CONCORD, N.C. — The date is Nov. 21, 1987. The ARCA Permatex SuperCar Series is visiting Atlanta Motor Speedway for its season finale, and Bill Venturini is about to wrap up his first championship.
At the wheel of his No. 25 Amoco Chevrolet, Venturini makes the left turn to come down pit road for gas and new tires. When he slides to a stop in his pit box, his all-female pit crew gets to work servicing the car.
Yes, an all-female pit crew.
This scene was the norm for the team from 1985 through 1987, when Venturini’s pit crew, led by his wife Cathy Venturini, was comprised entirely of women.
Named the Ultra Blue Crew because of sponsorship from Permatex’s Ultra Blue Silicone Gasket, the women of the pit crew blazed a new trail in motorsports and proved pit road wasn’t a place just for men.
“I want people to realize how groundbreaking it was and how difficult it was at that time in history,” Cathy Venturini said. “At that time, women weren’t really in the pits much.”
The story of the Ultra Blue Crew begins with Bill and Cathy Venturini, who were married in July of 1973. The natives of Chicago were fixtures at nearby Rockford Speedway, where Bill Venturini was a regular competitor.
Bill Venturini eventually decided to expand his racing efforts to include the USAC Stock Car Series. When the USAC series was abandoned, he shifted his focus to what’s now the ARCA Menards Series.
Cathy Venturini stood alongside her husband every step of the way. She became a regular in the pits, where she helped the crew prepare and change tires, among other responsibilities.
“The groundwork started with her being so involved with me when I was racing from Day 1,” Bill Venturini said. “She was a big pusher for me to keep racing. She was always involved. She worked on the car with us the whole time.
“She wasn’t really a mechanic-mechanic, but anytime we needed tires changed, she did all of our tire changes for me.”
In 1982, Bill and Cathy Venturini traveled to Daytona International Speedway for the first time to compete with the ARCA Menards Series. It was during their long drive home from Daytona when the idea for what would eventually become the Ultra Blue Crew came into focus.
“It was an 18-hour drive; we had a lot to talk about,” Bill Venturini said. “I said to her, ‘You know, we’ve got to figure out how to get a sponsor.’ But there’s a thousand guys racing in Florida in the month of February. Why would somebody want to spend the money with us when there’s so many other people?
“There are a boatload of a talented drivers racing. So how do you get money for you if you’re just as good as them? You’ve got to do something that’ll make somebody want to spend some money with you.”
The conversation soon shifted to Cathy Venturini’s hands-on involvement with the team.
“We started talking, and because she was so involved, we made the comment, ‘Well, maybe we can have an all-female pit crew,’” Bill Venturini said. “That’s how it started.”
Their first attempt to find women for the pit crew didn’t go well. They ran an ad in popular racing newspaper National Speed Sport News with the words, “Wanted: Females for pit crew. Hard work, lousy hours, no pay, lots of fun.”
They didn’t get a single response.
Undeterred, they slowly began recruiting friends and family members to the all-female pit crew. By the end of 1982, Bill and Cathy Venturini had assembled a full crew of women that began performing pit stop demonstrations at shopping malls, fairs and other venues.
“We put a group of girls together, and we started practicing,” said Cathy Venturini, who served as one of the tire changers on the crew. “We were doing exhibitions where we were going to shopping malls and doing shows. It started kicking off really good. They wanted us everywhere. It was costing us. We were bringing our guys, plus we were bringing our girls for the shows. It was getting too costly. We did that for three years.”
At the conclusion of the 1984 season, Bill and Cathy Venturini made the decision to end the all-female pit crew program. It was simply costing them too much money.
“No one was paying us, and we were paying for it out of our pocket,” Bill Venturini said. “It just got to the point where we couldn’t afford it.”
That’s when Sports Illustrated came calling.
“It was like six months after we decided we weren’t going to have the all-female pit crew again, and we get a phone call from Sports Illustrated. By this time we’re running ARCA,” Bill Venturini said. “The editor says, ‘Well, we want to do a story on the all-female pit crew. Can you get the girls back together?’”
Bill and Cathy Venturini found themselves in a tough spot. They had a national publication interested in writing a story about them, but the story was about a program on which they had just closed the book.
They decided to give the all-female pit crew one more shot. They called Bill Price, who at the time oversaw Permatex, a well-known company that specialized in chemical technology for automotive maintenance and repair. Permatex also was a major supporter of ARCA.
Venturini pitched Price the idea of the all-female pit crew. As it turned out, Permatex was looking for a way to market its new Ultra Blue Silicone Gasket that was about to enter the market.
“I pitched him the sponsorship for the girls. I said, ‘All I want you to do is cover all the expenses and do whatever we’ve got to do for the all-female pit crew,” Venturini said. “Hung up the phone; half hour later we got a phone call back and he said, ‘OK, Permatex will do it.’”
