Indy 500

The Women of Paretta Autosport


Roughly 30 laps into Sunday's 105th running of the Indianapolis 500, driver Simona De Silvestro will pull into pit lane. In the six seconds it takes to refuel her No. 16 Paretta Autosport Chevrolet, her crew will swap out four Firestones, adjust the front wing and attend to the Aeroscreen windshield on her IndyCar. Typically, teams want pits that are flawless, fast and fade into the noise of the race.

But the Paretta team expects to attract attention. Because for the first time in motorsports history, four of its seven over-the-wall pit crew members will be women. De Silvestro's two spotters will be women. Two of her engineers, including a Data Acquisition Guy, will be women. And every front office role at Paretta Autosport -- from business operations to public relations to merchandise and marketing -- is filled by a woman.

"It’s important to me that the bigger message is this isn’t women at the expense of men," says team owner Beth Paretta, whose vision to create a coed race team has been six years in the making. "I'm trying to expand the grid."

During the team's first outing at the Indy 500, Paretta hopes young girls see ponytails fly over the wall during pit stops and women engineers communicating from the timing stand. She also wants the novelty to wear off quickly: "My hope is that in five years, us being a team of mostly women is the least interesting thing about us."

De Silvestro, the 2010 Indy 500 Rookie of the Year, is not the first woman to race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. That was Janet Guthrie in 1977. Nor is Paretta (right) the first woman to own a team. In 1929, when Maude Yagle won the 500 as an owner, she had to stay in the grandstands. Women weren't allowed in the paddock for another 50 years. But De Silvestro, 32, and Paretta, 47, are the first woman driver-owner duo to run the 500.
Paretta recruited nine women to a pit crew combine in February. The six women who made the cut spent the next three months training two hours a day, four days a week, starting at 4:30 a.m. to accommodate their day jobs. "I'd arrive at 4:28 and they were already in the parking lot," says Team Penske pit crew coach Shaun Rinaman, who trained the Paretta crew. "The guys I train are great. But these ladies had a different level of commitment."
“This isn’t women at the expense of men. I’m trying to expand the grid.”
Roger Penske, the owner of the most successful team in Indy 500 history, bought the IndyCar series and Indianapolis Motor Speedway in 2019. Last year, he announced IndyCar's Race for Equality & Change initiative and is providing technical support to Paretta Autosport. "Any time you see shifts in diversity, it's because the people who were the majority opened the door," Paretta says.
Clockwise from top left: Paretta front office staff Maria Grady, Runa Amin, Barbara Burns, Linda Rosenberg, Belicia Montgomery and Heather Pirowski. "I believe in what this team is doing and the impact Beth wants this team to have," says Montgomery, who works in business operations. "We want to inspire and encourage the next generation of talent to become interested in this field through STEM programs and education."
For the past four years, Andra Buzatu (above), 23, worked as a diesel mechanic in the Coast Guard, on engines bigger than the cars she services at Paretta. "Everything is so delicate and precise that I have to remind myself to be gentle," Buzatu says. "In IndyCar, there is no whacking stuff, no improvising, no duct taping pipes." Adds performance engineer Lauren Sullivan, 33, who came to IndyCar from NASCAR by way of the aerospace industry, "It's really like working on upside down airplanes."
A fan favorite during her four seasons in IndyCar, the Swiss-born De Silvestro has been known as the Iron Maiden since qualifying for the 2015 Indy 500 with second- and third-degree burns on her hands sustained in a practice crash. She spent the past five years racing in the Australia Supercars Championship and, in 2020, landed a factory ride with Porsche. "Those are all feathers in her cap," Paretta says. "But the biggest bonus is her personality. A team is more than a driver, and that person can make or break the team."
Caitlyn Brown, 22, is a front-end mechanic and the inside front tire changer on the crew. A graduate of NASCAR Technical Institute in Mooresville, North Carolina, she spent the past two years doing fuel cell work for the NASCAR program at Penske. Unlike NASCAR, most members of IndyCar pit crews have experience as mechanics and are often called upon to use those skills during pits, which made Brown a perfect candidate for Paretta's crew.
