Get a Legge up

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Get a Legge up

How often have we heard that one driver or another is the "real deal"? Some people were just born to race. Katherine Legge, who makes her home next to the Silverstone Grand Prix circuit in Northampton, UK is certainly one of those. She is...

How often have we heard that one driver or another is the "real deal"?

Some people were just born to race. Katherine Legge, who makes her home next to the Silverstone Grand Prix circuit in Northampton, UK is certainly one of those. She is the real deal.

Katherine Legge.
Photo by Todd Corzett.
Legge has entered the Toyota Atlantic Championship as one of 15 rookies. What makes her entry different is that Katherine has backing from Champ Car World Series co-owner Kevin Kalkhoven and his PKV Racing team. She's racing for Polestar Racing Group alongside another extremely talented and quick rookie, French-Canadian Antoine Bessette.

Legge isn't the shy type. She met Kalkhoven at a function in the UK and immediately asked him for assistance to realize her dream of racing in the United States.

Lacking family finances to further her career, the 24-year-old simply has to live by her wits. Apparently Kalkhoven was impressed by Legge's moxie and offered to help.

Their deal came together so late there were only three test dates prior to the 31st annual Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach the second weekend of April. Legge practiced at Firebird outside Phoenix and took a third day at Spring Mountain Advanced Driving Schools' two-mile, nine-turn loop outside Pahrump, NV that is similar in character to Long Beach.

Legge felt prepared prior to the start of practice on Friday and proved her abilities by coming fourth in the first practice and third in initial qualifying.

Her first day on the job should come as no surprise to anyone who followed Legge's progress during a six-woman shootout for a prospective Menards Infiniti Pro Series seat with another Kathryn, Morris Nunn's wife who last year fielded the Chesson brothers in the Indy Racing League's ladder series.

Katherine Legge was not invited to that test but showed up at Texas Motor Speedway last November with hat and suit in hand, hoping for just a small chance. Nunn wasn't about to deny a woman who spent her own hard-earned cash to fly across the Atlantic just for a simple opportunity to drive and, perhaps race here in the United States.

Although she had never seen an oval track up close, Legge got into the Dallara/Infiniti/Firestone machine and looked right at home from the start.

Katherine Legge.
Photo by Gregg Ellman - IRL.
Despite having about half the time of the anointed half-dozen invitees to test on Texas Motor Speedway's 1.5-mile high banked oval, Legge got into the car and performed. Brilliantly.

At the time Legge said she felt the opportunities were much greater here than in her native country, despite impressive results. Perhaps she believes U.S. grass is greener?

In 2000 Katherine Legge became the first female to win pole position in the British Formula Ford Zetec Championship and scored a best finish of third. That result was only the beginning. In 2002 Legge ran the British Formula Renault championship, taking pole position at Oulton Park.

Katherine became the first woman to receive the prestigious British Racing Drivers Club Rising Stars award in 2002 and followed that with the Susan JP Jamieson award from the British Women's Racing Drivers Club, awarded for setting the fastest lap speed by a female UK racer.

It wasn't enough for Katherine Legge to be recognized for her achievements at home, to be recognized as the fastest woman within her purvey. She wants more. The good ones always do. Legge began competing in the North American Formula Renault 2000 Championship, driving in half of the series' 2004 events and finishing tenth in the points chase. Her sole US start came at Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course.

"I'm very fortunate," Katherine admitted. "I met Kevin Kalkhoven through Vicki O'Connor (Toyota Atlantic Championship managing director) when he was in the area."

At the time Kalkhoven and Champ Car partner Gerald Forsythe were buying Cosworth Ltd., the engineering firm that has designed and constructed Champ Car's XFE 8-cylinder turbo engines in addition to supplying engines for the Red Bull Formula One team, among many others.

"I asked him to give me a chance in Toyota Atlantic so I could show him my worth" and Kalkhoven decided to take the chance. "I asked him for advice at first, to deal with companies here and in the UK."

Legge does have a management company working on her behalf from the UK, she advised. They are speaking with larger companies that could share the growth opportunities with Legge as she maneuvers through the maze that is American open wheel motorsports.

