Interview - Ana Carrasco: "I am a woman, and I won the championship riding against men"

Ana Carrasco, WorldSSP300 champion
Photo: Steve English

On July 4th, 1916, Augusta and Adeline Van Buren mounted their Indian Model F motorcycles, and departed from Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn, NY, to start a journey that would take them 5,500 miles across America to Los Angeles, CA, over dirt roads, rough trails, and more. Their objective was to prove that women could handle riding a motorcycle over long distances, and as a consequence, were fit to serve their country as motorcycle dispatch riders in the US military.

Two months later, after becoming the first people to reach the top of Pike's Peak by motorized vehicle, they rolled into Los Angeles to complete their journey, following it up with a quick sojourn to Tijuana, Mexico, having proved their point. The sisters' quest went unheeded: although women would serve as dispatch riders in the WRENS, the British Navy, the US military would not employ women motorcyclists until the Second World War.

Women riders have always faced greater hurdles to riding and competing in motorcycle racing than their male counterparts. Beryl Swain became the first woman to race the Isle of Man TT in 1962, which prompted the FIM to ban women from competing, deeming motorcycle racing an unsuitable occupation for a woman. That ban was later reversed, and riders like Taru Rinne, Tomoko Igata, and Katja Poensgen competed in Grand Prix racing, though their paths were never smooth.

Beating the boys

The hard work of the women who came before culminated in 2018, when Ana Carrasco made history by becoming the first ever female rider to win a motorcycle road racing world championship. Along the way, she had broken several other barriers: first woman to score points in the Moto3 championship, following on from Tomoko Igata who had scored points when 125s were the smallest Grand Prix class. First woman to win an individual world championship motorcycle race, taking victory in the WorldSSP300 class at Portimao in 2017; first woman to take pole, at Imola in 2018; then the first woman to lead a world championship. At the end of 2018, she capped it off by clinching the title at the last round of the series in Magny-Cours.

Ana Carrasco
Photo courtesy Kawasaki

The title defense didn't go entirely to plan. Carrasco crashed out of the first race in Aragon, after contact with another rider, and finished eighth in the next race at Assen, in a massive leading group containing19 riders. She went on to score two wins, three podiums, and another pole before the end of the season, but it was not enough to prevent Manuel Gonzalez taking the title last year.

Israeli journalist and TV commentator Tammy Gorali spoke with Ana Carrasco about her 2019 season, her championship in 2018, and the impact that had on her career, and on the sporting world as a whole. Carrasco spoke about her relationship with Jonathan Rea, about the challenges of being a woman in what is seen as a man's world, her views on umbrella girls, and whether there should be a separate race series for women. And of course she talks about how she has worked to improve herself over the past couple of years, the changes she has made in her life and training, and where she sees her future.

Tough start

But Carrasco and Gorali started off discussing the 2019 WorldSSP300 season. "The season did not start as we wanted," Carrasco said. "The first two races we were a bit unlucky. A rider touched me in Aragon so I crashed. A difficult way to start the season, nothing was good and the final results were so-so."

Things improved as the season went on. "It's not what I wanted, but I felt strong and I think we were doing a good job. In Imola and Jerez we made it to the podium, so we were improving during the championship. I felt good, I felt strong, one of the strongest in the championship. I was hoping to arrive to the last races fighting for the championship, in this class, this is how it is. We always need to work race by race in this category"

Carrasco's 2018 season had been disrupted by the changes to the rules mid-season, as the series sought to balance the disparity in performance between the very different bikes in the WorldSSP300 class. With a better balance for the 2019 season, there was less need to change the rules.

"This year happily the rules did not change," Carrasco said. "Not like last season, it was crazy every race. Currently it's stable and better for us. Better for the team to improve the bike, for me to improve myself and for us to try to make a good combination of me and the bike."

Working harder

The nature of the WorldSSP300, in which closely-matched bikes produce close and furiously intense racing, had caused Carrasco to change her preparation. She had moved to Barcelona in 2018, and was constantly looking for ways to sharpen the skills needed in racing.

"I worked at the same level as before, I moved to Barcelona to live with my team, so I changed a bit my training," Carrasco explained. "I am working a lot with [former Moto2 rider] Ricky Cardus, working with a motocross bike to try to make myself a bit more aggressive, because our class is very close and our group is very large, so we need something extra to try to finish the races on the top. So January we are working a lot on this."

The training Carrasco put in was intense, between four and six hours a day. "Also with my physical condition we are working with my personal trainer. So we improved from last season and I feel much better than the seasons before."

Impact

Had Carrasco seen a change in attitude toward her, since winning the championship? "Everything got bigger, with the fans, with the media," the Spaniard said. But that didn't distract her from her goal. "It's expected, but in the paddock it's the same, every season is completely new and a new history to be written."

