About 15 months ago, a friend invited me to a seminar hosted by her organization, GSEvents. This event was the first in what she hoped would be an annual event. The fact that it had to do with motorsports and coincided with the events leading up to the inaugural Music City Grand Prix Indy race in my new home base of Nashville, TN, made it a no-brainer that I would want to go.
The event took place on the Friday before the races, and it was an inspiring and motivating day. The panels were full of successful and interesting executives, entrepreneurs, established and up-and-coming race car drivers, and others orbiting the motorsports universe. On face value, it wasn’t much different from events I’ve attended at the annual Performance Racing Industry convention. But, this venue provided far more access to the speakers and attendees and, therefore, a chance to connect and have meaningful conversations with them before handlers whisked them off to another engagement. There was another critical difference, one that served as the motivation for the entire event. The key speakers and luminaries involved were all women, and they were there to discuss getting more women involved at all levels of motorsports.
The event in question was called Women with Drive and was created by GSEvents CEO Cindy Sisson and her capable team. It was a decent-sized event with 115 attendees, but the stories told, and the talent and energy in the room made it easy for anyone to see that it would not be the last event and that it was a safe bet the attendee list would only grow in the future.
When Cindy reached out to ask if I would be available to work as the photographer for the Women with Drive II Summit – Driven by Mobil 1 in October of 2022, there was little doubt I would say yes. While I could walk to the first event, this one required a bit of a drive as it took place in the heart of NASCAR country at the Charlotte Motor Speedway.
As expected, everything was bigger for round two, with Women in Motorsports North America (WIMNA) founded by legendary race car driver Lyn St. James and accomplished automotive executive and INDYCAR team owner Beth Parreta as the event’s chief beneficiary. And what about that list of attendees and speakers? The spreadsheet Cindy sent me was a multi-scroll affair with nearly 300 names. Oh yeah, the event now spanned two days vs. the original one, and the momentum is just beginning.
I looked forward to photographing a seminar that was so interesting and involved so many people critical to my favorite past-time, motorsports. I couldn’t wait to capture the speaker’s emotion and show the audience’s involvement, even though I knew it wouldn’t be easy, considering the event space had an entire wall of windows, backlighting the stage and generally making photography difficult. I also didn’t realize until I surveyed the room that with so many attendees, it would be difficult for me to wander the room to capture candid photos of people without being a nuisance. But those are fun problems to solve, and I was up for a challenge.
Day one of the conference began with a fantastic tour of a few facilities on the Hendrick Motorsports campus. I use the word “campus” because that’s what it feels like with sprawling grounds and identical buildings dotting the immaculate landscape, but I think the term belies the magnitude of the operation. It is an impressive undertaking with a top-quality museum for anyone interested in NASCAR history or the classic “documentary” Days of Thunder. Hendrick Motorsports is a juggernaut in the world of NASCAR and racing in the United States, and the research and development centers at their headquarters would be the envy of many Fortune 500 companies.
After the tours and lunch, the conference began with keynote speaker Linda Lindquist-Bishop; she is a powerhouse. Linda is an inspiring speaker with a great message and is a spectacular World Champion Sailor at the highest levels of competition. Having led the first female America’s Cup sailing team and crewed on over 100 other teams over the years, her experience in breaking boundaries and stereotypes is impressive. While her discipline is clearly outside the world of motorsports, the challenges and opportunities run in parallel, and she was the perfect kickstart to the event.
Two expert panel discussions followed the keynote speaker and were equally exciting and impressive. Hearing accomplished racers, CEOs, Presidents, Vice Presidents, and Co-Owners of companies and teams speak about trying to do everything from raising a family to succeeding in a traditionally male-dominated sport and business was fantastic. I was particularly impressed with Kelley Earnhardt Miller and Julia Steinbrenner, knowing they had to battle barriers due to their gender, prejudice, and expectations stemming from their family name and legacy.
The second panel was unique to the event because it consisted of six men. They were there to discuss the importance and necessity of allies, people in positions of power or influence to work towards equality for women and minorities in motorsports. The panel was quite esteemed, with the Presidents of IMSA and NASCAR, the Directors of TC America SRO and Rally/Solo and Experiential Programs for SCCA, the President of the Parella Group and the Sportscar Vintage Racing Association, and a race car driver named Jimmie Johnson. You may have heard of him and his seven NASCAR championships and as a driver in the NTT Data INDYCAR Series.
These panels set the tone and provided a positive and inspiring message that continued into the evening’s Friend-Raiser event in The Paddock Club inside the speedway. I truly enjoyed working the first day and trying to capture the little moments of the presentations and talks. It’s challenging to capture a feeling with a camera, but when it works, it works and can be a valuable thing.
Day two began with another incredible and inspirational keynote speaker, Mike Mooney, who will have you ready to charge a castle in about 20 minutes with his upbeat outlook. Although, I have to say he was challenging to photograph because the man doesn’t stand still! His message is invigorating, and I can’t wait to tackle his book Reputation Shift – Lessons from Pit Road to the Boardroom.
The panelists and discussion topics of day two built upon the momentum of day one and brought things to a new level of inspiration. I’ve used that word a lot in this post, but it’s appropriate. The fact that talented women continue to face obstacles that prevent them from doing what they love or have not had the same opportunity as their male counterparts is offensive and maddening. But the incredibly talented and motivated people involved in this forum show that the tide can be changed. It’s not going to happen overnight, and there are still a mind-numbing number of people stuck in old and ignorant ways, but that can’t last forever, and the people at Women with Drive II are proof that change will happen.
I would love to go over the details of all the discussions and panels, but that would take pages of writing that only a few of you would read. The takeaway you should get from this is that there are legitimate opportunities in motorsports for anyone, not just white men. Some of the most talented and competent people in the corporations and teams currently involved in motorsports are women. And they are there to mentor other women who want to make a career in this fascinating and exciting world. Look at the website for WWDII, read the bios of the people involved, and reach out to them on LinkedIn and via email.
The mantra repeatedly heard throughout the event may be difficult for some to understand because it’s something many don’t have to think about, but it rings true and essential. If you can see it, you can be it. It is important for people to see people who look like them in various roles because even if you don’t realize it, without that representation, dreams can be squelched before they begin due to subconscious messaging that they don’t belong. Everyone wins when talent, regardless of gender or race, has an equal opportunity to sit at the table and participate.
Women With Drive III will be held in Phoenix next November, so mark your calendar if you want to be inspired and help make motorsports and the automotive industry better for everyone. I had a blast photographing this year’s event and met some truly outstanding and inspiring (there’s that word again) people. I can’t wait to see what they accomplish in the future.