Ganassi, PNC make push to empower women in racing: ‘Diverse teams yield better results’
(Editor’s note: This story on the Ganassi Women in Motorsports Program is one in a series of Motorsports Talk stories focusing on women in racing during March, which is Women’s History Month.)
Scott Dixon felt a tug on his firesuit from his daughter, Tilly, while in the pits before the 106th Indianapolis 500.
The 11-year-old naturally was curious about a sight that she found both confusing and also exhilarating.
Several young women, clad in the same blue and orange uniforms as her six-time IndyCar champion father, were involved with performing many of the same duties that Tilly had watched male crew members do for years to prepare the No. 9 Dallara-Honda.
For Dixon, it remains “the penny drop moment” in which he realized the impact of Chip Ganassi Racing’s Women in Motorsports internship program.
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“Tilly asking me, ‘Hey, who are these girls and what are they doing?’ was pretty cool,” Dixon told NBC Sports. “Obviously there was lots of great things about what (the interns) brought to the team. And I think the dynamic changes a lot when you’ve got a roomful of men, and you add some women to it, it definitely changes the conversations for the better and with positivity. But it’s also because a lot of them are new to the sport that maybe weren’t just race fans, it also brought a different way of thinking or questioned why we do things the way we do them. Which is quite refreshing, especially when you’ve had a team that has been together for so long.
“So there was loads of great things that came out of it all season. But probably the biggest part was Tilly asking about them because I think at that point, she’d never thought – unless you were a girl driver – that you could be involved in racing.”
Chip Ganassi Racing and PNC Bank recently announced the second class of their initiative designed to drive awareness while supporting gender equality and economic inclusion for women in racing. A trio of young women in college will work for Ganassi on two-month internships (fully funded by PNC) that begin with this year’s Indy 500.
Hailey Hein (an off-road racer and automotive service technician studying mechanics at Northern Arizona University), Nicole Goodman (an IT student and lab instructor at Indiana University) and Raegen Moody (an engineering major at Auburn University and race engineer on the school’s iRacing team) were selected from a pool of more than 150 applicants.
From last year’s inaugural 2022 class of five, Ganassi plans to hire Rebecca Hutton as a full-time engineer upon her college graduation.
“During the season there is a lot going on and it’s going to feel like there is so much to learn in a short amount of time, but don’t get discouraged - just be present and take in all you can during the internship.” – advice from a 2022 @PNCBank WIM alum to the 2023 interns 🙌 pic.twitter.com/bqs3n1v3KG— Chip Ganassi Racing (@CGRTeams) March 14, 2023
It’s in line with Ganassi’s recent history – and success – with women in the IndyCar and IMSA Series. Kate Gundlach was a key engineer for the 2018 championship season on Dixon’s car (and since has moved to Arrow McLaren as a performance engineer). Anna Chatten is the gearbox mechanic on Dixon’s car this season after working on Jimmie Johnson’s No. 48 last year.
Angela Ashmore has returned for her fourth season as a support engineer for Marcus Ericsson, who won the Indy 500 last year and the March 5 season opener at St. Petersburg. Danielle Shepherd is the lead engineer for the team’s No. 01 Cadillac at the Twelve Hours of Sebring this weekend after winning the prestigious sports car event last year.
“In general, diverse teams yield better results,” Ashmore told NBC Sports. “It’s not a thing of like, ‘Hey, we’re hiring females to fill some quota.’ We’re hiring the best people for the job. And the strongest team at Chip Ganassi is a diverse team that has varied backgrounds, has different skillsets and expertise in different areas. So it rounds out our team.
“So yeah, I think it’s great that we have women on our team. And I think it’s great that the women we do have are competitive and not just there to fill a space. That they truly are the best person for that job.”
International Women’s Day is about inspiring the next generation. We are proud to support the Women In Motorsports Internship program powered by @PNCBank and to have some incredible mentors on our CGR team!#InternationalWomensDay #WomenInMotorsport pic.twitter.com/jmN9YCq3zM— Chip Ganassi Racing (@CGRTeams) March 8, 2023
Team owner Chip Ganassi credits PNC (the primary sponsor on Dixon’s No. 9) for helping amplify the team’s desire to diversify its recruiting.
“The interest in that program is amazing,” said Ganassi, whose teams have six Indy 500 victories and 21 championships over 33 years in racing. “When we announced the 2023 group the other day, I bet I got notes, emails, texts, DMs from 10 people that I didn’t know were paying attention to what we were doing. And damn, that’s a great thing.
“I’ve never been one to want to go and say, ‘Hey let’s go check that box of equity and diversity.’ I think it’s got to be somewhat authentic as opposed to checking the box. This is authentic, No. 1. But more importantly, you have to generate new thought and new approaches and new ideas. And what a great opportunity to have a sponsor that thinks that same way. They’re not thinking about today so much as they are the future of the sport and the future of the team. And what a great way for young women to get involved. And hey, we’ve shown whether it was at Indianapolis last year with Angela Ashmore or at Sebring with Danielle.
“To have these women in key positions. It works. We’re not just checking the box. I don’t call winning the Indy 500 or the Twelve Hours of Sebring as a chief engineer checking the box.”
Dixon believes the program turned more than just his daughter’s head at Indy last year.
“I think other teams did, too,” he said. “Because it seemed like there was a lot more women coming to the racetracks after that as well.”
Arrow McLaren, which has nearly doubled in size this season while adding a third car, has a staff that is nearly 20 percent female. Many of the woman work in the engineering department and have been recruited by Gundlach, whom Ganassi says is “certainly a trailblazer. And she’s doing a good job where she is now. She knows she can come back whenever she wants.”
Beyond the competitive side of her job, Gundlach said there also is a responsibility to help foster an IndyCar paddock that is more comfortable and encouraging than when she entered more than 10 years ago.