Ana Carrasco and Mara Soto
Photo courtesy Kawasaki

Carrasco's achievement, becoming the first woman to win a world championship, was not met with universal acclaim. The more reactionary segment of the racing community tried to find ways of denigrating her title, and play down what she had to do to win the title. It was only the WorldSSP300 title, they complained, she had an advantage being so light, and she had been on the right bike for the championship.

Carrasco has no time for people who looking for excuses for why she won the 2018 title. "I don't know, and actually, I don't care," she says. "We are working with the same rule book, my size is what it is, but I have more weight added. Fortunately, because the 300cc bike is so small, the added weight does not affect me physically."

'Taking a man's job'

The troglodytes among Carrasco's critics even rolled out the old, insidious slur, that to beat the men was unfeminine in some way, that she must a woman trying to be a man, that she must be a lesbian. Again, Carrasco has learned to treat such accusations with the contempt they deserve. "It's like that because we are girls in this sport, as if it is wrong to be gay in any way, or that I need to be one because I am taking a man's job."

Such criticism was easy to ignore when the overwhelming response to her title was so positive. Carrasco was surprised at just how attention her championship garnered."I expected something, but not as much as that," she said. "It was very big for me, I had to spend a long time away from home, do a lot of media commitments. But I am happy, because it seems like a lot of people were happy for my achievements and it's good. It was difficult to manage but it was not difficult for me."

How did she cope? "I celebrated the attention, the media coverage was positive," Carrasco said. "It was good, as everybody knew a girl won the championship. Not just a race, a championship." Did that put any pressure on her? "I don't feel pressure, because I know that every year it's a new championship so past results are nothing. You have to start from zero to make a good season."

Being the first woman to win a world championship came with a great deal of responsibility, whether Carrasco wanted to or not. But she didn't let that distract her. "I just go on with my thing. I don't feel like an idol. This my job, I am a rider. This is what I want, to make good results, so I don't care so much."

The debate around women racers often expands into larger arguments about the role of women in the paddock, and then devolves into arguments over umbrella girls. Carrasco is dismissive of the entire debate. "It's just a job, they do it because they like it," she says. "It's fine and we must respect all occupations. I am a rider, they are umbrella girls, every occupation is normal for everybody. Man, woman or anything else."

Ride like a girl

One of the ways Carrasco dealt with criticism from the more reactionary sections of racing was to adopt the slogan "Ride Like A Girl", and wear it with pride, selling a t-shirt with the slogan on after winning the championship. This had been a deliberate way of reclaiming what others had meant as a misogynistic insult.

Ana Carrasco's "Ride like a girl" slogan
Photo courtesy Kawasaki

"In Spain they use it like something bad," Carrasco said. "It's equal to not being good at something, and we decided to use this championship to try to change the perception. We wanted to show to people that I am a woman and I won the championship against all men, and we want to make people change. People would always find a way to make us women look weak, but we're not. I was on my period on the podium this season."

Does she see herself as a role model now, especially for young girls wanting to go racing? "More girls are looking at me, more are coming into the sport and mainly the families are supporting them more, because maybe now they can see that I did it," Carrasco said. "It's good to have a top female rider, as now young girls can see they can also arrive to the top of the field. It's nice to have young fans come to me no matter if they are boys or girls."

Getting more young girls racing is seen by many as one of the key ways to grow the sport. Opinion is divided on the right way to go about doing this. There are some, like Chicho Lorenzo, father of former MotoGP champion Jorge, who believe that racing series solely for girls and women is the right direction, by providing a less hostile and intimidating environment to compete in. Others, however, say that the key is to make the environment less hostile, and that the only way to produce talent of whatever gender is by having everyone compete together, and the best progressing on.

Equal footing

Ana Carrasco tends more toward the second camp, though she concedes there might be a place for girls-only series at a much lower level. "Not at the world class level," she said. "I want to keep competing like this so I can be on the same level as male competitors. But for sure it might be a good idea to have a championship like this for girls who are starting, like the Red Bull Rookies Cup, where it's free and they can keep learning and try to find their way. In my case it was not what I needed. If you want to be the best you have to compete against the best."

Carrasco believes her own career trajectory is the proof of that. "A lot of people look at me and my path, and I am the proof that the way to be a champion is start fighting and compete against the best from the beginning," she said. But that didn't mean that racing series and federations should not be trying to encourage young girls at the lower levels of racing. "In order to change the perception that this is a man's world, girls need to get more support from the start," she said. "The FIM need to work more with the younger girls in the long term, not just one year but ten, help prepare them for the world championship level."

