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A healthy Katherine Legge back at Rolex 24 with renewed spirit to drive women in racing

Rolex 24 Katherine Legge

#57 Heinricher Racing w/Meyer Shank Racing Acura NSX GT3, GTD: Katherine Legge, fan

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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – She couldn’t walk yet, but Katherine Legge had to know whether she still could drive.

So while attending a Ferrari Challenge race last September at WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca – barely two months after breaking her legs during a hard crash in France – Legge climbed out of her wheelchair and behind the wheel.

“I thought I have to get back in the saddle and have to see whether I can still do this,” Legge told NBC Sports. “Am I going to be scared of crashing? Am I going to be scared of driving the car? The doctor said I wasn’t allowed to drive. I said, ‘I’ll do it gently. It’ll be fine.’

“It was good for peace of mind, because it also gives you motivation that I can do this. I can come back. It’s not going to affect me mentally. I’m just going to compartmentalize. And so that helped me be stronger and do the final push of rehab.”

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It also came with a silver lining for the popular veteran of sports cars, Champ Car and two Indy 500 appearances (2012-13).

“I had to brake with my right foot,” said Legge, whose left leg was injured more seriously in the wreck. “I’m normally a left-foot braker, but they were worried about my right ankle, and that healed up really well. So I’m very lucky, if I ever needed to, I can just use my right foot to brake.

“I guess that’s a blessing in disguise.”

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#57 Heinricher Racing w/Meyer Shank Racing Acura NSX GT3, GTD: Katherine Legge

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After six months of rehabilitation, Legge is “99 percent” recovered heading into the 59th annual Rolex 24 at Daytona, where she will be teamed with Christina Nielsen, former GTLM champion Earl Bamber and Rob Ferriol in the No. 88 Porsche 911 GT3R for Hardpoint EBM in the GTD division.

It’s a reunion with Nielsen, her teammate at the past two Rolex 24s, and they are hinting at a full season together in the IMSA WeatherTech Sports Car Championship Series.

Anything will be an improvement on 2020, which got off to a rough start with a 35th place DNF in the Rolex 24 for an all-female team that included Legge and Nielsen.

The July 16 crash cost Legge a start with another all-women entry in the 24 Hours of Le Mans and cast doubt on the resumption of the Guildford, England, native’s career.

“I am so happy to be back,” Legge said. “Last year was a complete disaster for me and for us as a team as well. It started at Daytona when (the car) unfortunately caught fire. That was not cool. Then COVID hit, everything got mixed around, and I broke both my legs in France. Again, not cool.

“The doctors said it’ll be four months before you’re up and walking and can get back to driving a race car. I was like, ‘Four months, ha. I’ll do it in two.’ Turns out the doctors were right. It was brutal.”

Legge persevered through being “surrounded by good people,” starting with those who watched her rescue dog, Barley, while she was stuck in France for five weeks of rehab and surgeries.

Upon returning home to Atlanta, she was greeted at the airport by friend and former teammate Andy Lally (whose large pickup truck came in handy for Legge and her wheelchair), and IMSA helped ensure that her parents could travel to America from the U.K. despite COVID-19 restrictions.

“As you get older, you realize who the important people are in your life,” she said. “Andy Lally picking me up from the airport. He’s a very dear friend of mine, and if he ever needs anything, I’m there.

“I’m really lucky. My parents helped a lot because I wasn’t really allowed to drive or do anything at that stage, so even getting in the shower and getting to the restroom, it’s really hard. You have a whole new appreciation for what people go through. I was very well supported.”

Lally said Legge was “all smiles” by the time he picked her up.

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#57 Heinricher Racing w/Meyer Shank Racing Acura NSX GT3, GTD: Katherine Legge

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“She’d gone through some rough surgeries, and obviously still had a lot of work ahead of her, but as always, she’s a fighter,” Lally told NBC Sports. “You could tell from the time she landed back in the States, she was full bore again through physical therapy and raring to go to get back in a race car.”

Nielsen, a two-time GTD champion, said she and Legge “represent our gender within the series and are part of creating diversity on the grid. So we really would like to keep that as a statement that’s close to our hearts, and that we want to make sure is present during the IMSA season.”

During Rolex 24 Media Day, Legge, 40, discussed her Rolex 24 ride, her evolving role and view on women in racing and her 2021 outlook and future:

Q: How did the deal come together to rejoin with Christina Nielsen?

A: “My journey started 10-12 years ago with the FIA Women in Motorsports Commission, when I was the female driving representative when they first decided they needed a big push to get more women in racing. At that time, I was driving Champ Car, and I was very selfish and focused on what I had to do in racing. I was almost against using the girl in racing card. I never wanted to be seen any differently. I just wanted to be taken seriously as a driver regardless of color, race, sex, anything else. I just wanted to be the best race car driver I could be.

