SPECIAL WOMAN WORKS HARD TO GET UNIQUE BUSINESS INTO HIGH GEAR
LAS VEGAS, Sept. 30, 1998 -- It was a recent steamy day at Texas Motor Speedway, and the gears had to be changed on the Pennzoil Panther Racing team cars.
"Hey, Christy," came the call.
Christy Whalen, who once aspired to be an archeologist, slid behind the rear of Scott Goodyear's machine and soon was disassembling the gearbox. The male mechanics stood around chatting, working on other areas of the car or taking a lunch break.
They had learned during the season that toiling on the gearbox was woman's work.
Make that, work for a very special woman.
Whalen may be the only female gearbox specialist in auto racing. Whalen, a 29-year-old single mother of 6-year-old son, Bobby, owns the Gear Shed on Gasoline Alley in Indianapolis. Her little company services eight Pep Boys Indy Racing League teams. When John Paul Jr. won the Lone Star 500 on Sept. 20 at Texas Motor Speedway, he provided her first victory. Jonathan Byrd-Clayton Cunningham Racing, owner of the car, was the second team to hire her to do their gearbox work in 1997.
"I laid down next to the gearbox and kissed it," she said. "Burnt my lips. I didn't care. I was just so excited. It was just a real big win for us."
Joie Chitwood II, a former owner on the circuit, was her first client.
So what is this woman, who went to high school with Oakland Raiders quarterback Jeff George and thought of herself as a future Indiana Jones, doing in such an unusual occupation for a female?
Well, it came about through equal parts of chance, curiosity and a determination to try something that even the male mechanics hadn't considered doing.
First, she acquired an interest in auto racing while shadowing Indianapolis Motor Speedway Director of Photography Ron McQueeney for a class in high school and later working for him full time. Second, Fred Treadway hired her as office manager when he formed his Indy Racing League team and hired Arie Luyendyk as driver.
Next, she was aware of gearbox problems teams experienced and wondered why there wasn't a business similar to an engine shop that specialized in this vital mechanical item.
"Everybody thought I was crazy, laughed at me, said it had never been done before and that nobody's going to go for it," she said.
That was enough challenge for Christy Whalen.
At the end of the 1996 season, she quit Treadway Racing and started her gearbox business. She hired one person (now there are two, and another is coming over from CART after its season ends), acquired three clients and was on her way. Today, in addition to servicing Pep Boys Indy Racing League teams, the Gear Shed -- mainly Christy and Charles Long -- does some Indy Lights gearboxes. Many USAC sprint teams also use the company's services. Expansion into vintage racing has begun.
Whalen admitted she didn't know much about gearboxes when she started. In fact, her only experience came while in high school when her 1974 Ford Maverick nicknamed "A.J." regularly stuck in second and reverse gears. Since her older brother was in the Army, she did her best at attempting to fix the mechanical problems.
So when the idea came to her, she listened to knowledgeable people, did some reading and quickly learned how a gearbox functions.
"I used to be a little bit leery of what I knew until I found out from talking to people that I knew just as much if not more about gearboxes than a lot of people," she said.
It wasn't until the inaugural True Value 500 in June 1997 at Texas Motor Speedway that she actually did a gear change at the track. She went to the racetrack by herself and took care of three cars. Her first change was for Chitwood's machine driven by Affonso Giaffone. Obviously, she was extremely nervous.
"I figured all the guys would stand around and watch to make sure I'm doing OK, because I AM a girl," she recalled. "But they all said, OK, we're going to lunch. I felt grateful for that."
But, she added, she didn't breathe for an hour until Giaffone went out on his qualifying run.
"Everything was perfect," she said. "From then on, I've done real well."
Still, being a woman in primarily a man's world, she has taken a lot of kidding. At first, people were uncertain about her ability, but over two seasons she has won them over. For instance, when she acquired the Pennzoil Panther Racing contract she thought she should assign her male counterpart employee to the team. But the crew insisted they wanted her. This, she said, provided a big confidence boost.
When people meet her on the outside and learn her occupation, they automatically look at her fingers to see if they're greasy. Even such a racing superstar as seven-time NASCAR Winston Cup champion Dale Earnhardt was slightly dumbfounded when he met her.
The Panther Racing crew took her with them to visit Earnhardt's shop this summer between the Dover, Del., and Charlotte, N.C., Pep Boys Indy Racing League races. They were introduced to "The Intimidator" and later went to look at the functions in another building. Earnhardt strode in again and approached Whalen.
"He came up to me and like points, 'You, you work on these cars?'" she said. "I said, 'Yeah.' 'No, I mean do you get your fingers oily and dirty? You actually, you do it?' He couldn't grasp the concept.
"Finally, he understood and said, 'OK, (Curt Richey, team gear and transmission specialist) is out, you're in.'"
At Atlanta, Roberto Guerrero's team found a new way to tease her in a lighthearted way.
Her mother and father took their grandson to the racetrack for the first time. Whalen is very close to her mother, Roberta, who she said has always supported her in all endeavors. Whalen said her mother had more faith in her than she had in herself that she would succeed in the gearbox business.
"My mom had never seen me work on a gearbox at a racetrack before," Whalen said. "She's a picture person. I was changing Roberto's gears, and she came trotting into the garage with her little trusty camera and said, 'Oh, I want to get a picture of my little girl.'
"Now all the guys kid me, you know, every time I walk in. They say, 'Oh, there's the little girl, let's take her picture.'"
Thus far, there has been only one failure for the Gear Shed operation. At Indy last May, another worker -- since released -- tried something different in Greg Ray's gearbox without informing the team or Whalen, she said. The gearbox broke during the race, and Whalen felt so terrible that she feared facing Ray and car owner Tom Knapp.
"So I finally went and saw Greg," she said. "He came up and gave me a great big hug. It was like, 'Don't worry about it, that's how it goes sometimes.'"
There hasn't been a gearbox failure since.
The Pep Boys Indy Racing League season-ending race is Oct. 11 in Las Vegas. You can find Christy Whalen crouching behind a race car working on the gearbox.
And she might be humming just as she did while riding to the airport at Texas. This is one young lady who has found a special niche in the frantic world of big-time auto racing.