The new Grace Autosport team will contest the 2016 Indianapolis 500, the 100th running of the famous race, with Katherine Legge confirmed as a driver.
INDIANAPOLIS - Many attempts have been made to have women in essential positions in motor sport; some have succeeded, in the case of occasional engineers and those women that perform mechanical duties - along with the few winning female Indy car and sports car drivers that have come along since the dawn of the sport - but more have failed.
Racing is considered a man’s world; the majority of those working in every aspect of the sport are masculine. Just about the only form of motor sport where women are treated as just another racer is in drag racing, where three-time champion Shirley Muldowney set the bar in NHRA Top Fuel despite massive opposition in her formative years. Last year at Kansas, Courtney Force scored the 100th win for a woman in professional NHRA drag racing.
The initial goal of Grace Autosport, the first all-female Verizon IndyCar Series racing team, is to compete in the 100th running of the Indianapolis 500 on May 29, 2016. The team has more than a year to get its ducks in a row and will, most likely need every minute of that. The team will likely affiliate with an established group and says it’s got commercial and technical partners lined up - but those announcements are being saved for a later date.
Beth Paretta is the team principal of Grace Autosport. Paretta, who has succeeded at every level of the sport that she’s attempted, has most recently served as motorsports director for SRT Motorsports with FiatChrysler Automobiles. She left that company to start The Paretta Company at the end of 2014 and said at the time she was going to be part of a team - who knew it would be her own?
“For us,” Paretta said, “true success will be measured by how many girls and women we can encourage to pursue a STEM (Science/Technology/Engineering/Math) career.” The goal of Grace Autosport is “not only to empower women in motorsport; we hope our program and platform attracts a new fan base to Indy car racing and the Indianapolis 500, the largest sporting event in the world.”
The appointed driver for this enterprise is racer Katherine Legge, who became the first woman to win a major American motorsport contest at Long Beach, CA when she won the Toyota Atlantic race in 2005. She won three races that year and finished third in the championship. Legge has also raced in Champ Car, in INDYCAR competition and the DTM. She currently co-drives the innovative Panoz DeltaWing in IMSA’s premier Prototype class together with Mexican Memo Rojas and has raced in the first year of FIA Formula E.
Aiming for her third Indianapolis 500 next year Legge is “very proud to be a part of this new and exciting team. To me, it’s more than racing; it’s the start of something much bigger, a movement within the sport,” she said. “Racing is my life-long passion and the drive to compete in the Indy 500 has been there since the very beginning. it will be interesting to see [this initiative] unfold from the beginning and I have no doubt we will be successful.”
She agreed with Paretta who pronounced: “We are here to win and our goal is, within 10 years to make sure a woman’s face will grace the BorgWarner trophy.”
The program Grace Autosport is putting together has more to do with STEM than the outcome of next year’s 100th Indy 500. There is a serious shortage of engineering talent in the United States and a critical need for engineers. “For instance, many major automotive manufacturers [find that] engineers are retiring at a faster rate than are being hired in,” Paretta said. “These companies know this and know the value of a balanced workforce, the value of having women on their team, thereby actively recruiting female engineering students.”
The team intends to take its program to schools and using community outreach. “If it introduces and inspires young women to seek STEM careers, then we are already winning,” Paretta declared. “We will train and coach and encourage and work hard day in and day out to be competitive and win. This is a long-term plans - the start is the Indy 500.”
Grace Autosport has the support of the FIA through American designate Vicki O’Connor (who ran the Atlantic Championship) and Lyn St. James of the Women in Motorsport Commission. St James was the second woman to race in the Indianapolis 500 after Janet Guthrie opened that door to female racers. “For their hard work, for their challenging days, we say thank you. Without them there would be no today,” Paretta continued.
As she outlined her program, Paretta introduced three other members of her start-up team: Catherine Crawford, principal of Crawford Composites and the company’s lead aerodynamicist, who is also a race engineer; design engineer Jessica Rowe, who has a mechanical engineering degree and has been working in sports car racing; public relations and communications expert Barbara Burns. Also on the team is motorsports engineer, track support technician and data analysis manager Lauren Elkins.
“I’ve worked with Catherine (Crawford) and she’s probably one of the most talented engineers in motorsports,” Legge said. “I think that, through her, we can identify maybe more programs and more talent and nurture that and bring it along. We’re going to universities and other educational institutions to look for talent,” the racer pronounced.
Legge joined the Women in Motorsports Commission in 2008 with the intent of understanding the bigger picture and, essentially enhancing her own legacy through it. As a STEM representative for the Girl Scouts in 2012 at the Indianapolis 500, “It’s [been] so cool you can inspire young girls to actually believe that there are different opportunities for them. A lot of young boys come to the race track and they’re like, ‘Oh cool. It’s INDYCAR, I want to be a driver, I want to be a mechanic, I want to be an engineer.’ I’m sure that a lot of girls come and think the same kinds of things, but never do they think that’s an opportunity for them - because there’s nobody doing it.
“What we’re trying to do is open people's’ minds,” Legge stated. “If a young girl wants to be an engineer or race car driver or whatever, there is a possibility and they can pursue that. I don’t think they even believe it’s an option at the moment.”
"The Brickyard has been a part of a lot of firsts, and we will add to that," she added. "It makes it so special to have the opportunity to launch our team here. For us, true success will be measured by how many girls and women we can encourage to pursue a STEM career."
Peretta then declared that the goal is get a women's face on the Borg-Warner trophy within a decade.