You planned to field a female-led team at the Indianapolis 500 in 2016 under the banner of Grace Autosport, but things went sideways and you had to pull out of contention. Five years later, you’re back as Paretta Autosport. What happened during the intervening years?
Well, let’s just say there’s a fine line between tenacious and stubborn. And I’m tenacious.
What does that word mean to you?
Trying to find a solution or workaround until the door opens. There comes a point with any idea—and you can apply this to any startup or business—when it’s not that the idea is bad, it just isn’t the right fit. The key is to do a proper analysis and figure out why. It doesn’t necessarily mean you have to change your idea. It might mean, “OK, I have to find a different partner.”
Is that what happened in 2016?
We announced our plans for the 2016 race in 2015, and our point with the announcement was to set the intention. It’s like shouting from the mountaintop, “This is what we want to do. Can anyone help?” And it worked. It piqued people’s interest. Sponsor conversations became a little easier, and I was able to get things underwritten and do a deal with Chevy. And then at the 11th hour, someone I won’t name involved in the deal tried to change the terms to something I didn’t agree to, nor was it something my sponsors agreed to. So I said, “Thank you, but no. I’m going to take my things and go.” Which I don’t regret. It was a lesson learned in fairness. These things happen in racing. It wasn’t unique to us, other than the fact that the person who changed the terms might have underestimated my willingness to walk away.
One thing you’ve been very vocal about is your desire to use motorsports as a way to encourage girls and women to pursue careers in STEM. Can you talk about that through line for you, and how they’re connected from a practical standpoint?
I’m probably the prime example of how the connection between STEM and motorsports should have worked, but didn’t. I’ve been a car and racing fanatic since I was 5 years old, but neither of my parents had careers in STEM. They were lovely people, but they weren’t equipped to say, “Oh, look at this interest she has. Where does that go?” There are so many kids out there that could be fantastic at these disciplines and don’t know enough about them. I want to lift the lid on which educational paths lead to which careers. Otherwise, why would you care about math? Why would you care about physics? Let’s explain to kids how this career is applied STEM. That doesn’t mean every kid will want to be a mechanic or engineer. But there are a lot of transferable skills that could pique the interest of a child, and set them on a journey that eventually leads to a great job. My point is that I actually had a passion for this stuff, and if I had the exposure to it as a middle or high schooler, I could have been an engineer for a car company. It just wasn’t something that I realized at the time.
But now you own a racing team. A pretty good ending, wouldn’t you say?
The irony is that I went about it the circuitous way. I spent my time in business, finance, operations, and marketing. There are a lot of team owners who are ex-drivers. They become a team owner because this is what they’ve always known. A lot of them have to learn the business later. It’s trial by fire, or they surround themselves with people who know it.
Paretta Autosport is your team, but you have a technical alliance with Team Penske. What does that mean?
They help us set up a car and treat it like it’s one of their own, which is such a gift. We’re paying for all of those services, of course, so it’s billable hours like any other business relationship. One other benefit of linking up with them is economy of scale. We’re able to be in on their supply orders and pay the same rates they’re paying. Even something like getting a recommendation for an insurance broker is made easier. It’s all of that inside baseball minutia, but it helps when you’re starting out.
Simona De Silvestro is a seasoned driver, and she’ll be behind the wheel of the Paretta car at the Indy 500. You’ve said publicly you want to have an all-women racing team. How quickly can that happen?
It’s going to be co-ed at first. It has to be. There aren’t enough women at the highest level of racing to build an entire team without stealing them from someone else. You have other fantastic women in different roles, but they’re committed to other teams or racing series. So is every position on the team going to be filled by women to start? No. But it’s aspirational for us. We can hire, train, and cultivate those women who can climb the ladder and assume different roles. And I want people to understand that this is racing at the highest level, so you have to have the best person. I can’t displace a seasoned guy to pick a rookie girl. But I can hire that rookie girl and train her so that she is an apprentice to that guy and will have that skill set in a couple of years. I truly believe if you have the interest and the right attitude to learn, the rest of the skills can be taught.
Your team is part of the “Race for Equality and Change” initiative from IndyCar and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, owned by Roger Penske. What’s his reputation when it comes to inclusiveness?