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#57 Heinricher Racing w/Meyer Shank Racing Acura NSX GT3, GTD: Katherine Legge, Christina Nielsen, Bia Figueiredo, Autograph Session

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“I went many years down that path and I was the only girl on the team for a long, long time, and never saw myself any different because I was just doing what the guys were doing and just trying to be a race car driver. And the opportunity to do the Caterpillar car (in the 2019 Rolex 24) with Mike Shank and Jackie Heinricher came about, and I said, ‘If we do this properly and put the best female drivers together, then this could be something that’s bigger than me.’ It could be a legacy. It could really help get more women involved in racing at a grassroots level, which is really important. You’ve got hundreds of thousands of young guys who want to be race car drivers. The likelihood of finding some that are excellent is quite high. When you’ve only got a handful of women who want to be race car drivers, the likelihood of having the same degree of talent is lower. So it’s a numbers game, a pyramid. So we set down this path to get more women involved in racing, and that was also to do with STEM. We want more female engineers. So I really think if you can see it, you’ll believe it.”

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#57 Meyer Shank Racing w/ Curb-Agajanian Acura NSX GT3, GTD: Katherine Legge, Ana Beatriz, Simona De Silvestro, Christina Nielsen

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Q: Did the all-female team (which also included Nielsen, Simona de Silvestro and Bia Figueiredo) for the 2019 Rolex 24 have the impact you wanted?

A: “We put together some of the best female drivers in the world. And we did it properly. And it was so well received. I can’t tell you how many young people came up to us and wanted to be race car drivers or engineers or mechanics, and it was honestly the neatest feeling you were doing more than just being a race car driver. You were leaving a legacy. You were doing something that was positively impacting other people.

“So that had a big impact on me personally, and I’m not getting any younger. When I’ve stopped racing, what am I going to do? So I want there to be something special I can look back on and go, ‘I’m proud of that.’ I could have gone back to the path of being the only girl on the team and driving for a normal team, but I think what we’re doing is special, and I believe in it. Especially last year, there was a big push in diversity in so many different areas. And Christina and I have worked really, really, really hard to get there and have become really good friends while we’re doing it, and I think it’s important. We’ve got unfinished business that we can prove that we can finish on the podium and show the world.”

Q: Do you like your chances in this year’s Rolex 24?

A: “We have a great driver lineup for Daytona this year. We’ve got Earl, who’s a friend of mine but also a really badass Porsche driver. So we’re learning from the best of the best, which is cool. Rob, who has done so much in so little time, and Christina and myself. So yes, I think we have a really good driver lineup, but so many other cars have really good driver lineups that this year is stacked. Especially in GTD, there are a ton of GTLM drivers doing it. It’s going to be really tough.”

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#88 Team Hardpoint EBM Porsche 911 GT3R, GTD: Earl Bamber, Rob Ferriol, Katherine Legge, Christina Nielsen

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Q: There have been some big announcements for women in racing, including Simona de Silvestro returning to the Indy 500 and a female program manager for Corvette Racing. Are you encouraged by the progress or still feel there’s a way to go for gender equality in racing?

A: “I think it’s really exciting to see so many women getting so many opportunities in racing. I think it’s been a long time coming. I think it’s going to snowball from here. I still think we need to prove ourselves. I don’t think in any way, shape or form it should be given an easy ride. I think that’s a dangerous road to go down, too. So in a way, I wish I’d been coming up through my career in these times, because I think there’s a lot more opportunities for women now, but I also think they’re going to have to earn them because it’s going to have a negative impact. I think when you do something like that in the spotlight, you have to follow through. And you have to be as good if not a better job than the guys do. Otherwise, it’s going to be almost like a gimmick. And that is my worst fear.

“So I’m really supporting these girls and these women. You’ve got Ferrari doing an academy of trying to put someone in F4 with a view to the first female in F1. So there’s a lot going on behind the scenes at the moment. You’ve got Extreme E, they’re doing co-ed drivers. I think there’s a lot more opportunities, and I think at least one or two of these girls is going to really shine and that should help everyone else.”

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#57 Heinricher Racing w/Meyer Shank Racing Acura NSX GT3, GTD: Katherine Legge, Christina Nielsen, Bia Figueiredo, Autograph Session

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Q: What’s your outlook for 2021 and beyond?

A: “I’m yet to announce all of my 2021 racing plans. I’ve been working hard with the same vision to women in racing. It’s really been a shift for me. It’s not that I wouldn’t do anything co-ed again, because I absolutely would. I think it’s important to do both, but there’s a lot of things going on with women all around the world.

“I would love to do the Indy 500 again. I would love to do some NASCAR races again (she made four Xfinity starts in 2018 for JD Motorsports). That was the most fun I’ve ever had in a race car. And there’s still some unfinished business in Europe that I have, so I’m working on piecing everything together. Watch this space.”