ATLANTA -- Stock car racing, today the second-most popular sport on television, has evolved at a snail's pace.
It wasn't that long ago when race cars had bumpers. Now they have something called valances.
The term door handle-to-door handle came from a day when race cars actually had door handles. And doors.
Beer and boiled peanuts used to be standard fare, now frozen candy bars and wine coolers are served, too.
Fred's Tires and Sonny's Auto Parts were the kind of sponsors that kept teams alive 30 years ago. Now it's Viagra, Kellogg's Sugar Frosted Flakes and United Parcel Service.
And at one time, the only women in the garage area were the beauty queens in Victory Lane.
Old habits and even older stereotypes don't die quickly.
At a time when women have traveled into space, have been a part of a presidential ticket and own NFL teams, Shawna Robinson's appearance at Sunday's NAPA Auto Parts 500 at the California Speedway is being hailed as groundbreaking.
''You know, it's funny,'' she said. ''When they talk about me, they usually refer to me as a mother of two. But when they talk about Dale Jarrett, they don't introduce him as a father of four that likes to cut his grass on Monday. I'd like to believe it's all the same, but I guess it's not.''
Robinson isn't the first woman driver on the NASCAR Winston Cup Series, but she's the first in nearly 12 years to make a start on the male-dominated senior circuit. Unlike the women of NASCAR before her Ann Chester, Ann Slaasted, Janet Guthrie, Robin McCall and Patty Moise Robinson brings something new to the women's movement: a real chance to succeed.
''If I was doing this because I was a woman, I wouldn't be doing it, because it's already been done,'' Rob in son said.
Robinson, who really is a mother of two, might not have more driving skills than the five women who turned laps before her, but her approach is clearly different. The mission is to succeed and win races, not to blaze trails into society's consciousness. Four of the five women who've already raced in NASCAR history had five or fewer career starts. Robinson wants something more.
She will make six appearances on the NASCAR Winston Cup Series this year, with hopes of expanding the deal into a full-time venture in 2002. Success will be measured by top-10 finishes, not by the number of interviews and strange looks she will get along the way.
Michael Kranefuss, who used to direct Ford Motor Co.'s motorsports program, isn't trying to make a political statement by putting a woman behind the wheel of one of his race cars.
''Our goal is certainly not just to make the field, but to run fairly competitively,'' he said. ''I think what we've put together as a team, we are in a pretty good position.''
Robinson, who runs a full-time schedule on the Automobile Racing Club of America circuit and is entered in a handful of races on the NASCAR Busch Series, arrived in Los Angeles early Wednesday to start two days of media sessions. By the time she climbs into her Aaron's Ford Taurus on Friday for the first practice session, she will have done nearly 20 hours of interviews.
''Friday is leave-me-alone day,'' she said. ''That's when I'm back in my element. That's when I'll be comfortable. I can't wait for Friday.''
The sport might have been slow getting up to speed in social circles, but a more progressive Corpo rate America now pushes the buttons be fore, during and after the checkered flag waves.
''Everybody is going to have barriers and roadblocks to test whether you really want to do this, and it doesn't matter if you're a woman or a man,'' Robinson said. ''I have been treated differently at times in the past because I was a woman, and some of it wasn't very nice. It's not like that now because the fans really, really have an impact on our lives. You do something wrong out there, the fans don't buy your souvenirs and the sponsor has something to say.
''The day I'm going to be happy is the day I'm running Winston Cup and the day somebody can walk up and buy one of my souvenirs. I want to be a driver running a full schedule for points, not somebody who's going to be looked at under a microscope because I'm only running a few races.''
Even with a full schedule, Shawna Robinson will be under the microscope for a long time. Stock car racing has come a long way in the past 30 years. It still has a long way to go.
REACH Don Coble at email@example.com.
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