“Turning wrenches and being a mechanic is something you can teach [in school],” says Anna Chatten as she steers a golf cart from basic inspection to the garage where she works at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, “but being in motorsports isn’t. It’s a learn-as-you-go deal. And you hope you’re learning from somebody good.”
There aren’t any natural limitations for women who want to turn wrenches on elite racing machines, yet Chatten, 36, is still one of the few top female mechanics making a living at it on the IndyCar level. Her on-the-job training actually began as a little girl in Illinois, racing go-karts (Danica Patrick was an opponent). Chatten’s dad, a former motorcycle-racer, said if she wanted to compete on weekends, she had to do her own engine work. By the time she was 18, she knew she didn’t have what it takes to be a professional driver, but the mechanic’s life was within reach. She went to a race-mechanic school in Northern California, got a job in the sport’s minor leagues through a connection, and worked her way up to IndyCar, where she’s now in charge of the transmission’s gearbox on Dreyer & Reinbold’s No. 24 car driven by Townsend Bell, who will start in row eight at the 500 Sunday. Chatten must know what she’s doing—each gear costs about $750, she says, and the team might go through 600 in a single race (that’s $300,000) because mechanics are constantly tinkering with the gear ratio. For instance, if the wind picks up or shifts direction, or the team adjusts the car’s wing angles, the gear ratio changes.
The hardest part of the job, though, is staying cool under pressure. “Everything in racing happens fast. I compare it to working in an emergency room. You’re always under the gun,” Chatten says. And not just during a race. Practices are also hectic because track time is expensive. Football and basketball players can hit the field or court whenever they want; racecar drivers don’t have the same luxury.
In 2009, Chatten became the first woman to go “over the wall” at the 500, meaning she was part of the pit crew’s elite six-person squad to work on the car when it pits. (Moreover, Dreyer & Reinbold has an award-winning pit squad, making Chatten’s achievement even more impressive.) Strength and speed factor into this role because one tick of the clock can make a huge difference at the finish line. It’s also dangerous: Chatten once broke her foot in the pits, and when she was responsible for changing a back tire, it required lifting the 35-pound wheel with one hand. These are the days Chatten encounters the most sexism on the job. “It’s the spectators. Not long ago, one guy said something like, ‘Why don’t you let a man do that?’”
In fact, women weren’t allowed in the pits at all until 1971, with some exceptions for celebrities serving official roles at the start of the race, according to Indianapolis Motor Speedway historian Donald Davidson. But Chatten is still surprised that more women aren’t working at the top level of motorsports by now. She knows a few female engineers for IndyCar teams, but no other mechanics, and believes social expectation is the only barrier. Her normally supportive parents weren’t thrilled when she decided to skip college and work around fast cars, particularly because it can be dangerous. “It wasn’t what they saw me doing,” she says, “and that’s the part that needs to change” regarding women and motorsports. Chatten doesn’t get flack in the garage, and the drivers, she says, have the fewest issues with women. “But it would be a giant lie if I told you it was easy from the get-go. You have to work a little bit harder and do a little bit more.”
Chatten will stay behind the wall this year. As a new mom, she isn’t as quick as she would need to be to perform a seven-second tune-up, and she prefers to stay out of the danger zone anyway. It’s hard enough being on the road every weekend and extra days for practice and testing; she doesn’t want to take any additional risks. At least her husband, a Chevy engineer, travels with IndyCar, too, and understands the field’s demands. The question is, who fixes the cars in their driveway? “I do,” Chatten laughs as the golf cart stops in front of Bell’s garage. “We don’t let engineers touch the tools.”