Female Drivers Changed The Fortunes Of One Racing Company
Pippa Mann grew up trying to fit into a world that wasn't made with her in mind. The racing karts she first revved up at age 12 were considered boys' toys, and the garages, pits and tracks she frequented as a teen in Britain and Italy had been informal fraternities for generations. In 2009, the 26-year-old Mann crossed over to the U.S. to race Indy Lights, a feeder series to IndyCar, whose most coveted prize -- the Borg-Warner Trophy, given to the winner of the Indianapolis 500 -- is topped by a sterling silver sculpture of a naked man.
And through it all, as Mann strapped on her helmet and climbed behind the wheel, she, like almost all female drivers, was wearing an off-the-rack racing suit that was designed for a man. "I'm a slightly different body shape than most of the other drivers," she quips. "As a female driver, I have struggled to find suits that fit me throughout my career. Most of the time, I just wore bigger suits."
Even in the cramped cockpit of an open-wheel race car, Mann learned to steer and shift in the extra padding, and throughout her amateur days and early professional career, a slightly baggy look was a small sacrifice for the safety of a flame-retardant uniform. But in Indy, a league in which companies invest tens of thousands of dollars to put their names on cars and suits, appearances were at a premium. So before her first year in Indy Lights, her team sent her measurements to a company for a custom-made firesuit, which didn't fit at all. "It was tight in all the wrong places," she says. "I wasn't comfortable driving in it."
They tried again with the same company, this time sending Mann in for a personal fitting -- a man wielding the tape measure -- and the result was even worse. "It was back to off-the-rack," she says.
Four years is not a short time to be with a company in the racing business. That speaks to a real relationship.Pippa Mann, on the loyalty she feels to Hinchman for its custom firesuits.
Two years later, having graduated to IndyCar, Mann and her team, Conquest Racing, were scurrying for sponsorships to back the driver's first ride in the Indy 500. Even though everything was being thrown together in the weeks leading up to the Memorial Day weekend event -- as is typical for smaller teams -- Conquest didn't want Mann's first step onto the sport's grandest stage to appear haphazard, for both her sake and that of the sponsors. Rather than patching the logos slapdash onto her uniform, Conquest sent the suit to Hinchman Racing Uniforms, a small local shop that had been doing Conquest's embroidering. When Mann came in to try on the suit, Hinchman's owner, Nancy Sullivan Chumbley, noticed that the garment hung awkwardly from Mann's broad shoulders down her athletic 5-foot-5 frame, and offered to tailor it for her.
Hinchman is an old name in Indianapolis racing wear, dating back to the 1920s -- so old that, by 2011, it had been practically forgotten. Mann had certainly never heard of the company. It was days away from the biggest race of her life, and given her previous experience with tailor-made suits, she was plenty skeptical. But, as a woman, Chumbley seemed to understand the issues that Mann was bemoaning. Chumbley was willing to work with her, talked things out rather than just relied on the rigid inches of a tape measure, and seemed motivated to find something that fit and looked good, something they both could be proud of. Mann agreed to let Hinchman make the suit.
Days later, despite starting second-to-last in the 33-car field and having mechanical problems with her onboard hydration system during the race, Mann crossed the Brickyard finish line in 20th place, third among Indy rookies. Back in the pits, she climbed out of the cockpit wearing a form-fitting, lightweight, black-and-white firesuit with her name stitched into the belt and the double-checkered-flag logo of Hinchman on the collar. "It was the best suit I'd ever had," Mann says.
Hinchman Racing Uniforms occupies about half of a long metal warehouse in a small industrial complex, just 2.5 miles from the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. The entryway is a small museum -- dusty glass showcases filled with sun-bleached photographs of grimy men, race car drivers in vintage jumpsuits standing by long-outdated machines. Some of the same styles of coveralls dangle from racks, filthy with asphalt, track dirt and time. On the walls hang huge banners crowded with signatures of customers -- the black marker of "Foyt" and "Andretti" fading alongside names that have long since vanished from public memory.
While the company's six employees, all female, toil over the rat-a-tat of sewing machinery in the back-room workshop, Chumbley sits in a windowless office, desk covered by waves of bills, invoices, orders -- a sea of paperwork that she navigates with a knack developed over a lifetime.
When Chumbley first came to work for Hinchman in 1979, it was as a secretary. She knew nothing of sewing; had never been to a race. Only once she had started did she learn that Hinchman practically invented the racing suit.
Founded by J.B. Hinchman, the company started out making industrial garments for all sorts of local businesses, but it was a pair of cotton coveralls worn by 1925 Indy 500 winner Peter DePaolo that ignited one of the first lines of race wear. Back then, most racers wore street clothes that collected dirt and grime during laps in the open cockpit -- the coveralls were just a means to keep DePaolo's Sunday best clean. Soon teams began dipping the Hinchman suits in flame-retardant chemicals to protect their pilots in case of mishap.
