Melissa Paris - Not The First Woman In Supersport, And Likely Not The Last

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.

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Total votes: 102

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Comments

Marie-Josee Boucher of Montreal is also going to try to qualify at the Miller Supersport race. She's a second-year Pro rider in Canada; in her debut season in 2008 she was 10th nationally in Canadian Superbike, and was ranked 4th in the equally tough regional series in Ontario.

She and Paris are friends; they raced together in a Moto ST event at Daytona last fall.

Total votes: 106

My "favorite" detail in this story:  in the Country that features Danica Patrick, the World's most visible female auto racer (who just re-established the record for female placement in the Indy 500), I will be able to set my VCR to record Ms. Paris' performance next Tuesday (Noon, EDT). 

One would think such an event could justify being aired live (not to mention the, presumably, two front-running appearances by homeboy, Ben Spies) on a network "dedicated" to racing.  Is it that I am wrong, and their advertisers know better?  Or, are they just lazy?  Or both?

It is an indictment of America, as much as the network, that in 2005 and '06, we actually got to see QP on Saturday, in addition to "extended" coverage (meaning:  unedited and un-delayed) of the USGP at Laguna Seca.  Now, even with an inaugural race at the famed Speedway last year, we get no additional on-the-scene programming; it seems merely coincidental that the races can be shown live, but trimmed to fit a busy schedule of re-runs and clip shows and golf.

This is exactly the wrong year to let WSBK and WSS just fall into a business-as-usual, afterthought affair when the Series visit America...  but it appears that's exactly what will happen.  Shame on us.

Total votes: 88

I definitely agree. Speed, even NASCAR (are they not the same?), are missing a huge opportunity. I do not think that a racer's gender or color should warrant any more or less exposure, but that is reality, unfortunately. So take advantage of it! Lewis Hamilton and James Stewart are top athletes and deserve the attention they have gotten, but one cannot deny that their color has something to do with that attention.

Total votes: 97

Well, just wanted to say thanks for this "atypical" article.

To those complaining about "woman being helped" to get a racing position... well, I sure hope they are ! How would they be able to overcome the whole world's inertia against them otherwise.

Wouldn't be bad to have some better sex balance in racing, and I can't see anything wrong with some "positive discrimination" to help achieving it.

Total votes: 94

Young Elena Myers will be competing in the GTU support race at Miller. She rides a ZX6 for Roadracing World and based on her performance last weekend in the WERA club race, she should make her mark. I think she's too young for WSS, but she's got speed over the other women.

Total votes: 112

See, I knew there were more women out there racing!

One small error on my part: Katja Poensgen raced in 1998, when World Supersport was a Series, not a Championship. It didn't become a Championship until 1999. So strictly speaking, Melissa Paris IS the first woman to race in the World Supersport Championship.

Total votes: 95

You should clarify that in your article. For all those news outlets that should have known better. :-)

Total votes: 101

I am considering just that, though rereading the article I don't mention the Championship, only the Series. I shall try to make it all a little clearer.

Total votes: 102

Fixed and clarified. Fully factually correct now.

Total votes: 116

I think that it would be really funny if she were to have her umbrella held by a big dude in a man-kini. That, or to have Josh there holding the umbrella...

Total votes: 99

Don't be surprised if you see Josh doing just that. It wouldn't be the first time, and he is off this weekend :-)

Total votes: 109

yeah, that's a good one, 'cause you know, it's not like krjr or kurtis or you know, valentino rossi, didn't have doors open for them due to family. or the brothers hayden. or dakota mamola. etc. etc. etc.

it's kind of funny how a sport i would consider otherwise progressive is so unbelievably backward when it comes to politics and tradition.

Total votes: 95

A lady still has to be competitive to get and keep a ride, just like a man.  I don't know (since I am neither team owner, nor financial backer) if there are any "doors" being closed to these women just because of their gender, but I would tend to think not.

Going back to Ms. Patrick, as an example, she has financial backing advantages because of her stunning good looks, but she has had to earn her top-tier ride, just like the boys she competes against.  If she doesn't win races, or finish near the front like this past weekend, sponsors begin to wonder if they can spend their money on a different vehicle, so to speak.

Her story can be contrasted with Sarah Fisher; a slightly older young woman who is attractive and intelligent, but not Sports Illustrated Swimsuit material.  While Danica Patrick was in Europe working the hard miles in lower-formula road racing, Ms. Fisher was already winning pole positions (okay, maybe only one) and occasionally running at the front of IRL races.  Thanks to her college degree, charm, and decent performances, she won most-popular status routinely.  However, because she lacked financial backing to purchase a top-tier ride (at a time when there were very few such positions in the IRL), she has languished in part-time status.

Perhaps I am naive, but I believe similar potential exists in our two-wheeled world, in due time.  MotoGP's grid is shrinking and we can all point to a growing number of men who can't get a ride, but who would probably be more competitive than those who do have the rides.  This reality couldn't really be any more or less cruel to the young ladies with similar ambitions.  If and when they can earn and deliver on top rides, doors will open (meaning:  sponsors), just like for the guys.

Now, back to the TV networks passing on the sales opportunity of an American woman racing, in America, against the World, ...

Total votes: 92

Elena Meyers is a racer to watch, not just because she is a woman but because she is very young and very fast. She is already beating men much older and more experienced than herself.

Total votes: 89

There's quite a few women racers on the UK scene.

Maria Costello was my team mate for part of last year in the UK's Hottrax Junior TAG Endurance series (after my original team mate, Samantha Godfrey, high sided and broke her leg). We finished second overall in the series. This year I'm competing in the National Endurance series, while Maria has formed her own team with ex-Olympic hurdler Derek Redmond to compete in the Masters TAG Endurance. Unfortunately Maria had a poor North West 200 in Ireland recently, with her bike's engine blowing up and thus failing to qualify.

The UK also has Jenny Tinmouth competing in the British Supersport Championship - http://www.jennytinmouth.com/

Nicole McAleer in the British 125s - http://www.nicolemcaleer.com/

There's an all girl team on the club racing scens, Feisty Racing - http://www.bikegirl.co.uk/ladies/feistyracing.html

And then just to name check from the endurance paddock, Samantha Godfrey (back in 2009!) and Helen Gaskins form two thirds of GASI Racing - http://www.gasiracing.co.uk/ And Claire Bowyer with TM72 - http://www.tm72.com/tm72_home.htm

In Europe, one particularly well known female is Ducati pilot Bernice Sangers - http://www.berny-racing.nl/

Total votes: 97