Q&A: Pippa Mann on Being the Only Woman in the Indy 500

“People ask me, ‘Why don’t women race full-time?’” says the British driver, set for a fifth start in the 500. “It seems to be incredibly difficult—still—for female drivers to make that transition and find that level of sponsorship.”

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Women drivers have become something of a fixture at the Indianapolis 500, and yet they remain a relative rarity: Only nine have competed in the Greatest Spectacle since its beginning. Janet Guthrie was the first, in 1977. Danica Patrick made strides as the first woman to lead a lap, in 2005. And in 2010, Pippa Mann became the first woman to win a pole position at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

This year, Mann is the only female competing. For what will be her fifth Indy 500, Mann averaged 226.006 mph in qualifying and will start 25th for the 100th Running of the race.

From the obstacles female racers face to her campaign to raise money for breast cancer research, Mann shares insight into her life as the lone woman racer in this year’s Indy 500.

 

What is it like to be the only female driver this year?

I’m just one of the 33 drivers who get to take part in the race this year. The car can’t tell what color it’s painted, it can’t tell what color my helmet is, and it can’t tell what gender I am when I’m driving it. I’m just one of the drivers in the race.

Do people ever downplay your achievements because you’re a female driver?

I think one of the really interesting things that seems to happen worldwide—and the U.S. is no exception—is that as a female driver, when you have a good day, everybody seems to think you’re the next reincarnation of Ayrton Senna, which is far from the truth. When you have a bad day, and things go wrong, you shouldn’t be allowed near a racetrack, near a race car—you should go. But that’s not the truth, either. The truth always lies somewhere in the middle of the pendulum.

All drivers experience that to some extent, but I think for the most part, for female drivers, those two ends of the spectrum seem to be much bigger swings backward and forward. You just have to stay grounded. Trust the people you’re working with, and trust their opinions. If they tell you that you need to do a better job, you need to pick it up and do a better job. And if they’re happy with the work you’re putting in, then you’re probably doing a good job.

“You’re going to be told a lot of times that maybe you shouldn’t be doing this. And sometimes it will be from people who care about you.”

You’ve worked with female racers in the past. Why do you do that?

It’s something that’s really important to me. When I was growing up racing, there were no other female racers to look up to, to offer me advice, or to help me out. And in the U.S., me and several other female racers have sort of made this connection together. We all have each others’ cell phone numbers, email addresses, you know. We text each other, tweet each other, call each other up and offer each other support, because there are fewer of us. And so often, the media would like to see you pitched against each other, whereas really, we want to be there to offer each other support.

What do you think needs to be done to encourage more women to get into racing?

I think that’s a really great question, but I think one of the more interesting questions is that in karting, there’s actually quite a lot of girls who race Go-Karts. And the financial step from that to actually racing cars is incredibly difficult. And every step of the ladder you go up, the step gets more difficult and more difficult.

If you take me as an example, I last got to race full-time in the Indy Lights series, the feeder series to IndyCar, in 2010. And I had quite a good year in 2010: I ended up top five in the championship, I was a race winner in the series, three pole positions, and it was quite a good year. But I was never able to use that to find the support to parlay that into a full-time IndyCar ride.

And I’m now at my fifth Indianapolis 500, and I’m so grateful for the opportunity to be here. At the same time, when people ask me, Why don’t women race full-time? Well, for some reason, it seems to be incredibly difficult—still—for female drivers to make that transition and find that level of sponsorship. It’s not that there aren’t race-winning female drivers, and it’s not that it’s easy for male drivers to find a sponsorship, either—it’s incredibly difficult. However, the only female driver who has achieved that level of sponsorship over a consistent number of years has been Danica Patrick. And when you look at the career she’s had, that really tells you something about what other female drivers could do, too, if they were able to get that kind of financial support to run in the races more often.

Pippa MannWhat advice would you give to an aspiring female racer?

Be really determined. You’re going to get a lot of mud slung at you. You’ve got to have really thick skin. You’re going to be told a lot of times that maybe you shouldn’t be doing this. And sometimes it will be from people who care about you. You’ve got to know your own mind. You’ve got to be really determined. You’ve got to be certain this is absolutely what you want, because you’re going to have to sacrifice a lot to get there.

What sort of things do you have to sacrifice?

You know, it can be very difficult. I’m actually married, but having any sort of personal relationships—even friendships—can be very difficult in this business, because you’re continuously gone. It doesn’t matter if it’s somebody’s birthday, if it’s an anniversary. It doesn’t matter if there’s a special occasion in somebody’s life. If it’s a race weekend you’re meant to be at, or if your team calls you up and tells you they plan to test, you pack your bags and you go and do the test. When you continuously miss all of these important events in other people’s lives, it becomes incredibly difficult for them to feel as connected to you as they want to.

You try to make time to meet with your younger fans, the little girls and boys in the crowd. Why is that important to you?

When I was a kid, my dad was a race fan. We had no inside connections to racing—he was just a race fan. So I was a race fan. And I always remember being at the race track and never being able to get an autograph, never having a driver stop and say hello to me, and I don’t want to be that driver. Very occasionally, there’s somewhere I need to be—you can’t stop all of the time. But when I have time, if they’re under so high, I’m going to be trying to stop for them.

Do you have a racing hero or inspiration that you look up to?

Growing up back in Europe, watching the races in the U.K., I actually watched Formula One more than IndyCar as a little girl, so I grew up cheering on Nigel Mansell—the Red 5. And then Damon Hill, taking over as the strongest British driver. However, when I was 17 years old, living in Italy and racing Go-Karts, my dad sent me a copy of Autosport magazine, which is one of the most popular magazines for motor racing in the U.K. And in it, they had a story about Sarah. And Sarah Fisher had just been on the pole at Kentucky and finished second in that race, and this was the first time I had ever heard of any female driver in any major series at all running that competitively and doing that well. So since that day, I’ve sort of always really looked up to Sarah.

What do you want your legacy to be?

It would be really cool if I could find a way to make this racing program that’s now in its third year some kind of sustainable racing program. So that the car starts to be a car that people associate with and want to be involved with, and maybe that car starts to expand out to more races. And as my career gets on, in however many years time, when it gets to that point, wouldn’t it be cool if that car was going to live on after me? And then I could have a role in finding the next female driver to be the one to fill that car. It’s a very big dream and a very long way away, but if I was able to create that, that would be something very cool.

What else should people know about Pippa Mann?

Around the pink car and here at the Indianapolis 500, we run an online fundraising campaign that helps raise money for Susan G. Komen: It’s called the Get Involved campaign, and we’re trying to get as many people to take part in this as possible. At this time, we’re currently $500 short of the total we raised last year. We set ourselves this really big goal of $100,000, and I don’t think we’re going to get there. I think $70,000 is achievable.

And we’ve been selling caps in support of that—we sold plenty of pink Indianapolis Motor Speedway caps that I signed. We have campaign posters, and my race-worn helmet from the Indianapolis 500 this year has already sold—I only get to own that for two weeks. As I’m talking to you, people can still sign up to race me in a Go-Kart. Doug Garrison, the artist, has created prints of the pink racing car, and we also have pieces of signed Indianapolis Motor Speedway brick available still.

The goal is $100,000, but it’s a flexible funding goal. Last year, we raised $61,000. We’re really close to being above that. We really want to encourage people: For as little as $20 or $30, they can take part in this, and then we send them some cool stuff. It’s for a really good cause, and it’s a really unique way to raise money for charity.

More information on the #GetInvolved campaign can be found here.

Pippa Mann

Photo by Darryl Smith

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