The Menards Infiniti Pro Series Drivers Like to Chat with Ross INDIANAPOLIS, May 22 - The drivers in the Futuba Freedom 100 Menards Infiniti Pro Series race today at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway have all had a chat with Ross. At least the...
The Menards Infiniti Pro Series Drivers Like to Chat with Ross
INDIANAPOLIS, May 22 - The drivers in the Futuba Freedom 100 Menards Infiniti Pro Series race today at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway have all had a chat with Ross.
At least the contenders have.
Although the series was designed to be a finishing school for drivers aiming to compete in the Indy Racing League IndyCar Series and the Indianapolis 500 some day, "Ross" isn't a former driver who gives them tips on how to get around the venerable 2.5-mile speed plant.
Four-time Indy 500 winner Rick Mears does that.
"Ross" isn't some burly Firestone tire engineer who has been around IMS longer than announcer Tom Carnegie, either.
"Ross" is the nickname of Rossella Manfrinato, an engineer for Italian car manufacturer Dallara, which builds all the race cars used in the Menards Infiniti Pro Series and many of the IndyCar Series cars too.
The drivers and team members have learned not to let her long dark hair and winning smile fool them. "Ross" is as handy with a wrench as a pen, and she can interpret data from on-board telemetry systems as easily as other women read romance novels.
Sarah Fisher may be the one the TV commentators focus on when showcasing how a woman can compete on an equal footing with men in this professional sport, but ladies like Manfrinato have been quietly doing their part to break down gender barriers in other aspects of the sport too. Like almost all of them, she does so by ignoring the naysayers and letting her love for the work and the sport control her actions.
She first set foot in America only six years ago, but today Manfrinato holds one of the most important technical positions behind the scenes in the Indy Racing League. Few other women hold more technical positions in all of American motorsports.
Her job title is "technical support and liaison engineer" for Dallara in the Menards Infiniti Pro Series, the official support series of the IndyCar series. Although she concentrates on Infiniti Pro, she assists Sam Garrett, the U.S. technical liaison for Dallara USA, with his work in the IndyCar Series as well from the company's offices on Gasoline Alley in Indianapolis.
Manfrinato is in close contact with all the Menards Infiniti Pro Series teams to answer questions and give directions about any mechanical problems or issues which may crop up. If a team's mechanics have questions on how to fit any part, she can answer them. After an accident she examines the car's tub and addresses questions about how to make repairs. If Dallara modifies a part, she's involved. She knows more about the cars' adjustable sway bars than just about anybody, and she was an expert source for information when the car's mono shock was introduced.
Manfrinato must constantly walk a tightrope. She must interact with all the drivers, engineers and teams equally, giving advice but not tips on how they should set up their cars. The difference between answering questions and offering opinions is important.
"I usually try to talk to her a couple of times each day, usually after a [practice] session," said Jeff Simmons, a driver for A.J. Foyt Racing. "Sometimes I run an idea by her to see what she thinks. She's good at keeping things private between her and each team. She gives us all information on what we could change and what result we might get if we make that change. She's very easy to talk to and very helpful."
"She's a very smart girl," agreed Thiago Medeiros, who drives for Sam Schmidt Motorsports and led every lap in winning the series' last race, which was held at Phoenix International Raceway in March.
"She tries to help us all. She gives us ideas on what might work to make our cars better. It's always good to find time to talk to her. When you're on the edge it's hard to find any more speed, so if you can come up with any change that will improve the car's performance, it's important.
"She has access to wind tunnel data too, which is also important," Medeiros continued. "She doesn't really tell us what to do--she's not allowed to--but if you ask her a question she'll try to help. Her job is to watch and see what the cars are doing and see if there is anything from a car manufacturer's point of view that can be done to make them better."
Manfrinato explained it this way: "Working for a car manufacturer, I sometimes see things [the teams do that] I would do differently, but I have to remember it's their problem and it's not my place to say exactly what to do."
The Indianapolis Motor Speedway is a long way from Manfrinato's native Milan, Italy, where she developed her interests in both engineering and racing. Her father is an engineer too, but he worked for IBM and not a racing concern. He took her to Monza, however, where the racing bug bit her hard. She watched all the Formula 1 races on TV and she received a degree in mechanical engineering in Italy in 1995. She's the only real racer in her family, however; she has no brothers and her older sister is involved in ballet, not motorsports.
Manfrinato had never even been to America on vacation before she came to the states to work for another Italian race car manufacturer, Tatuus, on that company's Formula 2000 program in 1998.
Part of that assignment was to run a two-car works team. She helped sell about a dozen of those chassis, and supplied customer support and spare parts. Along the way she helped Ryan Hampton finish second in the F2000 pro series national championship that year.
"I had to put a whole team together when I first came here for Tatuus," she noted. "I had to get the shop and the truck, bring the cars here, organize the team, have the spares ready for accidents; it wasn't easy. My friends and family were far away, and I'd never even been to America before. Over in Europe the engineers tend to specialize in one thing, but here in America I can certainly say I've gotten the whole picture."
She paid some more dues on the F2000 circuit, at SCCA club racing events and with Duncan Dayton's vintage racing program next, and in 2001 she and engineer Tom Knapp helped Larry Connor win the SCCA Formula Atlantic championship at the Valvoline Runoffs at the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course.
At the same time she moved into endurance sports car racing, working with various teams but perhaps most notably with Phil Creighton on the SupportNet team, which qualified third for the Rolex 24 Hours of Daytona in 2000. She was also part of the Intersport Racing team which won its class at the 12 Hours of Sebring in 2002 with drivers Dayton, Jon Field and Michael Durand.
Along the way she also climbed behind the wheel herself at a small track in Alabama to test a Corvette that her team homologated with the Automobile Club de L'Ouest (ACO). Owen Trinkler went on to drive it in the GT class at the 12 Hours of Sebring in the American Le Mans Series in 2001. "It was that car's first test ever," she recalled.
That wasn't the first time she's driven a race car. "I drove a Formula Ford 2000 in SCCA," she related. "If I can jump in a car, I will. If I know what the drivers' need, it helps me with what I do. Plus it's good experience and a lot of fun."
Then came the opportunity with Dallara in 2002. She spent time learning everything she could at the Dallara factory in Italy, and was in on the ground floor when the Infiniti Pro Series began that June. She worked part-time at first before being hired full-time in the fall.
What is she most proud of with her work?
"I guess that I'm still here; lots of other racing engineers spend several years in the sport but then they change jobs because they don't like the travel or the workload," she said. "Racing is not just a job but a way of life.
"I like the traveling and I like living in the United States," she continued. "I know I'm doing what I should be doing. If I can put my hands on a car, I like it. I like doing everything I can to make it better.
"I had some hard times, but it's great when you're treated like one of the guys," she noted. "I have a good relationship with most of the teams; if I didn't, they wouldn't tease me and call me Ross. I'm proud of what I've done since I came to America, and I hope I'm a good example to other women [who would like to pursue their dreams]."
And is she as good as a man would be in this job?
"Certainly" driver Jeff Simmons replied unequivocally.