"Marketing and promotions are so different here," Legge confirmed. After arriving at the Long Beach circuit she took part in the annual media luncheon and was introduced to the Los Angeles area press corps. She made appearances at three local schools and was dazzled by the elementary school students' appreciation of the job she's doing. "That was the most fun."

Legge also appeared on a couple of local radio shows and found that fun, as well. "I'm enjoying it all. This is the first time I've done this type of racing program; I didn't know what to expect."

Katherine Legge wants the opportunity to drive a Champ car and realizes the best way to get there is through Toyota Atlantics. "I thought being in this series would be better for my career" than trying to do the primarily oval racing Menards Infiniti Pro Series.

"For a driver, this series is better," she pronounced earnestly. "I'm a road racer and this is what I know." The support Katherine engendered through Kalkhoven is, ostensibly for only a partial season but with results, it could certainly amount to more.

Legge has no desire to be the "next" Danica Patrick, the Lyn St. James, Desiree Wilson or Janet Guthrie. She aims to be the "next big thing" in any major league motorsports avenue, whether the driver is wearing skirts or pants. "Certainly Danica is opening doors. There are so few of us doing this that we stand out in a crowd," she laughed.

On Saturday at Long Beach, Legge continued her progress, leading practice for much of the way before finally ending up in second place. In final qualifying, Katherine tried to further show her ability to grasp the tricky, bumpy and fast Long Beach street circuit, but ended up in an unfamiliar place: the turn nine wall.

Apparently a slower car motioned Legge past him then turned into her, leaving Katherine in seventh for Sunday's race, rather than in third where she intended to remain.

Toyota Atlantic has become a dual tier championship for 2005 with the current Swift chassis augmented by older models.

"Speed variance could be to blame for this," she said in the confines of the Polestar team transporter, doodling stars at the bottom of a piece of paper.

"We've been very pleased with Katherine's progress over her three test days and this weekend," said Pam Griffith of Polestar.

"That incident didn't bother us too much; it's the left front corner and those are simply parts. Katherine has gotten on well with the entire crew and her teammate since she arrived and now she's getting more and more comfortable in the car. We'll just have to see how tomorrow goes."

Podium: race winner Katherine Legge.
Photo by Kurt Dahlstrom.
As is customary in Long Beach, Sunday dawned bright and cheerful with tons of sunshine that even wiped away the frowns from Katherine Legge's face after her Saturday qualifying shunt.

She spent the 15-minute warmup early Sunday morning bedding in new rotors and taking only four laps around the track. Tension was palpable prior to the race but Katherine put her foot down and was up to fourth by the end of the first lap.

Legge brought out the first caution with her outside pass of Brazilian Fernando Rees in turn one on the 11th lap. He ended up in the tire walls; she was third as yellow flags flew. "Is my wing still there?" she asked engineer Remi Lanteigne? "I'm going," Katherine declared when he told her the wing was intact.

Once they went green again Legge passed the C2 car of the extremely experienced Rocky Moran Jr. only to have him return the gesture as they ran through lapped traffic with seven to go.

Shadowing Moran Legge was able to join him in passing leader and teammate Bessette when he left the duo room on lap 27, moving her up to second from seventh starting slot.

With two to go, Legge passed the fading Moran - who later pulled off with mechanical difficulties - and went on to win her first Toyota Atlantic Championship race. Bessette took second and Charles Zwolsman was third.

Katherine Legge became the first woman to win a major North American open wheel race but that doesn't matter to her.

"Champ Car is my main goal and I'm grateful to whatever power that be that I was able to win this race. I can't compare myself to anyone," Legge noted, but perhaps she can after being greeted by patron Kalkhoven in Victory Lane. "Well done," the industrialist crowed. "You have done the best so far of all the PKV drivers" in taking the team's first victory.

Her goals for the 2005 Toyota Atlantic Championship season? "I want to improve all year," Katherine Legge declared. "You can only do the best you possibly can."

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Series ATLANTIC