Erin Crocker has been viewed as one of the prized diversity prospects in NASCAR, a rookie in the third-tier Craftsman Truck Series who has been both praised and burdened with the expectation that she will someday become the first woman to seriously challenge for victories.
But she is suddenly keeping a low profile in a sport where publicity is a billboard-wearing, product-touting driver's lifeblood. While others in the truck series remain accessible, Crocker is being shielded.
The wall around Crocker is the result of an allegation by the Nextel Cup driver Jeremy Mayfield in a lawsuit he filed on Aug. 11 against Ray Evernham, the car owner who fired him earlier this month.
Mayfield, who was 36th in the Nextel Cup standings before his dismissal, suggested that the poor performance of his race team this year was caused in part by Evernham's relationship with Crocker.
"At some point in time, Ray Evernham had entered into a close personal relationship with a female driver he engages to drive on NASCAR's ARCA, Truck and Busch Series," Mayfield said in the lawsuit. "That relationship became a subject of considerable discussion and distraction in the Nextel Cup garage area during the 2006 season."
Although not named, Crocker is the only female driver racing for Evernham, who has acknowledged that he is seeking a divorce from his wife.
Mayfield's suit was settled after Mayfield received compensation from Evernham Motorsports to cover the termination of his contract.
Crocker and Evernham have not publicly commented about the situation. Crocker has struggled on the track this season, and she finished 35th out of 36 drivers at Bristol on Wednesday night to drop to 23rd in the Craftsman Truck Series standings.
Crocker is not involved in NASCAR's diversity program, but she has received more attention than perhaps any other woman or minority driver, partly because of her affiliation with Evernham's high-profile team.
"They're fair game," the driver Sarah Fisher, who was involved in NASCAR's diversity effort before returning to the IRL this season, said in a telephone interview on Thursday. "You put yourself out there. If you put yourself in that situation, people will talk about it and you have to handle that."
Fisher said she treated the racing garage as a professional office, preferring to keep her private life separate. But it doesn't always work that way for others. Office romances are hardly unusual, and the NASCAR garage can be as much a soap opera as any corporate environment.
According to the veteran Craftsman Truck driver Todd Bodine, the relationship between Crocker, 25, and Evernham, who turns 49 this week, was common knowledge.
"They're both good people and they fell in love," Bodine said on Wednesday.
After a news conference at Bristol Motor Speedway on Friday to announce that Mayfield would join Bill Davis Racing and return to Nextel Cup competition next year, Mayfield denied that he had broken an unwritten rule by referring to the relationship in the lawsuit.
"I didn't cross the line until I was forced into the position I had to cross the line," he said. "I just had to do what I had to do. I wasn't the one that made it public. It wasn't no secret. That's his personal life, his personal problems, not mine."
Jeff Gordon, a four-time Nextel Cup champion whose bitter divorce thrust him into the spotlight a few years ago, said a driver's personal life should not become public fodder.