Clockwise from top left: Pit crew members Caitlyn Brown, Sara Durant, Amanda Frayer, Andra Buzatu, Madison Conrad and Mallorie Muller. In less than three months, they have dropped their time on hot stops by nearly 15 seconds. "At first, I was nervous," Conrad says. "I knew the car would be good and Simona would be good, and we wanted to work just as hard. At our live stops [last week], we averaged less than five seconds and many people came up to us and said, 'You guys are going to embarrass some teams out here.' It's good to know we're competitive."
Before arriving at Indianapolis Motor Speedway last week, none of the women on De Silvestro's pit crew had been to an IndyCar track. Some of them had never been to a racetrack. "I want race day to be here so badly," says Amanda Frayer, 26, the outside rear tire changer. "Everyone tells me you can't picture it. You just have to experience it."
Hiring a garage full of women came with unexpected challenges. When Paretta began to outfit her crew, she found few vendors that carry pants or pit crew shoes in women's sizes. "As an outside rear tire changer, you run around the car and slide into your spot," says Mallorie Muller, 36. "The entire top of my shoes gets eaten up by concrete. Shoelaces don't last one practice." Paretta eventually tracked down shoes for the women, which arrived at Indy two days before qualifying. "That is a little thing," Paretta says. "But when you multiply that by 10 decisions a day, it becomes a big thing."
"It's a breath of fresh air working with a bunch of ladies," says Conrad, 23, (third from the left) who will go over the wall as De Silvestro's inside rear tire changer. "The camaraderie on this team is different. We are so comfortable together."
Two members of De Silvestro's pit crew, Sara Durant, 39, seen here checking tire wear after practice, and Muller, a backup tire changer and the Aeroscreen attendant during pit stops, are moms with young children at home. "Training for something again reminds me of who I am outside of the home," Muller says. "It's made me a better, happier, more present parent."
During pit stops, Chelsea Pechenino, a 21-year-old senior at Georgia Institute of Technology, serves as De Silvestro's "deadman," a behind-the-wall crew member who controls the flow of fuel into the car. A mechanical engineering major, she is also the junior DAG, or Data Acquisition Guy. "I prefer dead woman," Pechenino says. "And data acquisition gal."
“I’ve always suppressed parts of myself to be one of the guys. Here, it’s clear we have the ability and talent and I don’t feel that pressure.”
One of only three women in history to finish on the podium in IndyCar (Danica Patrick and Sarah Fisher are the others), De Silvestro is thrilled to return to the series she says made her career. "The 500 is really close to my heart," she says. "And the older you get, the more you realize how special and important this race is."
With only three months to train for Indy, the women on Paretta's pit crew were determined to drop their times. Maybe too determined. "The first couple weeks, I had to back them down," Rinaman says. "Amanda [Frayer] was bleeding from her hands and asking for more reps. I told them, 'Relax. It's going to come. Keep going like this and you won't be able to practice tomorrow.' And it did come."
At their first hot stop practices, the women were logging 15- to 18-second pits. On the Thursday before Indy 500 qualifying, their hot stops were down to sub-four seconds and competitive with every crew on pit lane. "I emailed them right away to say, 'Ladies, that was amazing,'" Rinaman says. "And they've only been training since February."
Clockwise from top left: Paretta, De Silvestro, spotters Ayla Agren and Linda Conti, and engineers Lauren Sullivan and Chelsea Pechenino. Sullivan says the biggest difference in working with women is the freedom she feels on the job. "I've always suppressed parts of myself to be one of the guys," she says. "Here, it's clear we have the ability and talent and I don't feel that pressure. We braid each other's hair and wear makeup to the track without the fear of being misunderstood."
“Any time you see shifts in diversity, it’s because the people who were the majority opened the door.”
De Silvestro's qualifying effort was more dramatic than planned. She piloted the No. 16 for the first time since April just three days before last Saturday's qualifying at IMS, where she failed to make the top 30. During Sunday's Last Chance Qualifier, she punched her ticket into her sixth Indy 500. "We're starting at the back, so we can be a bit crazier with strategy," De Silvestro says. "I have full trust in this team. We have nothing to lose."
Post-Indy, Paretta plans to line up for two more races later in the year -- likely Laguna Seca and Long Beach, hopefully with De Silvestro in the driver's seat -- before running a full season in 2022. "In five years, I would love to have a two-car effort and go into sportscar," Paretta says. "And I'd like to see more women engineers, mechanics and drivers on the grid. I'd like to see women on every IndyCar team."
Video by Erin Kirkland