“There she is!”
On the first day of open practice ahead of the 102nd Indianapolis 500, 60 pairs of eyes in the Firestone Suite were focused on the bright green No.13 car as it zipped around the track at speeds upwards of 225 miles per hour. But that was nothing compared to when Danica Patrick popped into the pagoda between laps.
Amid a sea of selfies and Snaps, Patrick took a few moments on the opening day of Indianapolis 500 practice on Tuesday to talk with approximately 60 girls from all seven IPS high schools about opportunities for women in motorsports.
She stressed to the girls the importance of pursuing their passions.
“Find something you actually frickin’ like to do,” Patrick offers up. “You can make a career out of anything.”
The students visited IMS for a “Fuel the Female” event hosted by NBCSN IndyCar pit reporter Katie Hargitt to encourage young women to pursue careers in motorsports. For many of the women, it was the first time they’d set foot at the track.
It may often seem that women are a rare breed in IndyCar – Patrick and Pippa Mann are the only female drivers in this year’s Indy 500 field, and no woman has ever won the race. Yet women are more common at the Speedway than you’d think.
The event focused not only on drivers like Patrick, but opportunities for women in communications, business, engineering, and mechanics. Patrick, Firestone Racing engineer Cara Adams, IndyCar Senior Manager for National Media Outreach Kate Guerra, and Andretti Autosport mechanic Jessica Mace were among those who shared their experiences.
The students learned about the engineering side of IndyCar in a hands-on demonstration led by Adams and Chip Ganassi engineer Kate Gundlach, two of the most professionally successful women in the Verizon IndyCar Series.
Adams invited the girls to lift the right-front red tire and rain tire she’d brought, each weighing approximately 20 pounds. The verdict? Heavy, but doable. Yet a single tire, she explained to the students, supports the weight of an entire car. That’d be like Patrick hoisting an elephant on her shoulders.
Gundlach shared the complex calculations that go into formulating fuel strategy, which engineers calculate down to 1/10 of a gallon – about the size a teacup.
“Anytime a driver runs out of fuel, you know there’s someone running around with their head cut off in the pits,” she notes.
Both Adams and Gundlach urged the girls to be curious and to ask lots of questions. Adams shared that she read textbooks at the beginning of her career to get up to speed on the fundamentals. Mace changed tires every night after work for hours until she got the hang of it.
And she was relentless in her pursuit of answers.
“The guys in the shop would all roll their eyes like, ‘Oh God, here she comes again,” Mace said. “But I knew where everything was on the car – what it was, where it went, and how it worked.”
Yet success didn’t come – doesn’t come – easily to any of them.
“I still have to work at math,” Gundlach acknowledges.
“It took me a lot of screwing stuff up before I got here,” Mace says. “Don’t be afraid to fail.”
Even if that means breaking wings on an IndyCar that cost tens of thousands of dollars. Or hiding tears from boorish male coworkers.
“Some days you get so angry – but you can’t let those guys see you cry,” Mace tells the girls. “You can’t let them win.”
“I had one guy tell me, ‘You should quit racing because you’re a woman. You should quit being a mechanic,’” she says. “You just use that as fuel to be better.”
Mace is constantly aware of her status as the only woman on a team of male engineers, from having to buy men’s pants because she can’t find women’s pairs with pockets that hold up to sporting elbow tan lines because the sleeves are often too big on men’s shirts.
“I was in my sixth or seventh year in racing before I was offered a women’s race shirt,” she reflects.
Beyond equipment snafus, Patrick said women in motorsports have to push through sexism and doubt via determination.
“When people tell you you can’t do it … there were times when I didn’t think so, either,” Patrick admits. “You have to know what you want and be absolutely determined to get there.”