Earlier this summer, Kathryn Nunn became the first woman to own an Indy Racing League Menards Infiniti Pro Series team, a move that has since paid off with three victories for lead driver P.J. Chesson and now encompasses a two-car squad with Chesson's brother James, both of whom will compete in this weekend's California 100 at California Speedway in Fontana.
This isn't the first time St. James has worked on a drivers development program to discover and promote women in the sport; the former Indianapolis 500 Mile Race competitor has been itching to find and promote women drivers for easily ten years, even while continuing to compete.
Both St. James and Nunn realize that there's more to competing than simply driving the car and are looking forward to introducing the combatants they'll choose for open testing on November 8-10 at the 1.5-mile high banks of Texas Motor Speedway to the added chores any driver must face.
Kathryn Nunn, married to longtime engineer and IndyCar Series team owner Morris Nunn, is hoping to have a woman on her 2005 Menards Infiniti Pro Series team and finds the prospect of this three-day test "very exciting. We just starting talking about this about a month and a half ago," Nunn revealed. Talk turned to action quickly for these two motivated ladies and, while they initially had ten drivers place their names in the hat for testing, that number has grown to more than 14.
"I've worked on this for more than ten years," St. James revealed. "It all started with fan interest as women wanted advice on how to get their careers going. It was the planting of the seed with Kathryn and her visible enthusiasm" that has made this upcoming open test a reality.
The open test will be attended by Pro series coaches and will also serve as an opportunity for the selected drivers to take their rookie tests on the difficult Texas Motor Speedway oval, making qualified drivers eligible to accept rides in the 2005 season - either with Nunn Motorsports or elsewhere in the paddock.
Most of the queries, this duo revealed, have been from women who got their starts in drag racing, although 25% come from karting backgrounds and others from quarter-midget competition. "I'm really pleased that Kathryn is doing this. The program gives us tangible goals and these women need opportunities so that makes this test a positive, tangible thing," St. James stated.
The test at Texas will be "a real test with the entire crew and engineering staff on hand. Each driver will get a half-day in the car" to show Nunn and St. James their abilities," Kathryn Nunn revealed. "
Why the great obstacles for women who have such great interest in open wheel motorsports? "If I knew the answer I'd have more women racing right now," St. James laughed. "After thirty years [in this business] I'm still mystified but I think it's a cultural problem. People aren't ready for change."
The larger question remains to be answered: are companies ready to support women in the cockpit? "We all know that it is funding that drivers sports. Women have had a difficult time with funding and need to know what's necessary to get the capital they need," St. James declared.
"Of course the number one job is to perform in the car," St. James continued. "There is no school to go to for all the skills you need in racing and that's why a driver development program is so important. We have to teach skills in the car, teach physical fitness that's applicable to motorsports and the business aspect that is so important in racing today.
"Many men don't have a handle on the business side either," she noted. To succeed in racing today, St. James intimated, drivers have to be on top of everything else, not just prowess behind the wheel.
Nunn noted interest from existing sponsors for this program and said new potential backers have given notice of their interest in a capable woman driver in the Menards Infiniti Pro Series. With her position as a team owner, Nunn's leadership qualities have not gone unnoticed by the business community, she stressed.
"This is a different opportunity than what's been offered before," Nunn related. "A woman's time is right now. Maybe the opportunities haven't been there before but I believe in the Pro series and think this is a very exciting time to promote this program."
With all their good intentions, it remains to be seen whether Nunn and St. James, together with their brain trust can find and promote the right female (or perhaps more than one) into the upper echelons of open wheel racing.
We'll just have to wait and see, but with the seed planted and these two women at the fore of the intended test and promotion, this newest directive has as good a chance to succeed as any other driver development initiative.