Annual race day photo tells the story of women having a growing impact on Indy 500 results
INDIANAPOLIS – In the same place where “Gentlemen, start your engines” became a thing, a few dozen women will assemble Sunday for a photo at the Indy 500 scoring pylon.
Just after the last notes of the national anthem, a group of female engineers, mechanics and high-level managers will scurry over for an annual pose that has become a figurative and literal snapshot of the progress for gender equity at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
Eight years ago, there were three women in the inaugural photo.
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There might be 10 times as many before the 107th Indy 500 – and several of them could play a key role in which driver is swigging milk while being cheered by 300,000 as champion of the world’s biggest race.
Last year, Angela Ashmore, the support engineer who calculates fuel strategy for Marcus Ericsson, became the first woman on a team that won the Greatest Spectacle in Racing.
This year, it could be Anna Chatten, the gearbox mechanic for six-time NTT IndyCar Series champion Scott Dixon.
Or Kate Gundlach, a lead performance engineer for Arrow McLaren (which qualified all four of its cars in the first four rows).
“That’s been a really cool evolution to see how that’s transpired,” Chatten, who has worked on Indy 500 teams for 20 years, told NBC Sports. “I wish it was moving at an even faster rate, but it is definitely is progressing in a forward direction.
“I can’t stress enough when I first started in this business, I definitely was made to feel like it was a privilege that I got to even participate. Now we don’t just participate. We’re here improving performance now. That’s been the really cool part.”
The Indy 500 has been associated with successful women for nearly a half-century since Janet Guthrie became the first woman to race in the Indy 500 in 1977 (the same year she made history by starting the Daytona 500).
There have been many trailblazers since, including Lyn St. James, Sarah Fisher (the pace car driver for this year’s race) and Danica Patrick, who (as a rookie) became the first woman to lead the Indy 500 in 2005.
Since Guthrie, nine women have raced the Indy 500, including a record four three times, but it’s become sporadic since the retirement of Patrick in 2018. After two years without a woman in the 33-driver field, the all-female Paretta Autosport qualified Simona de Silvestro in 2021, and Katherine Legge squeaked into Sunday’s race.
Legge, who will be making her third Indy 500 start but first since 2013, has noticed a change in the fan demographic.
“Most of the fans were guys 10 years ago,” Legge said. “Now there’s as many women as there are men. It’s really cool because they come up to and say, ‘You’re racing for every woman out there. My daughter can be whatever she wants to be now because of this.’ I feel a little bit of responsibility but also an immense amount of pride. I hope little girls see that and think, ‘OK, I can be whatever I want to be.’ Times are changing. Women are running companies, even countries now.
“The amount of female fans here, I’d like to think we had an impact like that. There’s been a ton of women and a ton of women support as well. There’s definitely this movement of girl power, and we should all stick together. I really love it. It’s been fantastic and really cool.”
There certainly are many role models beyond the wheel.
As the number of women wearing firesuits and crunching numbers on timing stands has mushroomed, the U.S. motorsports industry also has become diversified into the upper ranks.
In NASCAR, women are running racetracks or major events (Julie Giese in Chicago, Jill Gregory in Sonoma, Latasha Causey in Phoenix and Lori Waran in Richmond).
In sports cars next month, a woman (Laura Wontrop Klauser) will oversee Cadillac’s attempt to become the first U.S. brand to win the overall at the 24 Hours of Le Mans in more than 50 years, and one of its entries will have a lead engineer (Danielle Shepherd) who has a prestigious Twelve Hours of Sebring victory to her credit.
Of new hires last year by Penske Entertainment, the parent company of Indianapolis Motor Speedway and IndyCar, 41.3 percent were women (up from 25 percent in 2021).
In the TV compound Sunday, Rene Hatlelid will be the lead producer of her third consecutive Indy 500 (after becoming the first woman to hold the role in the race’s history) before moving next month to become the lead producer of NASCAR on NBC broadcasts.
