Surprise season has Katherine Legge in championship hunt
Katherine Legge didn't have a full season scheduled in IMSA's Weathertech SportsCar Championship GTD Class when 2018 began. Instead, she was taking the season one race at a time. The result? She's in contention for the series title heading into the finale Saturday at Road Atlanta.
Legge trails Lamborghini drivers Bryan Sellers and Madison Snow by a mere six points entering this weekend's 10-hour Petit Le Mans at the 2.54-mile Georgia road course. She is in sole possession of second because her regular co-driver, Alvaro Parente, missed the Detroit Grand Prix because of a prior commitment. In that event, Legge and Mario Farnbacher drove to a class victory. She and Parente claimed the team's second win this season at Laguna Seca in early September, putting Legge in title contention.
If Legge wins the GTD class championship, it will be the third consecutive year that a woman has claimed the title. Porsche driver Christina Nielsen earned her first GTD class championship in 2016, making her the first woman to win a major North American sports car championship. That same year, Nielsen became the first Danish woman to compete in France's 24 Hours of Le Mans. She successfully defended her GTD title last year. This year, Nielsen enters the Road Atlanta event tied for sixth in the standings.
Legge said she believes it's strictly "coincidence" that women have enjoyed success in IMSA's GTD class.
"I think [it's] the fact that we're both running it," Legge said. "You have to have women in a series for them to do well. For instance, there are no women in Prototype or GTLM [classes]. There's only the two of us in GTD. In 10 years' time, it will be a different series that more women are doing well in."
The 26-year-old Nielsen drove GT cars in Europe. When she moved her career to the United States, "it seemed like a natural transition to go into cars that I was familiar with." It also was the series in which she had connections.
Nielsen and Legge are quick to note that they are "first and foremost" drivers. But Nielsen admitted that to win a driving championship as a woman "feels empowering, and it feels good."
"The misconception is that a lot of people think it's a man's world," said Nielsen, a part of Team Denmark, the country's official organization that supports its top athletes. "It's not a man's world. It's just a world dominated by men. It's real nice for us to showcase that we are there, we can compete, and we can compete as good as the men. But in the end, you win a championship as a driver."
Co-driving with Legge on Saturday will be Parente and Trent Hindman. The three drove their Acura NSX GT3 to a second-place finish in their class in the season-opening 24-hour race at Daytona.
"At the beginning of the year, we did a deal to do the long races: Daytona (24 hours), Sebring (12), Watkins Glen (6) and Road Atlanta (10)," Legge said. "We did so well at Daytona and Sebring that we were doing a race-by-race kind of deal."
Next came a second at Mid-Ohio in May, a victory at Detroit in June and a second at Watkins Glen in late June/early July for the Acura team.
"It was race-by-race every time until a couple of races ago, and then it was, 'OK, we're going to finish the season. We have to finish the season,'" Legge said.
The 38-year-old Britain, who resides in Atlanta, admitted that the Michael Shank Racing team checked the points after every race, and that was instrumental in the decision to continue in the shorter races. It's a decision that has placed Legge in a position she has never experienced.
"I know that it's not entirely in my hands," Legge said. "If I win and ... the Lamborghini finishes second, then we still don't win the championship. That's a lot of stress going into the last race, knowing that it's not under your control. I'm trying to be level-headed about it."
Legge's busy schedule hasn't allowed her to dwell on the season finale. Since the Laguna Seca event in Salinas, California, she has competed in two NASCAR Xfinity Series races and been involved with Jaguar's Formula E (electric car) program.
Legge won't know when she'll drive in the Road Atlanta event until the team conducts its strategy meeting and analyzes the weather, each driver's practice times and the car's performance. Last year, she and Parente each drove two double stints and Hindman one double stint to complete the 10 hours. Legge said she doesn't know which stint she would prefer to drive.
"I think it's actually worse being on the pit stand than it is being in the car," Legge said. "I would almost rather have an element of control and be in the car. At the end of Laguna, for example, we were leading, then we did a pit stop, and we weren't leading anymore. I sat there, literally biting my nails."
This season has had a "huge" effect on Legge's career because "I spent a lot of years driving cars that weren't competitive." There have been those who told her she really came "into your own this year."
"I'm still the same driver that I was, but Mike has given us a really good car, and I've got a shot in some of the best equipment," Legge said.
Still, Legge knows that the championship comes down to which team executes best in Saturday's race.
"Whoever is smartest is the one who is going to win the championship," she said. "We've worked hard on being smart. We've not worked on outright speed, but things that are going to mean over the course of a race we get to drive an easier race car, which means we make less mistakes, which means we'll finish higher up.
"It's so easy to get sucked into 'I want to go faster. I want to be P1 on the board.' It's more difficult to 'OK, let's run on these old tires and figure out [what we need].' That takes a lot of discipline, and racing drivers are not necessarily known for that."
Deb Williams is a North Carolina-based writer and former editor. She has covered auto racing for United Press International, USA Today and The Charlotte Observer. She has more than 30 years of experience covering motorsports and was the 1990, 1996 NMPA Writer of the Year.