Steering Women Toward Car Maintenance

Cars were designed by men, quips race car driver Pat Lazzaro, so they can't be that hard to understand

WITH her black grease-covered hands and powder-fresh makeup, Pat Lazzaro ducks under the hood of a 1992 Ford Taurus and pulls out the oil dipstick.

Wiping it clean with a cloth, she holds it up for the group of some 25 women (and a few men) seated around her. Never let the oil fall below a quart low, she advises, pointing to the add-a-quart mark on the dipstick.

As far as maintenance is concerned, Lazzaro is a stickler: ``You can't be too rich or too thin to change your oil that often,'' Ms. Lazzaro chuckles.

Here at the Danvers, Mass., Firestone service center, certified auto mechanic Lazzaro instructs her audience about checking tire pressure, replacing air and fuel filters, and checking power steering, brake, and transmission fluids, among other things.

With a dash of humor and occasional good-natured ``men jokes,'' Lazzaro's free evening clinics sponsored by Bridgestone/Firestone Inc. teach women the ABCs of automobile maintenance.

``Cars were built and designed by men,'' Lazzaro quips. ``so they can't be that hard to understand.''

In fact, women make up a sizeable chunk of the country's automobile consumer market.

Forty-six percent of the principal drivers of all new cars bought for personal use are women, according to a 1994 study conducted by J. D. Power & Associates, an automotive consulting and research firm based in Agoura Hills, Calif.

Meanwhile, 17 percent of American women say they find creativity in maintaining and repairing their own cars, compared with 49 percent of men, according to a survey conducted by Yankelovich Partners Incorporated, a social research company based in Norwalk, Conn.

But unlike men, many women aren't always given opportunities to learn about auto maintenance, Lazzaro notes.

A male rite of passage

``When guys grow up, it seems like it's some sort of rite of passage where they are supposed to tinker with a car, turn it into a hot rod, and do all those kinds of things. I don't think women go through that kind of rite of passage,'' she says.

In her clinics, Lazzaro is asked such questions as: How do you use a tire pressure gauge? What's the difference between weights in a motor oil? How do you avoid being overcharged by an auto mechanic?

Education is the answer, she says. For example, she advises people to dig out the car owners' manuals stashed in their glove compartments. The manuals set out a maintenance program and show how to check oil, tire pressure, and engine fluids, and when to replace filters and more.

Here at the clinic, many in the audience were concerned about being overcharged by auto mechanics. One woman, Joan Wright, said that every time she brought her car to the repair shop for an oil change, she was charged for a new and - it turns out - unnecessary air filter.

``I have been taken to the cleaner so many times by disreputable mechanics,'' Ms. Wright said. ``I just figured the more I know [about cars], the better.''

Don't get taken for a ride

Another woman at the clinic, Agnes George, has already been checking her car's oil and tire pressure.

``When you go to a garage, the guys think we're stupid and don't know anything,'' Ms. George says. ``But they're wrong. I know. I check around at all the different garages [for prices].''

While some of the women are already familiar with basic car maintenance, others admit knowing next to nothing.

Participant Claude Afrow, for example, needed to become more self-sufficient when her husband became ill and could no longer tend to the family car.

``I was brought up to believe that men do all these things,'' Ms. Afrow says. ``But now I know that you have to do them yourself.''

Lazzaro is living proof of that. She spent most of her childhood in her father's gas station in Ohio. In 1984, she was the first woman to graduate from the Jim Russell School of Racing in Monterey, Calif.

And since the mid-1980s, she has been involved in the car-racing industry and has served as pit steward, chief starter, and tire technician on several racing teams.

In 1993, Lazzaro was the first woman driver in the nationwide Dodge Shelby Pro Series. Besides serving as spokeswoman for Firestone Tire and Service Center's Women's Education Program, Lazzaro also manages her own sports marketing firm in Minneapolis.

Lazzaro's auto-maintenance clinic in Boston this summer was part of a 20-city tour nationwide.

Despite the need to educate women, Lazzaro stresses that men are invited to her clinics as well. Often she'll see couples attend her clinics or mothers will bring their teen-age sons. Fathers come with their daughters, sometimes.

``It's fun to do the clinics because the people who are there want to be there,'' she says. ``They get so excited. They walk away from it, and they know something about their cars.''

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