If plans work out, a group called Grace Autosport will enter driver Katherine Legge and the first all-female IndyCar team in the 100th Indianapolis 500 this time next year.
"The goal of this pioneering all-female racing team," the team said in its May 15 announcement, "is not only to empower women in motorsport, but to encourage a new generation of women to pursue careers in STEM [science/technology/engineering/math]."
espnW spoke to team principal Beth Paretta this week and pressed for more specifics. Here are highlights from that conversation:
espnW: What sort of reaction have you received since your announcement last week at Indianapolis Motor Speedway?
Paretta: Reaction has been overwhelmingly positive. And it's been from men and women both. And as we said from the beginning, we can't be successful without the help of men to help support the cause of trying to get more women involved in STEM careers. So it's been great.
espnW: With many announcements like this, the group with the ambitious plan counts on publicity attracting funding and it never comes. Do you have enough pieces in place to make this happen?
Paretta: We do, which is why we were comfortable with announcing the race. ... I wanted to make sure we had a few key things in place before we made the announcement, and one of those was making sure we had a car for next year so we wouldn't be left without a drive, and also that it would be funded. We have that. I want to announce that part when the time is right. I wanted to focus on the purpose of the team and the purpose of the initiative first because I wanted to make sure the message was concise.
espnW: Have you aligned with an existing team that will supply the car?
Paretta: That's what we have right now. I do have that guaranteed. That could change between now and then, but I wanted to at least have that guaranteed to feel comfortable with making the announcement.
espnW: When you say all-female, you really mean primarily female, right?
Paretta: Team manager, strategist, we'll get there. It'll be definitely a hybrid at first because part of it is who's available. But the intention is the team owner, driver, team manager, race strategist. We already have hired a female race engineer and female data acquisition engineer. I will say I've had a flood of resumes come through, which is lovely. Is it going to be 100 percent [female] for the first year? No, we're going to work hand-in-hand with some seasoned veterans. ... We need to be competitive, but we need to get there.
espnW: How does your plan to use the race team as a vehicle to encourage more girls to pursue STEM careers correlate to financing your effort?
Paretta: Many companies are making a concerted effort to recruit women and female engineers. This is what struck me several months ago when I was kicking this about. I realized that trying to reach out to those college grads or people in college to try and get them to go into engineering, you really have to motivate them much sooner. You really have to captivate their imagination when they're in middle school or younger. ... So the notion was, if we can spark the imagination of that girl in middle school, that's the prime to do it. The thing about girls is we need an example. It's like the girls that wanted to become astronauts when they saw Sally Ride. We do really well when we see another woman doing well. ... How is that going to get funding? There are companies that are actively trying to recruit women. So for those forward thinking companies that are consciously trying to recruit women, they will absolutely see that this is a cause and effect.
espnW: You said your goal is to have a woman's face on the Borg-Warner Trophy by the end of the decade. Is that realistic?
Paretta: It could be if we have people focused on it. That is meant to be a call of action. Kind of like: It's time, who's with us? ... The women we've assembled and more women who we're hiring already work in motorsports, so it's not that there aren't women that work in motorsports. By pulling them together on the same team, we're kind of showing with a critical mass that, hey, we're already here. Let's pull together and join forces.
espnW: What can you say about your long-range plans, and do you plan to enter any races early next year in preparation for Indy?
Paretta: If we can get some more things put together, that would be ideal. Certainly to fund a full season we'd love that. Katherine is dedicated. She drives the DeltaWing in the IMSA Tudor United SportsCar series. So that of course is her priority. For her to run the Indy 500, Dr. [Don] Panoz, who owns that team, was gracious to say absolutely. He's so supportive of women's causes. ... I'd love for this team to exist in perpetuity. How great would it be in three or four years if we're running two cars and one of them is driven by a man? We want to get to the point where gender doesn't matter.
espnW: As part of this effort, will you honor any of the other women of Indy 500 history at the 100th race?
Paretta: Without their efforts before us, we couldn't be here today. Lyn St. James is an adviser, a consultant, as is Vickie O'Connor, who owned the Atlantic Championship. Katherine and I had the privilege last Saturday of attending the 500 Festival Breakfast, and we met Janet Guthrie and Alice Hanks, and Lyn St. James was there. They were so excited about this initiative, and we were so grateful to them. So will we honor them? Of course.
espnW: Why Katherine Legge, and why this far out?
Paretta: I learned from a mutual friend that Katherine is the STEM ambassador for the Girl Scouts. They were doing a lot of initiatives, and the Girl Scouts have been actively trying to expose their members to STEM careers. This idea started that what if we put together this woman's team for the 500? I got a call from somebody who knows Katherine who was kind of running the idea by me because I was a woman running a motorsport division for a major auto manufacturer (Fiat Chrysler/SRT Motorsports) and it was like, 'Hey Beth what do you think of this?' I said, 'Oh, it's a great idea.' I thought about it for a few days, called back and said: 'You know what? This is bigger than just a race. We can do a lot with this.' So because it was starting with this germ of an idea of Katherine being a STEM ambassador, we said we can do this with Katherine. We called Katherine and said, 'Hey, I know you're driving DeltaWing, but what do you think about this for the 500 with this story? It's bigger than a race.' She said absolutely.