What I really want to say about Roger, because he probably won’t say it so vociferously himself, is that he was already doing a lot of things behind the scenes to make sure there were women and minority-owned businesses involved as suppliers, at least in the bidding process. Those things bring actual, tangible change, even if it isn’t necessarily fan facing. When you own a really large business like he does, it makes a difference. And they’ve been doing that quietly for years. I love that somebody in his position has the ability to shine a spotlight with this initiative and say, “Hey, this matters.” It comes from a really authentic place with him. It’s not just, “Let’s make sure there’s a woman in the Indy 500 for a year.”
Did anything surprise you about the public response to the announcement of the equality program?
Right after the announcement, a guy came into the comment thread and said something like, “I’m going to apply, and then if they don’t hire me, I’m going to sue them for discrimination.” I just thought, OK, buddy.
How do you handle someone like that, who clearly is implying this is tokenism, and that there’s something inherently unfair about the situation?
Everybody is entitled to their perspective, of course, so I don’t really spend time on it. But what I will say is that, at least in the United States, white men have always seen themselves everywhere. They’ve seen them themselves as president, as astronauts. They’ve seen themselves as everything. It’s not their fault; they were born the way they are, just like you and I were born the way we are. But they’ve never known what it’s like to not see themselves in a role. So I want that guy in the comment thread to understand this: “You know what you just felt in your stomach? That hot minute when you got angry and felt whatever you were feeling in that moment? Now you finally know how we’ve been feeling for centuries.”
I think women have become used to being misunderstood on this subject. I think it can be really hard to have an honest conversation about it.
Right. That’s why I’m always saying, “Listen, I’m not trying to take your seat. I just want a longer table.” You know the book Lean In, by Sheryl Sandberg? With all due respect to her, I always joke that I’m going to write a rebuttal book called Scooch Over. One time, a female engineer and supplier in Detroit said, “I’m so tired of hearing about leaning in. I’ve been leaning in so far I’m asleep at the table.” And it’s true. It’s not about us leaning in or working harder. We’re already working at 120 percent. The reality is there is enough to go around, so just scooch over.
Why do you think your 5-year-old self had such a keen interest in cars and racing?
It was a connection to my dad, and also to my brother, who died of leukemia when I was a kid. My dad’s hobby was restoring cars. He wasn’t a gear head and wasn’t into racing, but his interest was more about historic preservation and having respect for old cars. We would go to car shows. My brother died when he was 17 and I was 6, but he was diagnosed right after I was born. I have since figured out that watching racing was soothing to me. I would be flipping through the channels and whenever I came across a race, I’d leave it on. There was something about the cadence of it I found comforting. Maybe it was the colors, the noise, or the repetitiveness. I’m not sure. To this day, if there’s a long race like 24 hours of Le Mans or the Indy 500, it’s on my TV.
What are some of the biggest misconceptions about motorsports for people who aren’t die hard fans?
It’s not just cars going in circles; there’s so much more to it. And each series is so different. The analogy I make is ball sports. Just because you’re a basketball fan doesn’t mean you’re a baseball or tennis fan. IndyCar and NASCAR are as different as basketball and baseball. They have different rules, different environments, and different superstars. And then you can go even deeper into the technical level. Think of it as a science fair. Who’s building the best mousetrap that day? Who set up the car? Who cracked the code? It’s like sports for geeks in that way.
What brings you joy on race day if you don’t win a trophy?
The camaraderie—when you feel like you’re in the trenches and working shoulder to shoulder with your team. And that means everyone, including the people in the front office. They’re the ones putting the business deals together, and they’re just as important as the people setting up the car. Everybody’s putting it all out there. I’ve done the 24-hour endurance races, and it’s like going into battle together. There’s a real sense of accomplishment. Sometimes, you can have a terrible race, and the fact that you finished it can be a victory. It makes those days when you do get a trophy even better. In this business, you can’t dwell on things. You have to learn from your mistakes and move forward. When you see people at the highest levels of racing, they all possess that skill. Without it, they wouldn’t be where they are, including me.
What kind of consumer car does a racing fanatic dream about? Do you have a favorite?
Oh, that’s impossible to pick if you’re a car person. How do I even narrow it down to 10? But ultimately, I’m Italian. I have a special affection for Ferraris and Lancia Stratos.