Katherine Legge shifting gears with Bobby Rahal's Formula E ride
Katherine Legge's racing career has been a bowl of alphabet soup. Lift a spoonful of letters, and you can make an acronym for a series or class in which she has raced.
All that experience has led to some interesting opportunities, including the friendly Brit's latest move, which unites her with equally affable American motorsports icon Bobby Rahal on the cutting edge of automotive technology.
Legge, 38, will drive a Jaguar I-PACE for Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing in the world's first production-based electric vehicle series starting later this year.
Once considered a potential future star in IndyCar, Legge has shifted -- though not necessarily permanently -- to sports car racing. She drove the bizarre-looking DeltaWing prototype for Dr. Don Panoz in IMSA from 2014 to '16, and when that experiment faded out, she landed nicely with Meyer Shank Racing, driving an Acura NSX in IMSA's GT-Daytona class. She insists that she is happy in sports cars and, well, she should be because she is doing well.
Over two seasons in the GTD class, Legge has scored three class wins and five runner-up finishes, and she's currently third in the point standings with a legitimate shot at the season title.
"I was very focused on open wheel [racing] until I got the opportunity to drive the DeltaWing,'' Legge said. "That opened my eyes to the sports car paddock, and that's been where my opportunities have come from lately. I've found a home, and I'm supported by really cool people."
Legge lives in Atlanta, home of the busiest airport in the world. That's a good thing, because her job in the I-PACE eTROPHY series, which starts in December and wraps up in July 2019 with a doubleheader in New York, will take her to 12 cities on five continents for 13 races. The series supports the ABB FIA Formula E Championship -- the Formula 1 of zero-emission electric cars -- and it's the first series based off a street-legal battery electric vehicle. Drivers will compete in up to 20 Jaguar I-PACE vehicles, putting the emphasis on ability and strategy over car superiority.
"The road version of this car is awesome, so this seems like a natural way for Jaguar to [market] the car," Legge said. "Electric is the future of automobiles. I'm not saying it's going to replace [conventional gas] engines, but it's another alternative. I think manufacturers are viewing it as a viable option."
Rahal, a three-time Champ Car champion and the 1986 Indy 500 winner, first noticed Legge when everyone else did: when she came from England in 2005 and won three races in the old Toyota Atlantic feeder series to Champ Car. Although she was rarely competitive after moving up to Champ Car and IndyCar, it was easy to see that she was in modest equipment at best. She showed flashes and determinations, and Rahal liked the way she handled herself.
Ultimately, it was Legge's versatility and her natural connection to the famed British Jaguar brand that convinced Rahal that the I-PACE partnership made sense.
"I think the experience part is very important, obviously, because the way the series is set up, you don't get much of a chance to work with the car," Rahal said. "I'm a big believer that the more you drive, the better you become, and the more different cars you drive, the better you are. When you added everything up, I felt she would be a good choice for the program."
Legge already is featured prominently on the Rahal Letterman Lanigan website. She has positioned herself with a team that fields two cars in IndyCar and two BMWs in the IMSA GT Le Mans class, and she knows that with Rahal, there's no telling what the future might hold.
"There are people whose names I grew up idolizing, and Bobby is one of them," she said. "He'll go down in history as a legend, and not many people can say that. So I got to know him and drove with [his son] Graham [Rahal] in the Daytona 24 last year, and ever since Champ Car merged with IndyCar in 2008, I've been saying to Bobby, 'Hey, I'm here if you need a driver.'"
There's no question that IndyCar could use a female driver. Only a few years ago, it appeared that female drivers would be a permanent staple on at least the IndyCar grid, if not both IndyCar and NASCAR. But with Danica Patrick's retirement this year, no women are competing at the top level of NASCAR or the top three levels of IndyCar.
Rahal was Patrick's car owner for her first two years in IndyCar and expounds on the impact that she and other female drivers such as Lyn St. James, Janet Guthrie and Desire Wilson had in the top forms of motorsports. He cites a number of potential factors as to why there's a dearth of women at the top levels now.
Sponsors and media aren't as drawn to the uniqueness of a female competing anymore -- unless she can win. Young, female drivers are dispersed through various forms of racing, including the grassroots of stock car racing and countless forms of sports car racing. There haven't been many opportunities with major teams in IndyCar, due to the intense competition for funding and the career longevity of some top male drivers.
Legge agrees and adds another theory. She said she believes female drivers currently seeking opportunities have been hurt by the fact that no woman has broken through to become a consistent front-runner in IndyCar or NASCAR.
"There are a few of us that have done OK," she said. "Danica was a good driver. [Britain's] Susie Wolff was a good driver. They're retired now. There are also a few that aren't [competitive], and that has an effect, I believe. Don't get me wrong: I'm glad they were doing it, but I think as far as onlookers going, 'Oh, the girl is driving slow,' it just reinforces the opinion [that women can't be competitive] rather than changes opinions."
Legge said she hopes to return to IMSA next year but isn't signed for 2019. She remains intrigued by NASCAR and envisions breaking in some day with a one-off road course race. She raced in the Indianapolis 500 in 2012 and 2013 and yearns to return. That was supposed to happen in 2016, when she was selected as the driver for the "all-female" Grace Autosport team that planned to enter the 100th Indy, but the team's funding never came about.
What's certain is that Legge's showing in IMSA has turned some heads and led to an intriguing opportunity.
"Everybody says, 'Oh, you're doing so well at the moment, and you've really come a long way,'" Legge said. "And I'm like, 'No, I'm the same driver.' I'm just in awesome equipment that Michael Shank has given me. It's not that I'm different. I'm just being given the opportunity to go out and showcase it. That was a key part of my decision to drive for Bobby as well. I know he will give me that opportunity, and I don't want to drive just anything anymore. I want to be given the opportunity to be competitive. And then if I'm not, that's on me."