INDIANAPOLIS – Katherine Legge didn’t know she’d have a shot at the Indianapolis 500 until it was time to qualify, when Schmidt Peterson Motorsports decided to put her in its second car at the last second.
Pippa Mann chatted with tire makers, dropped in on the folks from the television networks and even tried to get cozy with engine maker Honda in the hopes of landing a ride.
Both of them have overcome long odds to join Ana Beatriz and Simona de Silvestro in Sunday’s 33-car field, matching the record of four women starters. But in their minds, just starting the race no longer is a story: The next big story will be when a woman finally wins.
“Until somebody is competitive on a regular basis, and winning races, and then probably more than one, it’s still going to be a bit of a novelty,” Legge said Thursday. “And it stinks in a way, because there’s no reason for it.”
Especially given the history of women at the Brickyard.
Janet Guthrie was a pioneer when she qualified for the first time in 1977, eventually making three starts at Indianapolis. She finished ninth in 1978 and even put to rest much of the remaining machismo when she revealed that she had driven with a broken wrist.
Lyn St. James and Sarah Fisher still were considered unique when they started in the “Greatest Spectacle in Racing,” but it wasn’t until Danica Patrick’s arrival in the mid-2000s that more barriers began to fall. She qualified fourth in 2005, eventually led 29 laps during her open-wheel career and finished third in 2009 after challenging for the win.
“Danica’s done a great job, and Danica’s made a lot of money in the way she’s marketed herself, so nobody can blame her for that,” Legge said. “She brings attention to it, for sure, which is a positive thing, but we’re all individual people trying to do it our own way.”
And now that Patrick is running fulltime in the Sprint Cup series – she’ll start Sunday night’s NASCAR race in Charlotte – the focus has turned to who will take over for her.
Legge may be the longest shot in the field.
After losing her ride with Dragon Racing, she arrived at Indianapolis just to say hello to her old pal A.J. Allmendinger, who had hooked up with Penske Racing. But when she got wind of a seat in a second car for Schmidt Peterson Motorsports – with no sponsorship money in sight, mind you – Legge managed to get onto the track just in time for qualifying.
She’s run about 20 total laps, but her perseverance was rewarded: Not only did she qualify, but Angie’s List has come aboard as a sponsor for Sunday’s race.
“My whole career, I’ve never had the money or the backing on a regular basis to make it easier or to make continuity or anything like that, so I had to keep fighting,” she said. “My whole career, I’ve been fighting. I keep fighting for every opportunity to prove what I’m capable of.”
Mann understands what it means to fight for a ride.
She only joined up with Dale Coyne Racing a week before qualifying and only after pestering just about everyone she could think of to give her a shot. Just like Legge, the gritty determination to get back in the driver’s seat finally paid off, and she’ll start 30th Sunday.
“All the female drivers are here, myself included, because we’re race winners in various feeder series,” said Mann, who was on the pole at Indianapolis when she was running Indy Lights.
“We’re here because we’re race winners, and that’s the most important thing,” Mann said.
Beatriz, the first woman to win in Indy Lights, also happens to be Mann’s teammate – the first time there’s been two women on the same team. She’ll be making her fourth Indy 500 start.
Then there’s de Silvestro, who has perhaps the best chance of running near the front. The Swiss driver is ninth in points heading to Indianapolis and will be trying for her third consecutive top-10 finish during the best start of her career. But she’ll have to do it from the 24th spot on the grid in the No. 78 car fielded by KV Racing Technology.
“I have a sponsor behind me, and we’ve been working together for several years, so there’s an advantage maybe,” de Silvestro said. “You should have a deal together. That’s how racing works.”
Not always, of course.
Not for Legge and Mann and many other women drivers.
“If you look at Katherine’s deal, it came together like it did, those are really difficult circumstances,” de Silvestro said. “I’m happy she qualified, but I don’t think it should be like that.”
But until another woman wins an IndyCar race, like Patrick did in Japan, or the first woman takes the checkered flag at Indianapolis, de Silvestro knows finding rides will remain a problem.
“It’s hard to say because we’re only four still out there out of 33, and it’s still a way smaller number than the guys, but we’ve shown we can be competitive here,” she said. “I don’t know if it’s a novelty anymore. But now, I think the key is to be competitive.”