The Ultra Blue Crew was born.
Cathy Venturini was never one to stand around and watch as her husband turned laps on a race track.
She always wanted to be involved. Before she started going over the wall as part of the Ultra Blue Crew, she was listed as the car owner on her husband’s race cars in the ARCA Menards Series.
While that may not seem like a big deal today, it was far from the norm at the time. She recalled one nerve-striking incident that took place at Charlotte Motor Speedway in the early 1980s during an open competition event.
“I was the registered car owner. I had my credentials,” she said. “But when it came time for the cars to go through the inspection line — and I’ve always been with the car — they stopped me and said, ‘You can’t go in the inspection line.’
“I’ve paid for my membership like every other car owner, and they’re all going through with their cars. I expect to be treated the same. So they assigned an official to me to walk with me through the inspection line.
“Back then, women weren’t really in the pits a lot. There were very few, and there were certain areas you didn’t go into, and the inspection line was one of them.”
When the all-female pit crew was under construction, Cathy Venturini insisted on being involved. Bill Venturini wasn’t keen on the idea, but his wife refused to accept no for an answer.
“When we were putting the girls together to do pit stops, he said, ‘I don’t want you doing pit stops,’” Cathy Venturini recalled. “I looked at him and said, ‘How can I tell these ladies they have to do it when you won’t let me do it? That’s not fair.’ He said, ‘Well, I don’t want you changing a tire.’ I said, ‘That’s what I want to do.’”
Determined to prove to her husband that she was more than capable of doing the job, Cathy Venturini spent a week leading up to pit crew tryouts practicing. When they day of tryouts arrived, she was in her own league.
“I just blew everybody away,” Cathy Venturini said. “He was so mad at me. He said, ‘Alright, you’ve got it. You’ll be the tire changer.’ I loved changing tires. That, to me, was the best part of racing.”
From that point forward, Cathy Venturini was her husband’s front tire changer and the de-facto leader of the Ultra Blue Crew. She continued as part of the crew for several seasons after the Ultra Blue Crew program ended at the conclusion of the 1987 season.
“You don’t tell my wife she can’t do something. Then you’re in trouble,” Bill Venturini said.
The women who made up the Ultra Blue Crew came from all walks of life.
One member was the wife of the manager of one of the gas stations owned by Bill Venturini. Another was a former high school classmate, while at least two others were the spouses of some of the team’s sponsors.
At least two of the women were models. They met the Venturinis during an auto show and were convinced to join the program. One member was even a professional mud wrestler.
“It was hard to figure where they would come from,” Bill Venturini said.
Several of the women were family of Bill and Cathy Venturini. That included Carol Tortorice, Cathy Venturini’s younger sister, who was one of the tire changers. She was only 15 and a freshman in high school when she joined the Ultra Blue Crew.
“I wasn’t even technically allowed to be in the garage area yet,” Tortorice said. “I was not of age. The NASCAR guys thought it was hilarious, because after a few years of knowing me, they were like, ‘I thought you were 18 or 19 at the time.’ I said, ‘No, I just turned 16.’
“It was a standing joke for a couple years.”
Tortorice, who now works as a dance instructor, still remembers the looks she and the rest of the women received when they walked through garage areas.
“We broke this stigma and went against the grain when, so-to-speak, it was not acceptable,” Tortorice said. “When we got to the race track every week, we had to go get the gas, which was always at the fuel tanks, which were in the NASCAR garage. We would always have to go see Hoosier Tire or Goodyear Tire, both of them, their base was in the NASCAR garage.
“We would get our tires; we would have to go get our gas for the three or four days we were there. We had to go in these areas, but again, heads were turning constantly. Like, ‘What the heck? What are these women doing?’ I bet you it took the first year, at least, for them to recognize we weren’t there as a gimmick.”
Tortorice said she learned many life lessons during her time on the road with the Ultra Blue Crew. It was an experience she’ll never take for granted.
“That I think is probably one of the biggest highlights for me,” Tortorice said. “I learned so many life lessons as a teenage girl on the road. I knew I was with family who were going to love me and watch out for me. I was meeting people who other people would have died to have met.
“I think it was one of the most beautiful stories, being 15 and experiencing what I did.”
Mary Burau-Popowczak was one of the longest-tenured members of the Ultra Blue Crew. She was part of the team when they were doing pit stop demonstrations in malls in the early 1980s.
Her association with the team began after a conversation with Bill Venturini when she stopped at one of his gas stations in Chicago.
“I had a company car. I had worked for McCormick Spice Company, and that was my company vehicle, and I would always go over there and get my gas and oil changes,” Burau-Popowczak said. “Bill and I started talking one day, and he said, ‘You know, I think my wife would like you.’”
