Making Indy 500 history about pressure, pride for Team Penske pit crew ace Caitlyn Brown
Josef Newgarden roared into the pit box, locking his wheels in a furious slide toward the inside line where Caitlyn Brown crouched in position for the No. 2 Dallara-Chevrolet.
It was the team’s first live stop of the year during a preseason test at The Thermal Club in the Southern California desert, and the two-time NTT IndyCar Series champion already was impressed by his new left-front tire changer.
“I nearly took her out, and Caitlyn didn’t even flinch,” Newgarden told NBC Sports with a broad smile. “She just slightly adjusted, still finished the pit stop and was quicker than half the other people on the car.
“She’s very impressive. That’s not to take anything away from anyone else. We’re a team, a unit. They’re all solid, but she is very deserving of what she has achieved.”
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Four months into her first year as a full-fledged pit crew member, Brown has achieved a special place in IndyCar history.
She is believed to have become the first woman to go over the wall for an Indy 500 winner when Newgarden won the 107th running of the Greatest Spectacle in Racing at Indianapolis Motor Speedway last month.
Five days later, while processing the feat during an interview in Team Penske’s RP1 mobile office at the Detroit Grand Prix, Brown got choked up assessing her place in history.
“It’s kind of crazy,” said the native of Wilmington, Illinois (about 60 miles southwest of Chicago). “I still can’t believe we won it. But it’s really special to me to be able to say I’m the first to do something. Especially at this level for this team at that race given the history of this team and the history of Indianapolis Motor Speedway and the Indy 500. It’s crazy to think it’s the 107th running, and I’m the first to do something there.
“So it’s really special for me. You don’t really realize how big it is until later down the road. It’s really special to me and my family and how I was raised.”
The momentous moment also had an element of déjà vu during the team’s final pit stop on Lap 171. Similar to his pit entry at Thermal, Newgarden again came in at a high rate of speed. Brown and the No. 2 crew again held their composure.
“He definitely locked them up pretty good coming in on our last stop,” she said. “So there was a moment I was like, ‘Oh no, he’s coming in hot, and we don’t know where he’s going to stop for sure,’ but you’ve just got to do your job and perform and do your best to get him to the front.”
Brown laughs when asked if she thought Newgarden “nearly took her out” on that first pit stop in early February.
“I don’t remember it, but he says that,” she said. “It’s part of the job. Everyone has to be able to react to anything thrown at them. It’s what we work for and train for, so you have to be ready for anything. We knew the pit boxes there were tight and would be tight coming in every single time, so you kind of anticipate that and get down later so that you don’t get hit.”
Brown started at Team Penske in 2019 as a shop mechanic in the teardown area for the NACAR programs. She had moved to working on fuel cells when she was one of multiple female employees at Penske approached about joining Paretta Autosport, the all-women team that raced the 2021 Indianapolis 500 in a Penske alliance.
She expressed interest in joining the pit crew and eventually transitioned from Penske’s shop-based NASCAR role to traveling full time with the IndyCar teams by the end of ’21. She was on Newgarden’s crew last year as a reserve tire changer who handled tear-offs on pit stops.
“Changing tires on race weekends is the fun part of the job,” said Brown, who also works as a rear-end mechanic on Newgarden’s car. “You’re the ones getting it done, getting the pressure put on you to get your driver to the front and just perform each race. That was really motivating for me.”
Hailing from a family that raced dirt tracks, Brown initially thought she wanted only to work on race cars. But the 24-year-old was intrigued after noticing that IndyCar mechanics also worked on pit crews. In NASCAR, teams employ specialized pit crews of former college and professional athletes because the stops demand more choreography and athleticism.
“When I started on the NASCAR side, originally I had NASCAR dreams and goals,” she said. “I thought I’d never be able to do pit stop stuff, because that’s a whole different entity on that side. So I came to the IndyCar side, and you see that the mechanics working on the car also are the ones pitting the car. That was an option I wanted to try to do, too.”
But when a spot came open on the No. 2 pit crew for 2023, Brown still had to beat out several other qualified candidates. Her competitive spirit carried the day to posting top-notch times during grueling offseason pit crew tryouts that began at the crack of dawn.
“I know Caitlyn very well now, and she cares just as much as anybody,” Newgarden said. “She’s worked very hard to be in the position she’s in, and this is by no means a handout because of her gender. She’s just an amazing individual. She’s done a tremendous job on our team.
“She’s also a badass. You have to basically compete to go over the wall on our car. There are no handouts to anybody. You have to earn your spot by your pit times and performance. She earned her spot on that group, and she’s one of the quickest on pit lane.”