And by the time Chumbley set up her desk in the late 1970s, the company, now run by J.B.'s son, Lew Hinchman, was devoted full-time to racing and was putting together cutting-edge firesuits for more than 40,000 racers from around the world, including NASCAR's Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt, Formula One's Jim Clark and Jackie Stewart, and IndyCar's Mario Andretti and A.J. Foyt. Hinchman also made the uniforms worn by Steve McQueen and his cast mates in the 1971 racing film "Le Mans."
Unlike his father, who frequented racetrack garages pushing product on mechanics, Lew Hinchman didn't really believe in networking at the track, or advertising or attending trade shows. He was also reluctant to change, sticking with the same style of suit for decades. As bookkeeper, Chumbley witnessed first-hand the business's stagnation and gradual decline when Lew fell ill with prostate cancer in the late 1990s. The number of clients dwindled. Competitors lapped the company in couture and technology. With his own sons disinterested in taking over, Lew had long joked that he was "grooming all of this for you, Nancy." Chumbley was not amused. "A lot of people were interested in buying the business," says Chumbley. "I was not one of them."
Even though Chumbley knew all too well the decrepit spreadsheets propping up Hinchman, even though she still had no idea about textiles or the racing business, no seed money to invest, and even though, at age 41, she was ready to focus on raising two young daughters, she acquiesced to her boss's dying wish to keep things "in the family." Literally on his deathbed in 1998, Lew signed the company over to Chumbley and a co-worker who had handled manufacturing. Within a year, the co-worker died of kidney cancer.
Chumbley was now sole owner of a sputtering business that she neither knew, nor wanted.
For almost a decade, Chumbley struggled to keep Hinchman running while she tended to her family. In 2008, with her youngest daughter now off to college, Chumbley popped the hood and looked down to assess her idling company. "It was time to put on my big girl pants and decide whether to do this or not," she says.
She started by taking a note from the original owner, J.B. Hinchman, and going to the local tracks and garages on Saturday nights -- karts, midgets and sprints, largely in the World of Outlaws series. She had no formal marketing background, but was a "natural hugger" who'd go from pit to pit, introducing herself and her family-owned company and asking that if the drivers or crews ever had an issue with their suits (now mostly shipped from Europe in standard S, M, L and XL sizes), to call the number on her card. Two or three did. Then they'd rave to their friends.
She launched a company Facebook page and started posting photos of winners wearing Hinchman's double-checkered-flag logo on the sleeve or collar of their custom-fitted and embroidered suits. Within months, she says she was outfitting a third of the drivers at the track -- and, she says, "half of the guys who actually made the race." As other drivers brought in suits for alterations, Chumbley was able to strip her competition's work down to the stitches and glean ideas on styles and technique.
Still, Chumbley's clientele was mostly minor league and almost exclusively male. Both of those things changed in 2010, when word of mouth about Hinchman reached Dale Coyne Racing, a small mom-and-pop IndyCar team. One of Coyne's drivers, Milka Duno, who was known more for her Sofia Vergara looks than her skills behind the wheel, was unhappy with a suit that did not accommodate her shape. Chumbley stepped in and measured Duno, then decided to move the waistband down to the top of her hips and taper up to outline Duno's figure.
After Duno tried on her new suit, Chumbley noticed a smile stretch across the driver's face -- as if Duno was a wayward traveler who had finally found a friend in a strange land.
Chumbley saw the same smile on Pippa Mann's face two years later, and she has seen it annually ever since. Since their meeting in 2011, Mann has changed teams three times, but has stuck with her tailor. "Four years is not a short time to be with a company in the racing business," says Mann. "That speaks to a real relationship."
It also speaks to a quality product. Last year, Chumbley presented Mann with a sleek, state-of-the-art suit in the bright pink and white of her sponsor, the Susan G. Komen nonprofit for breast cancer awareness. Mann says the suit was breathable, the lightest she's ever worn. The logos were printed directly on the material, eliminating weight and thread on the inside that can rub skin raw. And Chumbley has also started to incorporate a curvature in the arms, rather than the straight sleeves of a standard suit. "You don't drive with your arms straight," says Mann.
Racing is still a sport dominated by men. (The Sports Car Club of America, the largest sanctioning body for car racing, recently estimated that 25 percent of its 61,000 members are female.) But Chumbley is rebuilding Hinchman on a foundation of female aesthetic. Her male clients also appreciate the personal touch, attention to detail, and quality and style just as drivers like Mann and Duno do. She has also drawn on the company's history by introducing a line of vintage replica racing suits -- like the Jim Clark model she made for Dario Franchitti -- that is quite popular, and she's looking to expand soon into the European market.
But when Chumbley is manning her booth at trade shows all over the U.S. and a girl comes up to be measured, or when she's in the shop and a young woman tries on her new suit, the secretary turned tailor still sees that expression, the same smile flashed by Duno and Mann, the flash of friendly recognition of someone who also has had to fit into something that wasn't designed for her.