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IndyCar Series’ Katherine Legge leads team of six female racers to track
There's no good reason women can't be competitive with men on the race track. And while Danica Patrick arguably is the most famous female racer in the world, she by no means is the only one.
The green flag will fly on the 2012 IZOD IndyCar season on Sunday, March 25, at the Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg and driver Katherine Legge (pronounced "leg") is so excited, she can hardly stand it.
"Holy crap!" is what she said to me in a phone interview Thursday when I asked her what she'll be thinking as she's coming to the green.
Legge, 31, is one of six female race car drivers in six different series who will be climbing into cars in 2012. Truecar.com is behind the team, part of an initiative the sponsor calls "Women Empowered."
She will be paired with four-time Champ Car Series champion and race-win record holder Sebastien Bourdais in the IZOD IndyCar Series, where both will drive Lotus-powered Dallaras for Dragon Racing, owned by Jay Penske, media mogul and son of the legendary Roger Penske.
The other five drivers—Shea Holbrook, Ashley Freiberg, Shannon McIntosh, Verena Mei and Emilee Tominovich—will complete in the Pirelli World Challenge, Star Mazda, USF2000, Rally America and Mazda MX5 Cup series, respectively.
TrueCar.com – an online car pricing and buying resource for consumers and dealers – developed the "Women Empowered" initiative to help talented young women succeed at the highest levels of auto racing.
"These women are here to show that the racetrack is no longer largely the domain of men; it is now open to be challenged, and challenge they will," said TrueCar director of motorsports Charles Kim, who added that the team is trying to "change the face of motorsports."
In the Beginning
All six women began racing at different stages in life, and for completely different reasons. With Legge and Freiberg it was simply an early love of the thrill of go-karts that got them hooked.
"We were on holiday in Spain and tried 'fun-karts' as a family," Legge said. "I just loved it. When we got home, I started racing at the local go-kart track."
"My family took us to go-kart school in California when I was 13," Freiberg said. "The second I was in that car, I knew I never wanted to get out."
Holbrook and Tominovich were highly competitive athletes in other areas (water skiing and soccer, respectively) and happened to try racing cars just for fun when they were teens.
"It was a rush I'd never felt before," Tominovich said.
"And I was a natural at driving," Holbrook said.
Mei developed her need for speed after attending stunt school in her 20s, and McIntosh got hooked after watching a race when she was just four years old. She was racing quarter midgets, and winning often, by the time she was five.
"I actually got two trophies at my first race," McIntosh said. "One for just competing, and one for winning."
The Focus on Legge
Legge will probably draw the most amount of attention over the next few months.
In 2005, while driving in the Toyota Atlantic Series at Long Beach, she became the first woman to win an open-wheel race in North America. She went on to win three races in that series. And before Champ Car came under the IndyCar sanction in 2008, she posted six top-10s in that series. For the next three seasons she competed in the DTM Series (which isn't open-wheel) in Europe and she says she didn't think a lot about IndyCar during that time—at least not right away.
"When IndyCar and Champ Car merged back in 2008, I didn't really know where the sport was headed and I got the opportunity to be an Audi work driver, so I thought [about] job security," Legge told me. "I still had aspirations—I thought I could do something over in Europe, maybe Formula One or something else. But I didn't know where I was headed.
"To have the opportunity to be a factory driver, I thought I was going to go that route. I didn't realize I missed open-wheel racing over here as much as I did. I missed the States, I missed the racing, and I was looking at IndyCar then from the third year onward, thinking, 'How am I'm going to get back there?'"
Keeping the Faith
In January 2011, Legge moved back to America to seek a ride, but nothing materialized right away, so she sat out the entire 2011 season.
"I had every faith in my abilities and the people around me to get the deal done," Legge said. "I thought it would happen sooner than it did. To be honest, I thought I would probably be doing Indy last year and Vegas and a couple of other races, but all in all, I think everything happens for a reason.
"I think that year that I wasn't racing probably made me into a better driver—definitely a more mature driver."
|Photo courtesy of TrueCar/Thomas Wirthensohn|
The Right Opportunity
In Legge's mind, it was important to secure a competitive ride for more than one reason. Beyond the obvious desire to be in competitive equipment that every driver has, she wanted to make sure her opportunity wasn't just a gimmick. Her chance to drive for Dragon Racing and Jay Penske seemed to be just what the doctor ordered, even if she has only been able to appreciate the equipment for one day so far due to engine supply issues.
"We're not there yet," she told me. "We are getting there. Jay has put together a fantastic team of people. We have some of the best engineers, the best people, the best crew chiefs—you name it, we have it. He spent a ton of money getting the right equipment and everything, so we will get there."
She says she'll be focusing on simply learning and finishing races to begin with and then, as they build team chemistry and as she gets more seat time, she'll begin looking for improvement throughout the season.
As the season progresses, Legge says the six women included in the TrueCar initiative will stay in touch and spur one another on.
"We email, text and speak to each other on a regular basis and we're all doing events and stuff together so I'm hoping to provide as much help and support as I can."
It is important she says, for them to stay connected so they can focus on their goals as a group.
"If we can all help each other move forward, that's when we'll become successful," Legge said. "That's when the whole project works. I think we're all focusing on our own goals, but also the goals as a group. TrueCar is doing a lot to help us. It's a business, obviously, and they need to see that we're providing results for them.
"We have to be competitive. I'm not saying it's going to happen overnight, because a lot of the girls don't have the experience and we don't have the time in the car at the moment, but I think it will happen. And I think then people will think of [female race car drivers] more as the norm."
Really, for these women, being females in a male-dominated sport really isn’t that big of a deal. They’re just doing what they love to do.
“When I get behind the wheel, I’m a driver first, and a female second,” Freiberg said. “The car doesn’t know if you’re a chick. You just have to know how to drive.”
“This is the one sport where men and women are on an even playing field,” she said.
The Next Step
As female drivers become the norm, Legge wants women to begin thinking about getting involved in other facets of the sport, if they are interested.
"What we'd like is to get women involved in every aspect of racing, not just driving," she said. "Like engineering and mechanics and car design. I don't think many women even know that these are possible career choices."
Guthrie, St. James and Fisher
As Legge looks forward to more women getting involved in the sport in a variety of ways, she does so knowing that other female drivers have helped to pave the way for her—even though she wasn't always completely aware of everything they were doing at the time.
"Before I went back to Europe, I was on the same kind of career path as Danica [Patrick], so she never really influenced me per se," said Legge, who is older than Patrick. "I think she's done a great job in lots of different areas in her career. People like Lyn St. James, Janet Guthrie and Sarah Fisher opened doors and brought awareness, but I grew up in England, so I didn't have any of those people as role models. Although I saw them from afar, I wasn't close enough to be influenced by them."
Legge and the other five TrueCar female drivers will now attempt to carve out their own places in racing, knowing that some fans will watch them with a critical eye. Legge hasn't been in an open-wheel car in four years, and, as she pointed out, the other five drivers need more experience. But once the green flag falls for each of them, they will just become race car drivers who are working to improve. And that's all they really want.
Lee Warren has interviewed a number of drivers over the years, including Trevor Bayne, Bobby Labonte, Sam Hornish Jr., Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Morgan Shepherd, David Reutimann, Brad Coleman and others. He is currently working on a NASCAR devotional book for Lighthouse Publishing of the Carolinas, due out in the winter of 2012.
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