While the number of female drivers has ebbed at the Brickyard, women are having a greater impact in behind-the-scenes roles than at any point in Indy 500 history.
“What’s so different now is that now we have critical mass,” St. James, who made seven Indy 500 starts from 1992-2000, told NBC Sports. “We have numbers. That’s what is needed to have change. We have women team owners like Beth. Women presidents of racetracks.
“If everybody is doing something, the floodgates have opened, but we have to continue to let women know this is an industry and sport that welcomes them, and that they have career opportunities here in many different categories. No longer should the women drivers also feel the pressure that they’re having to carry the whole damn gender in our sport because that’s not fair, either. I love the fact that people are paying attention to the engineers. You have to tell these stories.
“It takes a lot of things for change to occur. The good news it’s happening and actually making a positive difference. We’re thinking differently and growing as a sport and industry because we’re not just doing what we’ve always done. Women are shining, and I like that.”
It doesn’t seem coincidental the groundswell is happening nearly 20 years after millions watched Patrick nearly win the 2005 Indy 500 – laying the generational foundation that many have pointed to as a key inspirational inflection point.
Patrick, who will return with host Mike Tirico as part of NBC Sports’ Indy 500 broadcast this year, said she is “super flattered” to be credited with playing a role in the growth.
“I think IndyCar takes the trophy for the top-level series that has been putting the most into giving women their opportunity,” Patrick said. “I think by not thinking about myself as a girl or using women as a benchmark for anything, it’s probably what gave me my level of success.
“But in all of history, in all aspects of life, there will always be the 4-minute mile people. There will always be people that do things for the first time, and people need to see it, and then it enters the collective or the zeitgeist, and then all of a sudden you see more of it right away. Whatever level of contribution I had, I’m honored. I was not the first woman to come along but the first to do a few things. I’m happy and proud to have my part in history.”
The Indy 500 group photo was the brainchild of Cara Krstolic and an offshoot of a Facebook group started for women in racing by the director of race tire engineering and manufacturing for Firestone.
Before rising into management, Krstolic started as an IndyCar engineer in 2007 and was discouraged by the paddock’s lack of female presence.
“I looked around said, ‘Where are all the women?’ ” Krstolic told NBC Sports, recalling a “plenty embarrassing story” that resulted from her hunt for female kinship.
She received an email that included a new Dallara engineer named Andrea.
“I emailed back and said, ‘Hey, when you’re at the track and anything you need, feel free to come by,’ ” Krstolic said. “We’ve got snacks! I was so happy to help and so excited there was another female engineer.
“And he wrote me back a nice email that said, ‘I’m sorry, it’s Andrea in Italian, but I’m really glad to know you’re so opening and welcoming for other females.’ ”
An encouraging environment is viewed as instrumental in attracting new female talent to the traditionally male-dominated garages. Through sponsor PNC Bank, Chip Ganassi Racing is in its second year with a Women in Motorsports internship program.
But Ashmore (whose importance to Ericsson’s Indy 500 victory prominently was featured in a new documentary) said the impetus often can begin outside of the racetrack.
The seeds of her passion for racing were planted by a NASCAR-loving father who took her often a short track in Berlin, Michigan.
“I just totally fell in love, and that’s all I ever wanted to do,” she said. “I had no idea how I was going to do it or what I was going to do. I just wanted to be around it.”
After initially wanting to be a driver, Ashmore gravitated toward joining the support system for a race car. A high school inclination for math and science led her to an engineering role of crunching numbers and running computer simulations.
The Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) programs being offered now give her hope that other young girls will follow the same path.
“Like really it’s a systemic problem that starts way before you’re through college and looking for a job in motorsports,” she said. “It’s when you’re 5, are you being encouraged to play with the Legos if you want to play with Legos? If you want to go to the garage with Dad to check out the car, are you being encouraged to do that? I think there’s more structured programs now that really focus on exposure of STEM fields to girls and young ladies way earlier on.
