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  • Writer's pictureVIVIEN STREBELOW

Indy500: A race that transcends the on-track results

Updated: Jun 3, 2023

From the highs of qualifying, to a horrific accident and more bad luck in the race: while Katherine Legge's third Indy500 was surely a challenging one, it continues to be crucially important to see top female athletes competing in motorsports' flagship events, before the eyes of millions of young women.

Photo: Penske Entertainment / Chris Owens

The Indy 500 is an iconic event, not just in the US but in the whole world. It is one of the three motorsport competitions considered part of the Triple Crown, a legendary accolade that has eluded all by Graham Hill and that only motor racing royalty can dream of. Two of the Triple Crown events are usually held on the same day – which makes the last weekend of May some sort of motorsport wonder. Last Sunday, a few hours after the Monaco GP – the slowest on the F1 calendar – it was time for the Indianapolis 500: the fastest race on the planet. The 107th running of the Biggest Spectacle in Racing had many talking points, drama, red flags, accidents with luckily no consequences and a new winner after a last lap pass. And among the stories of this edition was also the return of a female driver at the race after Simona de Silvestro's run in 2021. While female presence at the top end of the Le Mans 24 Hours – the third element of the Triple Crown – has steadily grown and, in a week time, we will be able to potentially see five female drivers battling for class victories in LMP2 and GTE-Am, female participation at Indianapolis hasn't increased since the 2010s, when we had three editions (2010, 2011, 2013) with four female entries – a record for the event. After 20 years of consistent female presence on the grid, there were no women racing at the Indy500 in 2020 as well as in 2022. The stats are even more grim for the Monaco GP: a woman has never started the Monaco GP in the race's history. Both Maria Teresa de Filippis and Lella Lombardi attempted qualification in 1958/9 and 1975 but didn't make the grid. In 2023, the only woman racing on the famous streets of the Principality, considering all support series, was Sophia Floersch in FIA F3. Exactly ten years after her last 500 Miles race, the return of British driver Katherine Legge to the Speedway was in fact a big deal for the sport. Legge, 42, is a racing veteran with a resumé that needs no introductions: from a F1 test driving role, to DTM, Formula E, FIA WEC, IndyCar, a few starts in NASCAR and a Vice-Champion title in IMSA, Legge was set to enter her third Indianapolis 500 in a Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing entry.

Photo: Penske Entertainment / Joe Skibinski

Legge – who is also contesting the full IMSA GTD season in an all-female crew with Sheena Monk – clearly had a monumental task in front of her, having last driven an Indycar in 2013 – a significantly different car in behavior with new features such as the aeroscreen. Legge returned behind the wheel in a test at Texas Motor Speedway on April 3rd, as she re-acclimated with the car, and spent a lot of time at the team's workshop while trying to acquire as much information as possible ahead of the month of May. With 34 entries, her first major task would be to qualify. After the first practice session at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Legge worked with the team on setup and felt comfortable, running very promising laps among the no-tow times. "At the end of the day, I was super happy with the car. I wish I had gotten to go play with the rest of them in traffic but it’s better that we get everything fixed now and we can go do that later in the week", she commented. On Fast Friday, though, it became clear that the whole RLL team would need to find some more speed ahead of qualifying. "It’s always cool when you get to Fast Friday and you get to turn up the power but you don’t know what you’re going to get and all of the idiosyncrasies in the car come to life", Legge commented. "So, we were working through a program with the other three cars and we were one step forward and two steps back in trying to make progress in the general direction." "I think in that last run we did make progress. I don’t know how much of it was track conditions and because it was cooler. The engineers will go back and look at things and analyze. Hopefully we will come back tomorrow and put it in the show.” Fastest of the RLL cars on Fast Friday, qualifying was up next for Legge: things got serious, with only 30 drivers securing a place on the grid for the big race, while the final four would go up against each other in the Bump Day, aiming for the final three spots. Following one of the most thrilling qualifying in recent memory at the Speedway, Katherine Legge became the fastest woman in Indianapolis 500 history, clocking a fastest lap time of 231.596 MPH. Her four lap average of 231.070 MPH was good enough to secure a tenth row starting spot; the only car from the Rahal Letterman Lanigan stable to qualify on Saturday, further highlighting her achievement ten years after her last participation. “I can exhale a little bit now. My hands are still shaking. It’s just so much pressure. Come on, there’s nothing like it in the world" – the ecstatic British driver said after making the grid in 30th place.