An invite to Bill and Cathy Venturini’s home followed, and it led to a lifelong friendship between Burau-Popowczak and Cathy Venturini.
“Cathy and I had an instant connection,” Burau-Popowczak said. “We’ve been best friends ever since.”
After some trial and error, Burau-Popowczak became one of the team’s fuelers. She can still recall the many late-night practice sessions that took place outside the garage at Bill and Cathy Venturini’s home.
“I’m sure the neighbors loved us when we’d start the motor,” Burau-Popowczak said. “We actually did the pit stops in the driveway. It was just amazing. It’s an experience you never would have thought you’d have gotten.”
Burau-Popowczak still looks back at that time of her life with fondness. Not only did she meet her best friend, but she also got to travel the country and do something very few women have ever gotten to do.
“It was the experience of a lifetime that I’ll never forget, and I would say to anybody, if they ever get the opportunity to be on a team, go for it, because there is just nothing like it,” Burau-Popowczak said.
Joy Petticrew was one of the last to join the Ultra Blue Crew. The sister of two-time ARCA champion Lee Raymond, Petticrew initially wanted to be a race-car driver herself.
When her family forbid her from taking a turn behind the wheel, she became her older brother’s scorer. She also helped get his car ready during race weekends. Feeling unfulfilled in that role, Petticrew’s brother encouraged her to join the Ultra Blue Crew for the 1987 season.
“My brother was like, ‘You’re here with me every weekend. Why don’t you just work for Bill? You’re already here,’” Petticrew said. “I always wanted to race myself, and that never happened. My mother said absolutely under no circumstances are you doing that. I said, ‘OK, well this is the next best thing.’
“We sat down and talked, and the next thing I knew I was on the Ultra Blue Crew.”
The experience for Petticrew, who like Burau-Popowczak was a fueler, was unlike that of any other member of the Ultra Blue Crew. Not only was she going over the wall for live pit stops during ARCA events, but she was helping another team compete against her own brother.
“I got grief all the time from the other competitors,” Petticrew said. “Why are you working for Bill when your brother is racing? What if it comes down to one and two and Lee is running second and Bill is leading and you have to do a gas-and-go pit stop, which we had to do in ’87. Bill won the race and the championship that year, and Lee finished second.
“I worked for Bill. My brother understood; this is a job that I took on with his support. He wouldn’t have wanted it any other way.”
In all, Bill Venturini estimated more than 40 women were part of the Ultra Blue Crew during the life of the program. Each left with unbelievable stories and memories that will last a lifetime.
“I was able to be more involved and do more of what I wanted to do without actually getting in the race car and driving it. I was able to feel that adrenaline,” Petticrew said. “That’s what it was all about. To this day, that passion and drive will never leave me.”
They say all good things must come to an end. Sure enough, midway through the 1987 season, a leadership change at Permatex led to the discontinuation of the Ultra Blue Crew sponsorship.
The contract Bill and Cathy Venturini had with Permatex was in line with Permatex’s own fiscal year, meaning the program would end on July 1, 1987.
However, a timely phone call from Western Todd, an executive at Permatex’s parent company Loctite, led to a change of plans.
“For the July Permatex race [at Talladega Superspeedway], Permatex had set up a big product booth at the Hall of Fame, and the girls were going to be there for two days when we weren’t racing,” Bill Venturini said. “They were going to be showing demonstrations of how to use the product and all of that. Then we get a letter that they’re not going to renew the contract. OK, nothing we can do about it.
“Then we get a call. I think West may have called us, and he said, ‘Hey, I’m looking forward to seeing you guys. Let’s get together. I’m looking forward to see the girls at the display.’ And I say, ‘I’m sorry, the girls aren’t going to be there.’ He said, ‘What?’ I said, ‘Oh yeah, they canceled our contract. So we’re not going to be at your display.’
“The next day we got a phone call. ‘Sorry, we’re renewing your contract until the end of the year.’”
Bill, Cathy and all the pit crew members at that point realized the 1987 season would be the last year of the Ultra Blue Crew. So they made the most of it.
In the final race of the season, which took place on a cold day at Atlanta Motor Speedway on Nov. 21, 1987, the Ultra Blue Crew helped Bill Venturini win not only the race, but the ARCA championship.
More than 30 years have passed since the Ultra Blue Crew last performed a pit stop, but the doors opened by the women continue to be used in motorsports today.
“My daughter [Performance Racing Network pit reporter Wendy Venturini] has heard all of my stories, and she says, ‘Mom, let me tell you your fight was worth it, because I can go anywhere in any garage at any time,” Cathy Venturini said.
“I want people to realize that there was a time that it wasn’t cool, but now it’s OK.”