Who's the boss? At Indy 500, women play large role at IMS

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INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Simona de Silvestro was still in her helmet when her race team owner threw her arms around the driver who had just qualified for the Indianapolis 500 by the narrowest of margins.

De Silvestro’s pony-tailed crew members stopped by to congratulate her, as did 2018 Indy 500 winner Will Power. Surviving the make-or-break seconds and breakneck speeds needed to make the 33-car field is cause enough for a celebration at Indy, especially after sweating out a 75-minute, five-car shootout for one of the final three spots in Sunday’s race.

For the Swiss driver, her predominantly female team and owner Beth Paretta, leading an almost all-girls club to the starting grid for “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing,” is exactly that -- a start.

The start of an idea that every position on an IndyCar race team can be held by a woman. The start of a true, conscientious push to form an unbreakable pipeline that will lead women to an Indy 500 championship as a driver, owner or engineer. That women can climb the IndyCar ladder and reach the highest level of racing -- and take that traditional swig of milk after a win in the biggest race of the year.

“I feel like we climbed a mountain together,” Paretta said.

Those peaks rise far beyond the track. In the NBC truck, producer Rene Hatlelid will set the scene for the telecast and former IndyCar driver Danica Patrick will reprise her role in the studio. On race day, women help run the show everywhere from public relations to critical jobs on pit road.

Jimmie McMillian, the series’ chief diversity officer, said IndyCar, Indianapolis Motor Speedway and IMS Productions is comprised of about 35% to 40% women, with many in leadership roles, such as the head of IndyCar’s legal team, Gretchen Snelling.

Hatlelid produced NASCAR for 15 years for ESPN and NBC, and this is her first year as the full-time producer for NBC’s coverage of IndyCar. On the final day of qualifying, Hatlelid navigated 58 straight minutes of action on NBC without a commercial break.

“That was two days of planning of us chatting it out, should we go here, should we go there,” she said. “The lead-up is just kind of thinking of everything you need to get in and how to incorporate it properly and make it work for the fan. That’s what matters.”

That includes telling the story through vignettes of select long-time Indy 500 fans who return Sunday after a year away because of the pandemic.

Hatlelid will also help NBC keep an eye on the female-led team attempting history.

De Silvestro, making her first Indy 500 appearance since 2015, is one of nine female drivers who have started the race. Sarah Fisher started nine times and Patrick eight -- she finished third in 2009 -- and the 2010, 2011 and 2013 races all had four women in the field.

Fisher transitioned to 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 becoming a crossover star in IndyCar. She retired after the 2018 Indy 500.

Maude Yagle is the only f emale team-owner to win the Indy 500, in 1929 with driver Ray Keech.

The starts and competitive races have all had significant meaning in auto racing, where the playing field has long been dominated by men and legitimate chances to compete seem to come-and-go as fast as a lap around the oval. Paretta, who fielded a failed female-driven attempt to qualify for the 2016 Indy 500, is determined to prove women can look at motorsports as a career option.

“Hopefully it’s resonated with people to be more than another team, another entry, trying our best,” Paretta said. “We’re trying to do a lot more and trying to provide opportunity and hopefully some inspiration, both for kids and for women everywhere to push and work hard to also know that anybody might be possible for yourself.”

Paretta is the former motorsports director for SRT Motorsports/Fiat Chrysler Automobiles. Paretta Autosport is backed by Roger Penske in his push for diversity. Penske, the series owner, provides technical support for Paretta Autosport and the teams worked together at Penske’s headquarters in North Carolina (Paretta called Team Penske training “the Harvard of pit schools”).

Paretta has tried to hire women in all facets of the operation — competition, administration, logistics, marketing and public relations. And the blueprint fits as part of IndyCar’s outreach to create more diversity in the sport.

“Although this is female forward, I want to make sure that everybody understands that this is with the support and help and guidance and mentorship from some very amazing and experienced men who have worked in racing for many years, who have been part of this process from the beginning and teaching some of our women that are new to IndyCar some of the ways of working around this car and working around this racetrack,” Paretta said.

Lauren Sullivan, usually a wind tunnel test engineer for Penske’s NASCAR teams, was asked if she would make the shift to help Paretta’s team in the open-wheel series. Sullivan said she understood more was at stake Sunday than just pulling off a respectable finish.

“We’re also very aware of our unique position to the next generation, the eyes that are on us, in particular the young ladies that are out there watching this unfold,” she said. “We hope that by seeing us, you guys realize that we didn’t do anything extraordinary to be here. We are just like you, and so if you can see us, you can be us.”

De Silverstro’s over-the-wall crew on pit road, though, is mostly men provided by Penske.

“If we have zero women over the wall for the Indy 500 you’ll see them at the next race,” Paretta said. “Just the fact that you see this lineup and how far we’ve gotten in these four months, that’s how I’m measuring our progress. Every time we can integrate and add one more woman in a key role, that’s what we’re going to get to.”

Until another woman wins an IndyCar race, like Patrick did in Japan, or the first woman takes the checkered flag at Indianapolis, women landing the sponsorship needed to fund serious rides remains a problem. There are no female drivers in the IndyCar developmental system and veterans like de Silvestro and Pippa Mann, who hasn’t ruled out a comeback, are still the ones getting Indy opportunities.

Once they get it, the women know they have to make the most of their chance. It might be their only one.

“Racing is all about being in the right place at the right moment, and right now we just have literally all the tools in our hands to really show what we can do,” de Silvestro said. “I think that’s really uplifting.”

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More AP auto racing: https://apnews.com/hub/auto-racing and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports

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