Guildford driver has overcome serial setbacks to be only woman at the front end of the grid as new era of racing begins in US.
Motor racing, it seems, is a hard habit to kick. It is the all-or-nothing nature of the sport. Success is defined by tiny increments – and errors within the Doppler-shifting maelstrom of split-second decisions promise only failure, or worse. Racing demands commitment and the best drivers do so with vigour, and glory in the embrace. Katherine Legge long since succumbed: "I love the driving," she says. "It has been my life, 24 hours a day, ever since I was nine. It's like an addiction – it gets in your blood."
The 33-year-old from Guildford, who raced Lewis Hamilton and Jenson Button in her youth and was within a whisker of a seat in a Formula One car, has been driving ever since. Next Saturday she will take to the track again as the only woman racing in the top prototype class at an endurance classic, the 24 Hours of Daytona – the opening chapter in a new era for US racing as the inaugural round of the Tudor United SportsCar Championship (TUSC).
She began in karting and progressed through Formula Ford and Formula Renault, where her pace was not in doubt. On occasion, she was ahead of Hamilton on the time sheets in 2002, but – at Formula 3 level – the funding ran out.
Unwilling to accept defeat, Legge headed to the US. There, in 2005, she attended a shootout for a scholarship into the Indy Lights series. "I wasn't invited, so I said: 'OK, I am going anyway,'" she says. "I had my helmet and race suit, and I persuaded them to just give me a test on an oval, which I had never driven before. I guess they felt sorry for me. I got in the car, was flat out straight away and won the scholarship."
Success turned to setback, however, as the sponsor's funding fell through. Undeterred, Legge soldiered on, pursuing Kevin Kalkhoven, the then owner of the Champ Car World Series and the Atlantic Series. "I heard he would be in England buying Cosworth," she says. "So I sat in the lobby of Cosworth until he saw me. The team gave me a test and Kevin gave me six races in the Atlantic Series to see how I got on. I won the first race at Long Beach in 2005; that's how my career really took off."
It was some start. The victory made her the first woman to win a professional open-wheel race in North America and she would go on to win twice more, and finish third in the championship.
At almost the same time, the big prize was tantalisingly close. "My whole career I wanted to get into Formula One," Legge explains. "I very nearly made it. I tested for Paul Stoddart in a Minardi in 2005. If it wasn't for him selling the team to Red Bull as Toro Rosso, I probably would have driven the car in F1. He was impressed with the job that I did." She takes this bad luck stoically – and, having gone on to race in the Champ Car, Indy Car, German Touring Car series and the Indy 500, there is no disappointment.
"I have no regrets. What I didn't want to do was go there as a novelty," she insists. "My whole career I've tried to do it as a serious racing driver. You see people like Danica Patrick and Susie Wollf who have totally played on the female thing, and I think sometimes: 'Yes, I was wrong not to do that.' But, other times, I believe I was true to myself and I don't want young girls thinking they have to do that to make it – I tried to do it like the guys did, to be taken seriously as a driver."
Which she is and which will be proved again as she takes the wheel of the unique DeltaWing car at Daytona, the start of her full season racing in the TUSC. A new adventure for her and the series.
She drives for the team of Don Panoz, the owner who enjoyed bringing his glorious, noisy, front-engined cars to Le Mans so much that he set up the American Le Mans Series (ALMS) in 1999 to bring the racing to the USA. The ALMS (in which Legge also became the first woman to lead a lap, driving the DeltaWing last year) has now merged with the Grand-Am series, owned by the France family, which has made such a success of Nascar, to create TUSC. Their commitment to it suggests a bright future for US sports car racing. Indeed, the calendar is a roll call of classic tracks: Daytona, Indianapolis, Watkins Glen, Mosport and Sebring, among them. "It gives you goosebumps," says Legge. "All these cool places that you grow up watching, it's legendary."
She is excited to be there as "part of the new beginning. The biggest thing in American racing this year. The best elements of both under the Nascar banner and they definitely know how to put on a show." A show that Legge's commitment has ensured she enjoys from on stage. "I have always said: 'Put me in a car, test me, then you'll see what I can do,'" she says. "That's the story of my career. I believe that if you want something enough, you'll find a way to make it happen. Nothing has ever been handed to me on a plate."
A story of endurance, then, truly worthy of the twice-round-the-clock roar of Daytona and one that shows no sign of coming off the throttle. "I was super-competitive growing up," she admits. "One of those kids who got grumpy if they didn't win – I always was an adrenaline junkie."
The Rolex 24 at Daytona is live on MotorsTV, Saturday 25 January.