Brown’s father, Joe, recently told her family’s local paper, The Wilmington Free Press Advocate: “I don’t know how she does it. Most of the guys you see on these crews are 6 foot, 200 pounds; and here she is at 5-foot-5 and half their size, and she’s handling tires just like the rest of them.”
Team Penske president Tim Cindric said Brown was the first woman to raise her hand to join Paretta Autosport and then exhibited the same dedication in the pit crew workouts.
“We watched how hard she worked at it,” Cindric said after Newgarden’s Indy 500 victory. “They came in at 5 o’clock in the morning, doing pit stops before the rest of our pit stop practices started internally, and she worked her butt off. She earned the whole respect of the crew, and obviously we had some of our mechanics on that crew, and they said, ‘Look, she deserves a chance on these cars if she wants it.’ And then she worked really, really hard to earn her way and earn her spot. She is solid. She’s all business.
“I think she has the opportunity and the work ethic to be one of the top people at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. I think her runway is really long, and if she’s patient and she continues to be in the right place and do the things she’s doing now, kind of the sky’s the limit for her.”
Brown is part of an emerging group of women who are having an impact in the IndyCar paddock and at Team Penske. On the morning of the Indy 500, she was among those who gathered at the scoring pylon for an annual prerace photo of female engineers and mechanics who worked the 500-Mile Race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
Also in the shot was Lauren Sullivan, who works as an engineer and team logistics coordinator for Penske’s three IndyCar teams. Sullivan also spots for Newgarden on road and street courses.
“It’s really cool to see when you look around how many females you see on different teams and making those connections,” Sullivan said.
“The annual photo on the grid we take was significantly larger this year than the last several years, and we still were missing several that couldn’t make it down there in time. It just really goes to show when you provide the opportunity – and not only the opportunity but also the accessibility. Because the opportunity has been there for a while. But the accessibility has been one of the barriers we have to push through.”
As a member of Paretta Autosport, Sullivan said it was difficult for the team to procure shoes of the right sizes “because they didn’t make them small enough because they didn’t need to before.” Female mechanics celebrated this year after successfully lobbying to bring industrial-strength soap to the women’s bathrooms in Gasoline Alley.
“So as the more women you bring in, the more those blind spots are realized, the more accessible it becomes and then you have something,” Sullivan said. “We’re hitting an equity point, which is beyond equality. That can only get you so far.”
On Sunday before the Indy 500, a group of women will gather for a photo that tells an annual story about their increasing impact on the world's biggest race.— Nate Ryan (@nateryan) May 26, 2023
"We're not here just to participate. We’re here improving performance. That’s really cool.”https://t.co/YfWGOlEphv
The Paretta entry at the 2021 Indy 500 opened the door to IndyCar for Brown and Sullivan (who also started in NASCAR).
“It was a huge turning point for visibility,” said Sullivan, a Southern California native who came from a family that raced Super Late Models at Irwindale Speedway. “Without that opportunity, I wouldn’t have known I liked IndyCar. It’s also brought awareness and attention of how many women are here. It’s way more than I understood in 2021.
“There still are some ways you can tell it’s a male-dominated sport, but in no manner are the opportunities being taken away or limited. It’s just that talent needs to come along, and I think it’s going to start happening at a faster pace.”
It seems to be happening at Penske, which now has a third woman playing a crucial role with its race weekend crews in IndyCar. Lauren Dusa joined Scott McLaughlin’s No. 3 Dallara-Chevy as an all-around mechanic last August
Dusa, who had no racing background while growing up working on engines, works in subassembly on gearboxes at the shop and on brakes at the track. She also handles the signboard for pit stops.
“I honestly didn’t know what to expect coming onto a race team,” Dusa said. “My partner’s in motorsports as well, and he gave me a glimpse of what it’s really like, and now I’m actually living in it. So it’s different than what I’d expected, but I feel like it’s kind of still a boys club for sure. But there’s still support for females, so inclusiveness is still getting there and a work in progress.”
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But she sees Brown (who marked the second consecutive year the Indy 500 winner had a female team member) making history as “amazing” and aspirational both for other young women and herself.
“Absolutely, the hunger is there,” Dusa said. “Caitlyn just happened to be over the wall first before me. It doesn’t mean it’s not my turn eventually. Hey, I’ll be the next first Penske female gearbox girl! The hunger is definitely there. I have high aspirations as far as my career in motorsports. I think it’s important to show other women that we can all do it.”
Dusa, who also has done bodywork at Penske in getting exposed to “the dynamics of learning all the different parts of building the car,” would like to garner the experience to be promoted to car chief.
That’s also a longer-term goal for Brown.
“I think just continuing to build off where I’m at now as a mechanic and over the wall,” Brown said. “Whatever opportunity comes my way, I want to try and take it. There’s a lot of great guys at the team that can help guide me there to get to that position.”