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IndyCar Indianapolis 500

Katherine Legge is back with a vengeance at the Indy 500

The fastest female driver in Indy 500 history discusses everything it's taken—nerves, guts, and one hell of a Bump Day run—to make it back into the big race this year.

Levitt 500 May 16

Katherine Legge sat in her race car at Indianapolis Motor Speedway last Sunday, shaking. It was her final chance to qualify for the Indianapolis 500, and she felt like throwing up.  

“Subconsciously, you know it's now or never," Legge tells me when we talk afterward. “But you don't acknowledge it consciously. You go through every single emotion at Indy: frustration, anger, excitement, happiness, sadness. But you deny yourself that emotion. A hundred percent of it is spent on just driving the car.” 

England-born Legge, 43, is a veteran of sports car and open-wheel racing, and drove the Rolex 24 Hours at Daytona in January. But she hadn’t been in an Indy car since last year’s 500, which didn't end the way she'd hoped. She somehow wrestled a poor setup into the record books, becoming the fastest woman in the history of the Indianapolis 500 by hitting 231 mph in qualifying. That put her in 29th to start the race. But Legge had a rough exit from the pit box early on, damaging the car and ending her day after running only 41 of 200 laps. She started plotting her return right away. 

“The immediate weeks afterward, I was like: ‘I'm doing it again. We're going to make it happen,’” Legge says. “There's always some part of my ego that wants redemption. I want to show myself and the rest of the world what I'm actually capable of, and I don't think that was an accurate representation of me, my ability, and my career thus far.” 

Which brought her to this past Sunday and all that shaking. Where last year Legge made the race during regular qualifying, this year she was forced to endure the extra trial of “Bump Day”—the 500’s last-chance elimination system to determine who makes the race, settled by which drivers can run the fastest set of four laps around the 2.5-mile Indianapolis oval. Four drivers competed for three spots this year, meaning the slowest—either because of speed or a wreck—would be sent home.  

To add to the stress, Legge entered Bump Day with a car that looked like it was driving on ice.  

“Honestly, I was fine until I was in line to qualify," Legge says. "I managed the mental aspect of it pretty well up until that point, then I just had to focus on doing four clean laps. But as soon as I left the box, the car snapped loose on me. I was pedaling the thing for qualifying, and I really didn't want to have to go back out and do it again, because it was pretty loose. Then I had understeer late in the run.” 

At one point during her four laps she clipped the wall in her No. 51 Dale Coyne Racing Honda, leaving a cloud of dust and a tire mark. But she stayed on the gas, drawing a chorus of roars in the commentary booth: “Oh!” “She didn’t lift! Kept her foot in the throttle!” “Wow!” 

“I'm not sure many people could have driven that car any better than I did. I feel proud of that,” she told me afterward. “If I was watching that, I'd be like: ‘That person belongs. Respect. That looked evil, and they got through it.’” 

Legge says there’s no other sport or racing event that causes the same level of stress as Indy 500 qualifying, due to how many rounds competitors have to go through. “I was all over the place in terms of the highs and lows of qualifying, but if you let any emotion creep in, then you wouldn't be thinking clearly,” she says. And any driver’s goal, she explained, is to have moments of complete mental silence on track. 

"The more calm and silent and at peace you are, the better it is,” Legge says. “But inevitably, there was noise because of the car snapping on me. When that happens, it would be super easy just to lose your mind, but you can't let yourself do that. You've got to stay present. But on some level, you just want it to be over." 

And when Bump Day was over, to her relief, Legge had made the cut, taking the 31st slot (out of 33) on the grid. She has a lot of work to do still before the race. “I have a lot of faith in my team to get a decent race setup with more downforce,” Legge says. “We will have to be less on edge, because we're not trying to get in the show anymore—we're trying to make the car work in traffic starting at the back.” 

Katherine Legge signing autographs during Indy 500 qualifying weekend

Katherine Legge signing autographs during Indy 500 qualifying weekend

Just making it here is a triumph for Legge, as much the result of having a car and a sponsor—e.l.f. Cosmetics—that understood the mission at stake as her having the guts to keep her foot in it on Bump Day. She says the sponsor pairing has been “incredibly well received,” because women and girls watching her Indy 500 attempt “feel like they're represented, and they feel like they have somebody to cheer for.”  

“I don't know whether it's just I've got a pink car, or it's a product that they can all relate to, or what it is,” Legge says. “But it has been the coolest to see all these young girls get inspired by it. And now the guys are getting behind it, too. I can't tell you the amount of guys who have come up to me and been like: ‘I had to buy all this e.l.f. product because of you.'” 

All that’s left, now, is the race. Legge's goal for Sunday is to do what she couldn’t last year. 

“No mistakes. Have a clean race. Finish, and go from there.” 

 

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