NASCAR, along with the entire auto-racing industry, has long been associated as a sport dominated by men who have built and driven championship-winning cars, and who have helped develop race teams that bring in millions of dollars every year. Women, on the other hand, have struggled to break into auto-racing until recent history, with one of the more notable success stories being Danica Patrick, who became the first woman to win a Verizon IndyCar Series race, and the first woman to sit on the pole for the Daytona 500.
Despite making history in both IndyCar and the NASCAR Monster Energy Cup Series, Danica’s retirement currently leaves no full-time female drivers in either division, but four-time Whelen All-American Series champion Lee Pulliam has been working to change that trend. In recent years, Pulliam has employed several female drivers to compete in his Late Model program, all of which have found success in Late Model competition and in the lower divisions of NASCAR.
Pulliam has been satisfied with the progress that his female drivers have made in developing their careers with his program, and although he remains committed to providing opportunities for both genders, he hopes to see more women in NASCAR’s top division in the near future.
“We look at everyone as a driver, and we look to try and find ways to maximize their potential,” Pulliam said. “A lot of people write them off because they are female and that they can’t compete with the male guys. That’s not true, as a lot of them have found success. It all comes down to how we go about treating them as a driver, and not just a female driver. To us, they are just as capable as any male competitor.”
Among the female drivers that have been a part of Pulliam’s Late Model program include Julia Landauer, who won the Limited Late Model track championship at Motor Mile Speedway in 2015 before graduating to the K&N Pro Series West to drive for Bill McAnally Racing. Amber Balcean also found success with Pulliam’s team, as she became the first female Canadian driver to win a NASCAR-sanctioned race in the same division at Motor Mile the following year.
Jessica Dana, who is the current driver for Pulliam’s Late Model program, got her start in racing at the age of 15 and immediately made a name for herself by defeating Jeff Gordon in his own charity race in 2010, where she competed against 120 other drivers from around the United States. Dana’s performance in the event allowed her to move up to Super Late Model competition on a part-time basis in the PASS Northwest Super Late Model Triple Crown Series and the Northwest Super Late Model Series.
When Dana moved to Charlotte, North Carolina in 2016, she was initially worried about her future in auto-racing but was able to pick up financial backing from Pro-Pac International Inc., which allowed her to compete in Legends cars during the season. After finding success in the division, Dana began searching for ways to move up to Late Model competition and noticed the success that Pulliam had with Landauer and Balcean, which convinced her to form a partnership with Pulliam that allowed her to compete in select Limited Late Model races in 2017.
Dana admitted that Pulliam’s team was the first one she contacted about moving up to Limited Late Model competition, as she believed that his team presented the best opportunity for her to develop her skills as a driver. Dana has been thankful for the opportunity that Pulliam has provided her, adding that Pulliam’s experience and his respect towards her has built her confidence on the track.
“The cool part about Lee is that he doesn’t treat me like I’m a female driver,” Dana said. “He treats me like I’m just a racecar driver. It helps me out a bunch when they look at me like I am just a racer. I’m extremely proud of what we have accomplished, as two years ago I was living in my car, and now I’m racing Late Models. I know we can do so much more as well, and that’s what I’m really excited about.”
It would not take long for Dana to find success with Pulliam, as she picked up a third-place finish in her debut race with the team at Motor Mile, and backed her strong performance up with a second-place run at Southern National Motorsports Park one month later. Dana continued to build on her momentum during the 2017 Myrtle Beach 250, where she started in the sixth position and raced up at the front of the field all evening, ultimately placing fifth out of the 39 cars that started.
Going into the 2018 season, Dana sought to improve upon her consistent Top 5 finishes and finally bring home a victory for Pulliam and her sponsors. After being forced to deal with several rainouts to begin the year, Dana managed to break through in the second 25-lap Limited Sportsman feature on June 16th, where she passed Trey Crews coming to the white flag and held off a charge from Ross “Boo Boo” Dalton to pick up her first career victory in Limited Late Model competition.
Dana was overjoyed to bring home a checkered flag for Pulliam and is looking forward to having more opportunities to driver her #9 J&J Machinery Transport Late Model into victory lane this season. Although Dana currently has no concrete plans set in place after the 2018 season concludes, she has aspirations to move up to Late Model competition one day, and will have support from her boss in achieving that goal.
“We’ve talked a little bit about moving up to Late Models, but right now she’s just having fun in Limited Late Models,” Pulliam said. “I do have a Late Model car ready for her whenever she is ready to make that next step, but I think she’s smart enough to know that she needs to progress one step at a time, as it’s so tough to jump and go into something that you are not fully prepared for.”
Pulliam plans to take Dana’s car back to South Boston on June 30th, where she will compete in the 75-lap Limited Sportsman feature that will serve as a prelude to the Thunder-Road Harley-Davidson 200, which makes up the first leg of the Virginia Late Model Triple Crown. Pulliam hopes that Dana will have an opportunity to compete in the Triple Crown one day, but at the end of the day, he wants her and the rest of his drivers to find long-term success behind the wheel of a racecar.