Speedway, Indiana (March 8, 2019)
There’s more to motorsport than driving. Anyone can win a race or a trophy, but it’s what someone does away from the track that really makes a long-term difference. For co-driver Leanne Junnila, her off-track hours just found an important purpose - she recently became Canada’s representative to the International Automobile Federation (FIA) Women in Motorsports Commission (WIMC).
Founded in 2009 to encourage, support, and increase women participation in motorsport, the WIMC has made a difference in the lives of thousands of women over the past decade. More than 30 national representatives from around the world come together four times a year to discuss, plan, and implement ideas that improve the future of motorsport. They also work hand-in-hand with the World Motorsport Council and top FIA officials to promote policy within the FIA itself.
Women from all corners of the motorsports world make up the commission: competitors, team managers, sporting officials, engineers, and mechanics. Prominent names in racing like Michelle Mouton, Claire Williams, Leena Gade, and Susie Wolff lead the group, while nominated representatives from individual countries work to develop and implement locally supported programs. Junnila is the national representative from Canada.
“The commission is interested in facilitating what works in your country,” said Junnila. “There are a lot of cultural differences between some countries, so something that works in one may not work at all in another. It’s up to me to look around and do an audit of what all the different sports are doing in Canada; where they find success and where we can improve, listen to what people want or don’t want. Then I work with my ASN to make better what we can make better.”
A National Sporting Authority, or ASN, is the body responsible for representing a member country within the FIA. For the US, the ASN is the Automobile Competition Committee for the United States (ACCUS), a consortium of all major American sanctioning bodies: NASCAR, IMSA, Indycar, NHRA, SCCA, and the parent organization of the American Rally Association (ARA), USAC. Canada has a similar organization, called simply ASN Canada FIA, that represents and sanctions Canadian racing series like the Canadian Rally Championship (CRC). One of the roles of an ASN is to nominate national representatives to FIA councils and commissions.
For a long time, Canada did not have a representative on the WIMC. When Junnila realized the absence, she immediately set out the remedy the oversight.
“The more that I got around to different races internationally, the more I realized how good the racing in Canada is, and how world class it is. I saw that there was no representative on the WIMC and thought, ‘wow that’s not alright.’ So I approached my ASN and asked if I could apply to be the Canadian representative. My ASN was very supportive and they put together a nomination and sent it to the FIA.”
That nomination was accepted in January, just in time for the first WIMC meeting of 2019. A few weeks later, Junnila was flying to Paris to meet with the commission for the first time. It was a successful meeting.
“I felt that from the moment I walked in the door that everyone was there to help each other out.”
“It’s a good time for someone to reintroduce that Canadian connection to the international table. We’ve had some huge achievements in Canada. I just think it’s about time for someone from here to step up and sit on an international committee and remind them that we’re over here doing good things and remind Canada that we're a strong enough country in motorsport to be at that table.”
Junnila comes from the world of stage rally, a fast-paced off road motorsport where teams of two, a driver and co-driver, work together to navigate timed courses called rally stages. As a co-driver, Junnila is responsible for guiding her drivers through hundreds of kilometers of stage road in a given event. Cooperation, teamwork, and trust are essential skills in rally, and Junnila thinks it’s the perfect sport to use as a model for WIMC programs in Canada.
“Rally is the perfect forum to start something because we have such a strong base to build from. I just drove in the Cochrane Rally, a local rally close to me, and 8 out of the 18 co-drivers in that rally were women. That is really awesome. I’ve never felt out of place in rally, because we’ve always had strong female participation.”
But there is one aspect of women participation in rally that Junnila has thought hard about - their reason for initially joining the sport. Historically, many women in stage rally became involved because a male family member or significant other convinced them to. Junnila is an exception to that idea.
“I’m one of the few women who got into it without really any family connection or any male influence in my life. I think that’s really rare and it’s given me a ton of confidence and skills that I’ve applied to other areas of my life. I’m so grateful to motorsport for having given me those skills.”
That’s why Junnila is looking to focus her efforts on the commission towards young girls and drivers just entering the motorsports world. It’s an objective that lines up with many of the stated goals of the WIMC and several already implemented efforts in several countries. Programs like F1 in Schools teach kids how to not only design a car, but manage a team, and find sponsorship. They show young girls that motorsports is an option for them.
The main goal for Junnila is helping women build careers. Some of which aren’t even visible to the average motorsports fan.
“I think its super cool that I can talk to little girls and empower them and it just so happens that my sport is motorsport. But it’s kind of secondary to being a role model and giving girls more ideas about what they can do with their careers. I want to have fun and show people how awesome motorsport is in whatever way I can.”
The ideas don’t just come directly from WIMC documents, though. Junnila herself has a successful career in international motorsport. She’s rallied several full seasons in Canada with the Canadian Rally Championship and the United States with the American Rally Association. In 2019, she will be splitting her time between the two national championships on a nearly 50-50 basis. Junnila also has raced at WRC Mexico multiple times, and last year competed at a French national rally.
“Experience is everything. So the more experiences I have, the more cool ideas I can bring back to Canada. I’m grateful to have seen so many events in the US and how everything is organized there and to have competed at WRC Mexico and in France. All of those experiences, they just accumulate. And I can definitely take notes and bring ideas back, because every country does things a little bit differently. It’s great experience to get out there and see as much as I can and bring back what might work here.”
Junnila is also excited to work hand-in-hand with the US representative on the WIMC, Vicki O’Connor. It’s common for members of the commission to miss occasional meetings due to schedule conflicts. O’Connor was not present at February’s WIMC meeting in Paris, but Junnila is still eager to meet her American partner.
“There’s so much cross border participation that happens between the two countries, it definitely makes sense to know what her goals are and what the mandate for the US representative is. I’m really curious to know more about that and how we can work together. Because I love competing in the US, it definitely feels like my second home.”
You can find more information on the Women in Motorsport Commission and all of the work they do around the world here.
Junnila is currently in Mexico working with the M-Sport WRC team as they take on Rally Mexico. Next week, she will be co-driving for Dave Wallingford at Round 2 of the ARA National Rally Championship Presented by AMSOIL, the 100 Acre Wood Rally. More information on that event, including how to spectate, can be found here.
Photo Credit: Alex Wong (Top, 1, 2), Rally Fan (3), Shanton Wilson (4)