Quick: name some great motorcycle racers.
That was easy, huh? Now let's make it harder: name some great women motorcycle racers. We'll wait.
Still drawing a blank? Despite the fact that women have been in motorsports since the beginning, there have been—in fact still are—so many cultural and institutional barriers to women in all forms of motorsport.
There are some amazing women riders and racers throughout history, like Beryl Swain. In 1962, she was the first woman to race in the Isle of Man TT, a racing environment so absurdly dangerous that GP racers went on strike in the 1970s, refusing to ride on the public-roads based circuit known for stone walls, narrow country lanes and short sightlines.
Swain finished 22nd on a 50cc Itom, which threatened male riders and race officials so much they instituted minimum weight requirements! Or how about Maria Costello, who had a podium finish at the Isle in 2005 as well as at the North West 200 Irish road race? German racer Katja Poensgen had quite a career in World Champion and Grand Prix racing, setting record lap times and garnering an FIM Legend title for her contributions. And American Elena Myers wasn't just fast for a woman—she was fast, winning AMA and Moto America races, and making history as the first woman to take a win at Daytona.
Women have excelled in off-road riding and adventure riding as well. Women “adventure” riders have been with us from the beginning—take the amazing Van Buren sisters, Gussie and Addie. In 1916, they rode a pair of 1,000cc Indian Powerplusses across the United States in a bid to prove women could be useful in the impending Great War as dispatch riders. They were not well received—the media ridiculed them and they were even arrested by local authorities for the heinous crime of wearing pants. Things were a little better by the 1930's, when Theresa Wallach rode a sidecar rig from London to Cape Town. Wallach did gain the respect of the motorcycle community and went on to an incredible racing and motorcycle-business career. It wasn't until 2006 that a woman completed the grueling Dakar rally, but today Spanish rider Laia Sanz competes in the rally regularly, with 11 stage wins and many impressive finishes.
Still, the stigma against women racers is a real obstacle, limiting the number of women riders on race grids all over the world, but Breeann Poland wants to change that. Poland is Head of Marketing for Royal Enfield Americas, Global Brand Manager for the Continental GT Platform, and the force behind Royal Enfield's Build Train Race mentoring/sponsorship program. A brainchild of Poland and accomplished roadracer Melissa Paris, BTR provides Royal Enfield 650 Twins, sponsors, venues, training and other support to help a select crew of women build and race in both pavement-oriented roadracing as well as the visceral, all-American slugfest that is dirt track.
“I've always been involved in motorsports,” Poland told me. She started racing from a young age, and got into the industry professionally as an umbrella girl—but an ambitious one. She spent some time in hospitality management, but then found herself in charge of the GEICO-Buell racing team, fielding top AMA riders like Cameron Beaubier. That's about the time she joined forces with Melissa Paris. “I met her and we automatically hated each other—you know how women get—and then, a couple of years down the road we said "why do we hate each other? We need to be friends.”” Poland started traveling and working with Paris (we apologize for the confusion caused by the two geographic names), enjoying a running joke about having an all-woman racing team, with women mechanics, racers and managers. When Poland was hired by Royal Enfield, well...the rest is history.
Poland wanted to do things differently. “I want them to have mentors, I want to train them, I want them to go racing with the premier championships.” She tapped the world of women riders, racers, builders and other professionals: photographer Lena McNoughten documents things, mechanic Andrea Lathrop taught building skills and flat-track Johnny Lewis helped mentor .
So far, it's been a hit. The women racers have gotten a lot of attention on social media and learned a lot, completing a full season of both road-racing and flat-track as well as building their bikes into competitive, reliable racers. There have been obstacles: “women in the industry aren't always taken seriously,” says Poland, and “some fans have interesting comments,” sniping at the program and asking why women get special treatment. But Poland counters that “there's already 75 men roadracing...we're not excluding men, we're just bringing women into the movement.” and notes that Royal Enfield does support plenty of male racers. “The point is to grow [women racers] and support them to go into other forms of racing, not just this one. It won't always just be women competing against women, it'll be women and men competing together.”
Build Train Race focuses on women, true, but the idea of taking people from all walks of life—the racers are fashion designers, mechanics, nurses, photographers and even a journalist—and helping them fulfill their dreams is what's exciting. Poland wants this to be for everyone: “It might motivate some men, I hope it inspires everybody, all genders and age, [whether it's] 16 or 55. It's not for men, it's not for women, it's for everybody—find your passion and don't let anything stop you.”
Need more women's Moto? Read our interview with rider Liza Miller. If you're out riding, make sure you take your hearing protection. EARPEACE's motorcycle earplugs lower wind noise, giving you your best riding experience.