her fiancé, racing team mechanic Eddie Pearson, 23, son of famous NASCAR driver David Pearson. Eddie still gets a little jealous at all the attention Shawna receives. “He’s got to get used to everyone hugging and kissing me,” she says. That would be advisable, since Robinson intends to have a long career. “Years from now,” she says, “I don’t want to be someone people will say about, ‘Whatever happened to her?’ ”