INDIANAPOLIS: Four years ago, Pippa Mann was answering questions in Gasoline Alley about the record-tying four female drivers in the Indianapolis 500, and how it represented another step toward women one day winning at the Brickyard.
Now, she’s the only one left.
The British driver will make her fifth start in the 100th edition of the “Greatest Spectacle in Racing,” but once again it’s a one-off ride for Dale Coyne Racing. She spent most of the past year trying to put funding together for this weekend, underscoring the single biggest challenge for all drivers — but particularly women.
“The really big thing is how hard it is for female drivers to find the sponsorship to be able to compete,” said Mann, who has fostered a partnership with Susan G. Komen that includes title sponsorship on her car. “It’s hard for the guys, I get that. But people think it’s easier for female drivers and it’s not.”
Numbers remain low
Janet Guthrie ushered in the era of female drivers when she qualified in 1977, and Lyn St. James became a staple of the 1990s.
But despite the popularity and success of Sarah Fisher and Danica Patrick over the past two decades, there have still been just nine women to start in the Indianapolis 500.
Fisher transitioned into team ownership, then merged her team with Ed Carpenter Racing before getting out of IndyCar altogether. Patrick made a much publicized move to NASCAR after several years of success.
It was Danicamania that was supposed to propel women to the next level at Indy, and her fourth-place run in 2005 and third-place run four years later certainly helped. But not even those results created lasting investment in female drivers, many of whom have proven they can win at lower levels.
“There’s a lot of drivers in the feeder series floating around right now, and I’m the only one in the Indianapolis 500 this year,” Mann said. “You actually have race-winning drivers working to get into a car.”
The closest besides Mann was sports car driver Katherine Legge, a two-time Indy 500 starter who was going to drive for an all-women team this year.
Grace Autosport secured a manufacturer partner, sponsorship, crew members and much of the funding that it would have taken to field an entry.
Their only problem? They couldn’t find a car.
“The consolidation of teams and the decrease of entries in 2016 reduced the available options for us,” team principal Beth Paretta said in a press release. “Our partner spoke with [chassis provider] Dallara about buying a new car ... but there wasn’t a current 2016 car available in time for the 500.”
Spare parts find use
Fortunately for Mann, she not only had a car but plenty of spare pieces. She got loose in Turn 4 and hit the outside wall during practice Friday, leaving her team just two days to repair her ride for the race.
“Dropped the ball and gave them some work to do overnight. The good news is the damage wasn’t too bad,” she said. “Hopefully it’s the right rear corner, rear attenuator, rear wing and that’s all we have to fix.”
In the meantime, Mann is hopeful there will be more women in the field next year.
Along with the Grace Autosport effort, young Colombian driver Tatiana Calderon has been performing well in the GP3 Series, a feeder series for Formula One.
Norwegian driver Ayla Agren, a 22-year-old inspired by Patrick to begin racing, is driving in USF2000 — the first rung on the IndyCar ladder.
“There are female drivers out there,” Mann said, “they just need a chance.”
And once they get it, they have to make the most of it.
“I think for little girls to have someone to cheer for is really, really cool,” Mann said. “At the same time, the reason I want to go out there and have a good run on race day is for Dale Coyne Racing and my fans and everyone on my team and my sponsors, which is the same reason everyone else wants to have a good run.”