At Miller Motorsports Park this weekend, one wildcard rider will be receiving a good deal of attention, more perhaps than is warranted by her results alone. The key word there, and the reason for all the attention, is "her". For Melissa Paris will be making her debut in the World Supersport class, becoming one of a small number of women riders to have raced in international competition.
The team press release trumpeted the news that Paris will be the first female rider to have raced in the World Supersport Championship, a fact that was repeated unquestioningly by a large number of racing sites who ought to know better. Though technically they are correct, Paris won't be the first woman to race in the World Supersport class. In 1998, the year before the World Supersport Series became the World Supersport Championship, a matter mostly of nomenclature, the German racer Katja Poensgen raced as a wildcard at the Nurburgring in the World Supersport race, finishing a respectable 20th, and ahead of 16 other entrants in the class. Poensgen, now a TV presenter with German sports channel DSF, later went on to have two years in the 250 class, one with Shell Advance and Dark Dog in 2001, then a disastrous year aboard a severely underpowered Molenaar Racing Honda in 2003, in which she and her team mate alternated at the rear of the grid.
But Poensgen is not the only woman to have raced internationally: Dutchwoman Iris ten Katen just retired as European Women's champion at the end of last season, and after some respectable results in the Dutch Open Championship; Alessia Polita contested the European Superstock 600 championship, the entry class for World Supersport, scoring points in a large field; Maria Costello competes regularly in the International Road Racing series, racing on public roads in Ireland and the Isle of Man; And just two weeks ago, the 18-year-old Frenchwoman Ornella Ongaro entered the French 125cc Grand Prix as a wildcard.
And so Paris joins an illustrious band of riders, riders who have had to fight more than just the difficulty of finding and raising the necessary cash to race, but also against the prejudice of the men who fill race paddocks around the world, and race that little bit harder to ensure that above all, they don't get beaten by a woman. For that still remains the biggest obstacle for women racers: the good old-fashioned prejudice that racing is a man's sport, and the only place that women have is holding umbrellas in skimpy outfits.
For Melissa Paris certainly deserves her wildcard ride. Last year, she finished 5th in the tough USGPRU series, and was the CCS Lightweight Champion. This year, Paris is competing in the Daytona Sportbike class - the nearest thing the AMA has to a Supersport class - finishing a respectable 21st out of a field of 85 at the prestigious Daytona 200, and scoring consistent top 10 and podiums in the USGPRU, WERA, ASRA and CCS races she has competed in. Scoring points in the World Supersport class at Miller is probably a little too much to ask, given the depth of talent in the WSS field, but she is likely to leave a number of her male fellow competitors behind her.
Ironically, the charges of favoritism being leveled at Paris from some of the more deeply traditional corners of the racing fraternity may have some justification, though not for the reasons given. Melissa Paris' racing career is not helped unfairly by her being a woman in any area, except maybe one: Paris is married to AMA Superbike veteran Josh Hayes. Certainly, her marriage to Hayes may have helped open some doors in racing, and she definitely has a source of excellent professional advice. But the only way her gender is involved here is that it made her relationship and her marriage to Hayes possible in the first place.
Paris may be the first woman rider to race in the World Supersport series for a long time, but she definitely won't be the last. There are a host of young girls out racing, and coming up through the ranks of 125s, pocket bikes and minibikes. The Red Bull Rookies Cup receives a substantial number of applications from girls, with Lucy Glockner competing in the series in 2007. Women are becoming increasingly active in all forms of motorcycle racing, and are no longer content to be nothing more than eye candy. The traditionalists had better start getting used to the idea.
Thanks to the fount of knowledge in all things World Superbike, Marien Cahuzak for the tipoff about Katja Poensgen.