“I want to collect the girls and say let me tell you about things,” Gundlach told NBC Sports. “Because I know how scary it can be to walk into a group, and no one looks like you or knows what you’re going through or the pressures that you have. It’s different. Everyone’s got different stuff. And women typically go through similar things, so I think it’s important to make sure that you let those women coming in not have as hard a time as you had in some things. It’s important to help people out that way.”
For engineers such as Shepherd, Ashmore and Gundlach, feeling comfortable to speak out is important. In the top levels of professional racing, decisions on a car’s setup typically are made during debrief sessions in which drivers and team members hash out ideas in collaborative meetings that can turn contentious.
Angela Ashmore is helping to break barriers as a female in the #INDYCAR community.— NTT INDYCAR SERIES (@IndyCar) July 2, 2022
Watch her tell the story of being on the pit stand as @Ericsson_Marcus won the 106th Running of the #Indy500.
Download the INDYCAR app powered by NTT DATA to watch: https://t.co/vKDGlWReFn pic.twitter.com/Rb4Yq3pQbU
“It seems to me that females tend to be less naturally confident,” Ashmore said. “And I think that is a difficult thing even for me to find confidence to speak up, even when I know I’m right or know what I’m talking about.
“It can be hard when you’re in a group of people, especially at Chip Ganassi Racing, you’ve got a group of predominantly men that have been doing this a very long time. So it’s hard to say, ‘Actually, I don’t think you’re right on this one!’ ”
Though she “absolutely” feels heard now, Ashmore said the first year with the team was about gradually building her confidence.
“It takes a little while just to build up your rapport with people to have them trust you. I think that’s with anyone, not just females.
“When you’re a new person coming in, naturally you don’t trust them from the get-go. So it takes time to build those relationships. So now I’m kind of past that and can contribute and people trust what I say without having to question it.
“They understand me and my personality and how I speak to them. And it was kind of a handshake that has to happen. They have to understand how you communicate.”
Chatten fell in love with racing as the youngest of four girls whose father was a flat-track motorcycle racer. After racing go-karts through high school, she moved to California after graduation to pursue life as a racing mechanic. The key to her 25-year career has been she “never took no for an answer” even though she was told that because of her gender.
“A number of times,” said Chatten, who scaled back to have two daughters before returning full time last year. “It’s less and less now. People told me no a lot, but you just have to be willing to keep going forward. For me, it was an experience thing and as my skillset grew, I had more confidence in what I had to say, And that’s not gender specific but for everybody in this business.
“The difference is as a female, you have to work harder to get people to not see you differently. I’ve learned ways to do that over the years that are more successful than others. I don’t struggle with that nearly as much as I used to, but it’s a learned skill.”
Chatten chalks up the decline in pushback to her quarter-century of experience and some evolving attitudes.
“I think what’s interesting now is that younger generations come in with a different perception of females working in this business than maybe someone that’s my same generation. So there’s less you need to do to persuade them it’s a good idea.”
“In the beginning, for sure, it’s a hard thing to figure out how to navigate on my own,” she said. “One being that I felt super grateful just for the opportunity that I even got to participate. So I always asked for less money, tried to blend in more than celebrate the fact I was a female. Now as time marches on, things evolve, perceptions change, now the huge push for diversity, and it’s much more celebrated that you’re female.
“It’s been really cool to see that happen over the years. I wasn’t as helpful to females coming in the business 10 to 15 years ago. I didn’t have anybody or role models like that to look up to, so I just figured they’d figure it out. Now fast forward a few years, and I have my own children, and I realize that it’s part of my responsibility to give back to that. We aren’t giving opportunities to females that are undeserving of it. We’re creating an opportunity for them to excel. We’re creating a door in for them that maybe wasn’t there before. Under no stretch of imagination would they be here if they weren’t capable or outstanding at what you’re doing. You don’t survive in motor racing that way. You’re either the best at what you do, or you’re not here.”
Though there are dozens of women working in various roles across the IndyCar industry, Chatten said she is one of only three female mechanics (in a pool of roughly 350). She has been involved in the selection process for Ganassi’s Women in Motorsports Program, sitting in on a candidate interview, and is attuned to maintaining its credibility.
“It’s a really delicate balance with the internship program,” she said. “You don’t want to screw those opportunities up. Because if you aren’t bringing the correct talented people in, that’s viewed negatively on the outside -- collectively from people doing these jobs in our business. It’s really a fragile thing. You can do almost as much detriment as good.”
Ganassi believes only good can come from having more women in key roles on his team. The longtime team owner believes that pride gets in the way more often when men are working together.
“These women are taskmasters who are there to do the job,” he said. “Men have more ego involved than women do. And so it’s a nice thing to have these taskmasters there that are pushing the guys.”
Dixon said women have proved “they’re good at everything” in racing and wants to see more teams get aggressive with diversifying.
“It’s just a visual thing,” he said. “I think you can talk about it all you want, but then once you see people actively working in that job, line of work. It’s like it just clicks and makes it more accepted. Because we’re well past that, but it’s just, ‘Yeah, why didn’t we go down that road before?’ ”
As the sport becomes more welcoming to women in all roles, Dixon believes there will be more stories similar to Shepherd, who won championships with Dixon in 2018 and Alex Palou in 2021 before moving to Ganassi’s IMSA team.
“I’ve always had a lot of fun with Danielle because she was such a shy person,” Dixon said. “Like you would never hear a peep out of her. Even though when she would talk, she had amazing information. And then over the two or three years of working with her, you’d start to hear this voice come on the intercom, and she’d pipe up and was extremely helpful, and then she gained her confidence. It’s just really cool. We need to actually get more women on our IMSA program as well.”