At some point during her auto-racing career, Durangoan Marchell Fletcher got tired of being just a “tire warmer.”
So, instead, she helped establish the women's professional Solo league and won five national championships. Then, Monday, she got an award named after herself.
Not bad for a tire warmer.
Fletcher was honored by the Sports Car Club of America at its 40th anniversary 2012 Tire Rack SCCA National Championship in Lincoln, Neb., on Monday for her contributions to the advancement and success of women in motor sports when the SCCA introduced the “Fletcher Cup” – a new award that will be presented to the top Ladies Class driver in the Tire Rack SCCA ProSolo National Series based on point totals from the season's nine events.
Parking lot pylons
Nine events that, if not for Fletcher, wouldn't exist.
Fletcher began Solo racing in Durango in 1983, taking her car places such as the Durango Mall parking lot to race in time trials through pylon-lined race courses.
A “gene for cars” and some time on the local slopes provided all the inspiration she needed for getting into the sport that Fletcher said is just like slalom ski racing on wheels.
“I said, 'Hey, I can ski race in the winter and Solo race in the summer. What could be better?'”
Unlike road racing, Solo is an individual sport, open to anyone in any car who wants to race against the clock; it's a type of precision driving that requires good lines and fast reflexes.
“I like Solo racing because it's more grass-roots. It's real grass-roots racing, meaning that anybody can come out and do it,” Fletcher said. “You have a helmet, and that's it.”
“It's just precision,” she said. “There's nothing like perfection.”
A league of their own
At the time, women had no professional class of their own and simply competed in the open category. Because tires perform better when warm, the women racers would often race before their professional male co-drivers, posting slower times with the cooler tires.
“We were called the tire warmers,” Fletcher, who works as a financial professional at Prudential Insurance in Durango, said.
At first, the local circuit was good enough, but as Fletcher improved, she started branching out regionally, first to places such as Albuquerque, then to nationals in Salina, Kan., in 1985, where almost 1,200 of the top Solo drivers in the nation turned up to prove their mettle “right in the middle of nowhere, right in the middle of the country” – just like they did Monday in Lincoln, Neb.
“I went to Salina, didn't know anything. I was like: Oh, my God, these people are really fast,” Fletcher said of her first time at nationals.
Those people, though, mostly were still men. And by 1989, Fletcher, who chaired that year's Solo II national championships, and her fellow tire warmers decided something needed to change.
“Some of us got our heads together,” Fletcher said. “The idea was to get the women faster and more competitive.”
“When you get a bunch of women together, there's no stopping them anyway.”
The only major obstacle left was a sponsor. Fletcher found one in the way of Pontiac that year, and women's professional Ladies Class driving was born.
Success on the track
“Marchell was the primary driving force behind getting the Ladies Class started in ProSolo in 1989, convincing the staff, sponsors, and competitors that the concept would be a success,” SCCA Vice President of Rally and Solo Howard Duncan said in an email to the Herald.
It was, too.
“The payout, because we were so good at it, ended up being higher than the men,” Fletcher said about that first year. “Tell me how many sports that happens in.”
There was no stopping Fletcher on her own, either. That year she won her first Solo II national title, borrowing a car and jumping on the track in the rain.
Fletcher said she has an affinity for rain; most other drivers don't. She credits her experience driving on Durango's snow and ice.
“You change your tires ... put your rain tires on and go out and kick butt,” Fletcher said.
She kept winning, eventually getting into the more dangerous and expensive world of road racing as so many Solo racers do. She also won four more national titles in a variety of cars, including the first ever Porsche 924 championship win, in a Porsche 968, Toyota MR2 Turbo and Chrysler Conquest Turbo, and she still races in her Mazda Miatas – “a sweet little car.”
Other women kept thriving in Solo racing, too, and that's one of the things Fletcher likes best about her contributions to the sport.
The clock never lies
Unlike some sports such as cycling, auto racing provides a uniquely even racing field, regardless of physical stature.
A driver's time is their time, and the clock never lies.
“Motor sports, it doesn't matter, which is really nice. ... If you beat a guy, you've got their respect,” Fletcher said. And “the car doesn't know you're a woman,” either.
Plus, women drivers added a new dimension of excitement to race day.
“When the women started competing with each other, and the buzz that started around them – it's like a magnet. The energy level just went so high.”
That, in turn, got more and more women involved, as women's teams and a unique camaraderie between female drivers developed. Now, 20 years after women made up just about 20 percent of the Solo drivers, Fletcher estimates participation now is about equal between men and women.
And that, she said, is what she was most proud of heading into Monday's luncheon, which would include plenty of up-and-coming women drivers.
“It just says whatever you desire, it doesn't matter if it's in a sport or profession ... you can do it. So the sky's the limit. It's only yourself that's holding you back.”