The plans for an SSP300 women's cup to be run by the Italian federation during rounds of the CIV Italian championship could be a good starting point, Carrasco told Gorali. "I heard something about this new championship. I think it's a good starting point for the young girls that want to be riders. But then, in my opinion, for sure the next step would be to go to the 300 category of CIV to try to reach the level to arrive to the world championship."

Would Carrasco prefer to see an all-female championship, or a team in an open championship which held seats open for women riders? "I think that we mustn't forget that we are riders, there is no difference between us and men," Carrasco pointed out. "It's good to have a championship like this one that helps young riders, but you need to have the level to arrive to the world championship. But for sure would be good that the teams give the opportunity to the riders that have the level to do it!"


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Comments

The intro mentions discussing her relationship with Jonathon Rea, but it isn't in the article. Is there more to come or did it just not make the cut? Thanks.

I think Anna is one of the sport's good news stories, and (ahem) bollocks to the naysayers. Glad you did this interview. What about the JR angle?

I ended up splitting the article in two. Second part to be published on Wednesday. More from Jonathan Rea then, including what happened when she rode his ZX-10RR

I look forward to the day when Ana or another woman is on the grid of MotoGP or WSBK with a competitive bike. She's ridden Rea's Super Bike, how about a full time ride Kawasaki???

Great interview, good to hear from the female champion.  I am curious though, is there really any difference between men & women in this sport? Obviously in a sport like, say track and a field, a woman will never be able to compete with men in something like a 100 meter dash or really any sport that maximizes the differences in physiology, men are simply stronger and faster.  Motorcycle racing is a very physical sport, but that strength needs to be very focused and paired heavily with the skill of riding.  Taking the "yay go women you can do anything!" emotional attitude out of it, can a woman really be the MotoGP champion, considering the physical aspect of the sport?

Firstly, the fact that we have a female world champion suggests that the differences between men and women are not significant enough to make a difference (obviously, given the vast differences in body type and strength between individuals of either sex).

Reading the fascinating book Invisible Women by Caroline Criado-Perez, which is an absolute treasure trove of the differences between men and women, the only real difference related to motorcycle racing was grip strength. If I remember correctly, studies showed that grip strength in women is 30% less than men. In all other aspects, the differences were not significant.

However, the question is how much difference grip strength makes. The women racers I have spoken to don't report any more arm pump than men do (and just speculating, this could even be an advantage), so there is no reason a woman couldn't beat a man in any motorcycle racing class. If Dani Pedrosa can come second in MotoGP, then there is no reason a woman couldn't do just as well.

In rock climbing it has been noted that women benefit from flexibility and lower body strength, and often move with more efficiency relative to males. Perhaps applicable? The lower body hanging off hip pivot stuff may be similar.

Elena Myers ran circles around us all in the USA and went national in Supersport. She flew by me on the inside and disappeared, and had all my respect. These women are not only quite skilled, they have huge balls. Its a great thing.

Very interesting. I'm sure as more women compete in the sport we will continue to learn more about any possibly differences, like the hand grip strength, and how they may help or hurt in the sport.  Thanks for the insight!

Thanks for this interview.

Less than an hour ago I was called a misogynist for expressing skepticism about Hillary Clinton's honesty and charm, but somehow I always rooted for Ana and Maria Herrera a couple of years ago when they were racing in Moto3. Maybe I was a woke misogynist back then, and now I've regressed. Perhaps I should call my shrink.
Anyway whatever, be cool to see her on a ZX-6R next year

My opinion of the difference between her 2018 and 2019 season is that luck mattered most. In 2018, her riding wasn't consistent or all that impressive. She managed to do enough and with a bit of help on the last race win the title. I think M. Herrera was riding much better in the second half, and am pretty disappointed she's without a ride this year outside of Moto-E. In 2019, I thought Ana made a huge step forward in her riding and only lost the title because of some bad luck. If you took 2019 Ana and put her back in 2018, I'd wager she would have won the championship with a race in hand. 

The logical progression would be for Carrasco to move up to World Supersport on a Kawasaki ZX-6R in 2021. Even if she doesn't win the title this year, her work ethic and competitiveness warrants a move up to the middleweight class. Not sure if skipping Moto2 helped Jack Miller all that much. 2020 will be his sixth year in Motogo, and he is still angling for a factory ride. 

I rememer hearing a team manager talking years ago regarding women in racing. He said with the boys ( he was talking about the junior, younger racers early teens, I think) they push until they 'ee god'then back off a bit. The girls however, push but back off before they 'see god'. It didn't come across as a derogatory comment more of an insight into the self preservation differences between early teen boys and girls.

I think that regardless of the sex of the rider, if they are good enough they should be given the opportunity to race on an equal footing.