“It’s now starting to show in those college programs. They send the statistics with how many females they have enrolled in those programs, and the numbers just go up every year. It’s massively different than when I went to school 10 years ago.”
Laura Wontrop Klauser, who was named sports car program manager for General Motors in 2021, participated two decades ago in Formula SAE (Society of Automotive Engineers) events in which teams from universities compete to design and build race cars. She was among a handful of women competitors.
She volunteered to help a Formula SAE event last weekend in Michigan and estimated as many as 25 percent of competitors were women.
“It didn’t dawn on me in the moment, but my husband Eric said it was really cool to see all the women,” Klauser said. “I think it was cool it didn’t affect me like I was blown away. But at the same time for him to see it, that’s really neat. All the hard work for so many years is paying off. You have to start young and be patient. There’s a reason that we in the auto industry want to capture the hearts and minds of the kids with our cars, because once we can get them hooked, we’ve got a customer when they’re ready to buy.
“It’s the same thing. If you can get people excited when they’re younger, then at least you planted a seed, and they’re thinking about it vs. not even considering it because ‘I can’t do that. It’s a boy’s job.’”
As one of only three female IndyCar mechanics among a workforce of roughly 350, Chatten wants to expose more women to working directly on the cars.
“We have to put motor racing in front of them so they know it’s an outlet they can pursue and be successful at,” she said. “That’s part of the problem why there’s not more of us. A lot of this is getting the word out there and looking in the right places. You have to find the path whether male or female.”
Allison Melangton found her path into racing as a senior vice president for Penske Entertainment, overseeing marketing, communications, corporate partnerships and content at the Indy 500.
Melangton, who also worked for USA Gymnastics and as an NBC Sports producer on several Olympics, joined the company the year before the 100th running of the Indianapolis 500 in 2016. Previously, she had become the second woman to lead a Super Bowl host committee as its president and CEO, organizing the bid that brought the NFL championship game to Indianapolis in 2012.
The city is known for women in senior sports leadership roles (the Pacers have a female president of entertainment and the country’s first sports commission was started by an Indianapolis woman in 1979).
But that made little difference when Melangton was riding in a shuttle van after being named to lead the Super Bowl.
“We were driving downtown, and something about the Super Bowl came on the radio,” Melangton told NBC Sports. “A gentleman in front of me said, ‘Can you believe our city hired a woman to run our Super Bowl?’ And I’m thinking, ‘Yeah, well, I’m 3 inches behind you.’
“And then the conversation went on for 20 minutes about how interesting it was that Indianapolis, the mayor and governor would select a woman to do it.”
Melangton remained silent throughout the strangers’ conversation.
“There was nothing said negatively about women,” she said. “Even though it would have been easy to be offended, I wasn’t because the lesson that I took from it is people don’t frequently understand jobs in sports. They don’t understand that it’s about contracts and security and legal and volunteers and marketing and communications and on and on and on. They think about it as the actual sport.
“It’s about educating people about what these jobs are.”
After moving from Colorado, Allison Melangton found a sports paradise in Indianapolis. @IndyAllison is a Hoosier by Choice!— Visit Indiana (@VisitIndiana) May 31, 2022
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Melangton, who credits Olympics executive Anita De Franz as a trailblazer who spurred female executive hiring for sports in the 1980s, noted that Penske Entertainment’s 10-person executive leadership team is split equally on gender lines and has a female lead corporate counsel of two decades.
“We have a lot of women across the company leading departments at IndyCar and IMS,” she said. “I think it’s important for women to see other women in these key executive and competition roles and have younger women come up and say that’s what I want to do.
“When I was just in Long Beach walking the (IndyCar) paddock, I was smiling the entire time. Because I couldn’t tell you how many women I encountered, and this year feels like another jump in the numbers.”
This year’s Acura Grand Prix of Long Beach also featured a group photo supporting women in motorsports that was organized by Women in Motorsports North America.
