Henry Payne: Detroit powers all-female Indy 500 race team

·5 min read

Apr. 6—For the first time the Indianapolis 500 will feature a woman-driven, woman-owned race entry. And it will get a lot of horsepower from Metro Detroit.

Veteran Swiss ace Simona De Silvestro will pilot the Rocket Pro TPO-sponsored, #16, Chevy-powered Paretta Autosport IndyCar owned by Beth Paretta, a Detroit-based businesswoman with NASCAR and IMSA racing experience. The team will get technical help from Bloomfield Hills-based Penske Racing as it goes for glory at the iconic Memorial Day-weekend race.

"The cool thing about racing at a pro level is you can actually have men and women competing on the same team, competing against each other. It's genuinely co-ed," said Paretta in an interview. "And racing's more more than just a driver; there are so many other roles on a team that people can aspire to be part of."

The announcement comes as motorsport seeks to accelerate access for women and minority drivers. Female racers lost their most prominent ambassador, Danica Patrick, to retirement in 2018. Patrick is the only woman to have ever won an IndyCar race or qualified for a NASCAR pole. Paretta Autosport is a byproduct of the IndyCar series' Race for Equality and Change initiative begun last year to broaden racing opportunities.

"There's been a lull" after Patrick's retirement, said Paretta. "There are great women with talent, but they need sponsorship money. If our team gets a few more people to watch racing that might not otherwise have watched, that helps the sport in its entirety. If we get viewership up because we're telling the racing story a little differently, then that helps (all teams and drivers) in paddock by finding sponsors that see value in it."

Beyond IndyCar, Katherine Legge and Christina Nielsen have been signed as an all-female team at the helm of a Porsche 911 in IMSA's GTD class. And rules for off-road Extreme E electric-vehicle racing series require one male and one female driver — sharing driver and co-driver duties — "to promote gender equality and a level playing field."

Paretta Autosport's principals bring a wealth of experience to the track.

Currently a factory driver for Porsche in Europe, De Silvestro, 32, has raced in everything from sports cars to Formula One. Her IndyCar career dates to 2010, when she was Rookie of the Year at the Indy 500, finishing 14th. In 2011, she survived a horrific crash to quality for the 500 — a race in which she's competed five times. She finished second in the 2013 Grand Prix of Houston, becoming only the third female IndyCar podium finisher after Patrick and Sarah Fisher.

"She's a very good race driver," said veteran Autoweek racing writer Stephen Cole Smith. "And she's one of the top three female drivers in the world along with Katherine Legge and Pippa Mann."

Team owner Paretta climbed the corporate automobile ladder to become the industry's first female director of a performance brand and motorsport as operations chief for Fiat Chrysler's SRT division. Under her watch, Team Penske took Dodge to the NASCAR championship in 2012, the last year the brand raced the stock car series' high-banked ovals.

"Having the technical alliance with Penske is really a wonderful opportunity," said Paretta. "We spent a lot of NASCAR race weekends sitting on timing stand together. I've worked with him in so many different capacities."

She and Penske will team up again at Indy's legendary Brickyard. De Silvestro will get her first laps in the Chevy-powered car Thursday and Friday as IndyCar race teams head out on Indy's banking for an open test.

Team Penske, which will field four drivers under its own racing banner in the quest for its 19th Indy 500 win, will provide crucial technical experience to Paretta's team.

Since 2015, Paretta has run Grace Autosport, an organization with an eye on promoting STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) education for women through racing.

An Indy 500 entry doesn't come cheap. Paying the bills as chief sponsor will be Rocket Pro TPO, a division of Detroit-based Rocket Mortgage — the country's largest mortgage lender — that works with independent mortgage brokers. Online banker MoneyLion is a co-sponsor.

"Having Rocket Pro TPO come on board as our primary sponsor is a perfect partnership," said Paretta. "We are both huge proponents of highlighting the power of women, while also using technology and speed to be the best at what we do."

With their IndyCar wrapped in bright red and with livery, Paretta and Rocket hope to bring attention to the potential for women in the racing and mortgage lending industries.

In 1977, Janet Guthrie became the first woman to drive in the Indy 500. She's been followed by nine more women, with Patrick scoring the best result with a third-place finish in 2009. Patrick was the last female entry in the race, in 2018.

Paretta follows in the footsteps of racer Sarah Fisher (Indy 500 starts as a driver: nine), who formed Sarah Fisher Hartman Racing in 2011. That team since merged with Ed Carpenter Racing.

"Beth (Paretta) called me a few months ago and told me about this opportunity, and I think literally an hour later, I was on a Zoom call with Roger Penske and (Penske Corp. president) Bud Denker," driver Simona De Silvestro told Racer magazine. "For me to really come back to the Speedway with a constellation like this, with the association with Team Penske, it's really — to be honest, as a driver — a dream come true."

Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Find him at hpayne@detroitnews.com or Twitter @HenryEPayne.