Photo: Penske Entertainment / Travis Hinkle

"It was a bit stressful because I was out of time and we were getting ready to go do the same thing again if they were quicker and honestly we were out of time and we were at the mercy of the gods. Thankfully they were with me today." But the Indy 500 is a race capable of incredible highs - as well as lows: the excitement for the qualification was soon cut short on the following practice on Monday, when Legge was involved in a massive crash that left her car totaled and Stefan Wilson with a fractured vertebrae. ”The cars in front were all checking up and I lifted as much as I could and did two downshifts and started to hit the brakes but it wasn’t enough so I unfortunately got into the back of Stef [Wilson] and we both ended up in the wall", Katherine explained. "I know this is another blow to the team after yesterday and those guys just don’t deserve it. I’m fine and happy to know that Stefan is too.” The Rahal Letterman Lanigan crew put the heavily damaged car back together in a raceable shape. A few issues limited her run on Carb Day, as she got ready for race day on limited running on race setup. "When I left pit lane everything seemed fine and I went through Turn 1 and it was okay and then into Turn 2, I sort of felt a wobble and thought I had a loose tire", Legge recalled. "Then the wobble got worse and I realized it probably wasn’t smart to try and it bring it back to pit lane. Unfortunately, we had to pull off and I think it's broken through the threads on the hub.” The Biggest Spectacle in Racing, though, is such an unpredictable race that, starting from P29 – due to Rahal eventually getting Wilson's seat at Dreyer & Reinbold Racing – Legge remained optimistic, targeting a strong run on Memorial Day.

Photo: Penske Entertainment / Karl Zemlin

But there was again little luck for Legge: after a calm and trouble-free first part of the race, the driver of the #44 Hendrickson Dallara/Honda lost control of the car after the first pit stop and made light contact with the inside wall. While she initially continued, the car was brought back into pit road to change flat-spotted tires, then to replace the front left toe link. The required repair time meant that RLL would ultimately retire the car. “The first stint, I was just riding around basically trying to figure out how to get a run because it was the first proper time I’ve ridden around in traffic. So, I was just getting comfortable, and I was feeling like we were okay", Legge said.

"I was trying to chase understeer and ended up going too far and then the tires went away so I ended up in oversteer. I was just figuring all of the things out. I came in for the stop, which is the part I was worried about because I hadn’t practiced stops at any time because we had other things to deal with. So, I was concerned about coming into pit lane and stopping in the box. I wasn’t really concerned about the launch, and I ended up just overcooking the launch and barely touched the wall but it did race-ending damage, unfortunately." "I feel horrible for the guys", she continued. "I feel massively grateful to the Hendrickson Honda crew for the opportunity and to Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing. They worked so hard, and I just feel horrible. It’s been a hell of a month.” While the 2023 edition of the Indy500 wasn't meant to be for Katherine Legge, her presence on the grid for such an iconic race was nevertheless invaluable – for reasons that go beyond the sporting result. While Legge was obviously left disappointed and clearly, as any racing driver, she aimed at the top, it continues to be of crucial importance to have elite female athletes at the highest level of the sport. Just like projects such as Iron Dames are proving that women belong to the highest spheres of endurance racing, figures like Lyn St. James, Danica Patrick, Sarah Fisher ignited a movement that inspired young women Stateside; despite all challenges, efforts such as the epic run of Pippa Mann at the 2019 Indy500 – where she finished 16th in a rookie, family-run team – as well as Simona de Silvestro's in the female-forward Paretta Autosport operation in 2021 – have the power to change perspectives and spark the interest in the generation of tomorrow.

Photo: Penske Entertainment / Travis Hinkle

“I believe it’s incredibly important for women to compete in the Indy 500, in the cockpit as well as as team members and other important roles, because it showcases how women are and can be successful at the highest levels in Motorsports", Lyn St. James, 1992 Rookie of the Year and co-founder of Women In Motorsport North America, told us. "The Indianapolis 500 is the largest single day Motorsports event that is followed around the world and has a history of nine women competing as drivers, along with a number of engineers and over the wall crew members. It is one of the few sports where men and women compete with and against each other. The pipeline is growing and will continue to grow when women see what’s possible", she continued. Lyn St. James contested nine Indy 500 between 1992 and 2000, and continues to inspire and support generations of women both behind the wheel and behind the scenes in motorsport. "While I know she was disappointed in the result, I was glad to see Katherine Legge realize her dream of getting another chance to race in the 500. I look forward to seeing more female drivers who will not only be in the 500 but who will reach the level of competing for a full season and a championship.” St. James obviously has a point – as Tatiana Calderon was the last woman to commit to a full season campaign in Indycar, but due to sponsor issues the Colombian was forced to halt her learning season half-way through 2022. Single-race programs such as Legge's are also nowadays exponentially more challenging in a series that has witnessed a skyrocketing level of full-time entries. Yet, what is destined to remain from this 107th running of the Indy500, is a brilliant qualifying effort for a woman that outqualified her teammates before the eyes of millions of women and girls; moments that often transcend the sport and the final results – as perfectly summed up by Legge's IMSA teammate and friend Sheena Monk: "I’ve never fully understood the idea of if you can see her, you can be her, but the month of May changed that" – Monk wrote. "Not only was I inspired, but so were the countless girls and women who watched you put your heart into this race after 10 years away. The month was full of challenges and it was a privilege to learn from your tenacity first-hand. We know you wanted more but that just means it’s time to start planning for next year."

Photo: Penske Entertainment / Matt Fraver



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