The organization was formed last year by St. James and Paretta, supporting female opportunity in racing and highlighting female pioneers (this week, it celebrated 95-year-old Paula Murphy, the first woman to make laps in a race car at IMS in the 1960s).
Noting a general societal push for more gender equity the past two years, St. James said “people are coming to us now. I’ve been talking about this for decades, and I felt like the Lone Ranger. Now I feel that because everyone we talk to in the industry -- OEMs, other stakeholders, sponsors -- everybody in this sport are receptive and trying to figure out what they should be doing.”
The organization has taken group photos this year at several IMSA and IndyCar races, including the Rolex 24 at Daytona, the Twelve Hours of Sebring and the Grand Prix of St. Petersburg.
Thank you to the ladies that joined the WIMNA photo op @WeatherTechRcwy . Team owners, drivers, technicians, crew, media, operations, PR and more! WIMNA STRONG! (Photo: Allan Rosenberg)#IMSA #weathertechchampionship #womeninmotorsportsna #shiftupnow pic.twitter.com/GWR0TqAeUy— Women in Motorsports NA (@_WIMNA) May 13, 2023
“I have an old-fashioned theory that women need to be invited, men show up,” St. James said. “Women won’t generally crash a party. If you see a bunch of women, that automatically invites you to come in.
“We’re doing these photos at nearly every race and asking men and women to come support women in motorsports. Because without men standing shoulder to shoulder with us, it’s going to look like us against them. That’s not the deal. It’s trying to show solidarity and inclusiveness.”
Krstolic took part in the Long Beach photo and appreciated that men were included because one of her most important mentors in racing was a man, former Firestone executive Page Mader.
“He’d take me to the IndyCar teams and say, ‘This is Cara, you need to listen to her, she’s smart and going to run the place someday,’ ” Krstolic said. “My boss didn’t care I was female. ‘She’s the best person. Listen to her.’ I love the fact they include the men in those photos.”
The Facebook group (Women Engineers and Mechanics in Motorsports) that spawned the Indy 500 photo remains an active hub with 35 members.
The posts can include job postings, hawking wares (a North Carolina woman who works in NASCAR makes female-oriented track packs) or celebrating smaller wins than the Indy 500.
Chatten recently posted a photo noting that the women’s bathrooms in Gasoline Alley finally had the DoJo soap to remove dirt and grease (after some lobbying by her Ganassi team).
“I didn’t realize how important it was to reach out to other females coming in, and it was Cara who started the group and said we need to collectively wrap our arms around this to make it better,” Chatten said.
Krstolic has watched women new to IndyCar receive valuable mentoring.
“It makes me so proud to see that,” she said. “This Facebook group was just really started to if you want to vent about something that happened or share a success.”
But one of its signatures has become the Indy 500 photo, which remained an annual tradition through the social distancing of the 2020 pandemic race (“we got yelled at because we weren’t supposed to be on pit lane,” Krstolic said with a laugh) and had a record number in ’21 while incorporating much of Paretta Autosport. A group of African-American team members also were inspired by the women to take a photo of their own last year.
There actually will be two photos taken when the female group’s members gather again Sunday near the pylon. One will include any women working in the racing industry.
Krstolic ensures another is for those in core competition and STEM-related technical positions (such as engineers and over the wall mechanics). She likes showing those photos in schools, as she recently did with a STEM club for middle schoolers in Tennessee.
“That is a huge motivator for a young person thinking is she can do it, so can I,” Krstolic said.
Look no further than last year’s Indy 500 podium: The top three finishers in last year’s Indy 500 each had a woman on the timing stand.
“When I see someone win, I don’t see the car or driver that wins,” Krstolic said. “I think, ‘Oh Anna is on that team, or Danielle is on that team.
“It’s really neat to see this group grow. It’s a great group of women and not just me pushing it anymore. It’s all the women together celebrating each other’s successes.”