The 107th running of the Indianapolis 500 is just over a week away, but the historic event will be without one of its most remarkable stories in recent years.
At the 2021 edition of the race, the ‘female-owned, female-driven, female-forward’ Paretta Autosport team made their debut. An extension of the ‘Race for Equality and Change’ initiative from IndyCar and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway (IMS), this represented a significant step forward for women in motorsport.
Historically, the Indy 500 has a better track record than its peers in wider motorsport when it comes to female representation; the 2020 race was the first without a female entrant since 1991. Compare this to the more prominent Formula One, which hasn’t seen a woman take part in a race since 1976.
However, the progress made in years like 2010, where four women qualified for the race out of five total entrants, has not been as apparent recently. With Paretta Autosport absent this year owing to a lack of technical support, Katherine Legge, driving for Rahal Letterman Lanigan Racing, will be the sole woman entering the Indy 500, potentially making her first appearance since 2013.
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But, despite the disappointment of not making it three consecutive years on the starting grid, team owner Beth Paretta offers some perspective.
“I think we’re a cautionary tale because we came so far,” she explains. “In 2021, the Indy 500 was 110 years old. Women were not allowed into the paddock at [IMS] until 1971. [This] doesn’t necessarily sound like it’s that long ago, but it occurred to me that it was 50 years ago.
“Our team [debuting] was still 50 more years [from the first woman being allowed in the paddock]. I remember talking to [nine-time Indy 500 entrant] Lyn St. James and she said at her first few times at the Speedway as a fan with friends, she’d have to go up to the fence and stay there, but the guys could go in.”
The first woman to be admitted entrance was actually a journalist called Bettie Cadou. According to Indianapolis Monthly, her reporting was restricted to stories on the driver’s wives, children and track fashion. Even then, it was confined to the ‘Women’s Section’ of the newspaper.
Paula Murphy, pictured here with then-Nascar president Bill France Sr., was the first woman to drive around the IMS circuit
Paula Murphy, now a member of the Motorsports Hall of Fame of America, had been allowed to pilot a car around the IMS track in 1963, but this was on her own, away from the spectacle of an event like the Indy 500. Just six years after “Gasoline Alley Goes Feminine”, as Cadou’s first column read, Janet Guthrie became the first woman to qualify for the iconic race.
Fast forward to the present day and, so far, ten women have competed for one of the most coveted trophies in all of motorsport. Half of these have entered a race since 2010, but only Danica Patrick and Simona de Silvestro have started the Indy 500 since 2014.
Paretta Autosport was conceived to arrest this downward trend, but their absence from the 2023 season shows how much further there is still to go.
Race to the start
The storied debut of Paretta Autosport was borne out of the failed launch of Grace Autosport, Beth Paretta’s previous venture which began in 2015, but then couldn’t enter the 2016 Indy 500 due to logistical complications.
The spirit of Grace Autosport has very much been continued with the new team, yet the former name also serves as a reminder of the unbalanced scales not just in motorsport, but in everyday life.
“The whole idea [behind Grace Autosport] was to get more [opportunities for] women, to get veteran motorsport people to train and mentor them,” Paretta explains.
“It was funny that, even back then, you could tell who understood it and who didn’t, who got the importance of it and who didn’t. Then we didn’t run in 2016 because of a logistics issue.
“But then I had to pivot and take care of family, actually, which I think a lot of people can relate to when you have a small business – everything stops. Often in my situation, not to stereotype, but as a woman I wound up being the primary caregiver for my dad.”
We're sorry to say we won't run in the 2016 Indy 500. (But we're already planning what's next.) More: https://t.co/A8XKgxML7A. #ThankYou— Grace Autosport (@GraceAutosport) May 18, 2016
One of the biggest hurdles facing women in motorsport is opportunity, and it highlights the progress still required when a team designed to service that very need is sidelined by traditional gender roles.
It is perhaps counter-intuitive at this point to assign credit to a man but, without the support of Roger Penske - the man behind the Penske Corporation, IMS and IndyCar itself, among others - Paretta Autosport would not have had the opportunity to succeed. This highlights the need for a collective effort to enact meaningful change.
Paretta continues: “In 2020, I struck a deal with Roger Penske [and] my intention when I first met with him was that we would maybe start in sports cars and then go to Indy Lights, which is now Indy NXT, and then IndyCar. It was Roger who said, ‘why don’t we do IndyCar now?’ I realise it seems illogical but it was his encouragement [that pushed us].”
Another aspect that helped was that, even in the space of the five years that had passed since Grace Autosport, attitudes were beginning to shift. Motorsport is worse than most industry sectors when it comes to gender diversity, but initial steps are welcome all the same.
“I think the reason why it was able to come together when it did was more people were starting to get their [head] around the idea of needing gender diversity,” outlines Paretta. “The reason we want more women working in racing is because we want more women to be watching racing, so that we can keep racing as an industry.”
Paretta congratulates driver Simona de Silvestro after she successfully qualified for the 2021 Indy 500
Step in the right direction
What followed was a comparatively more comprehensive campaign in 2022, even if Paretta Autosport was still present at only four races of the season. Initially, it was set to be a three-race campaign before a ‘surprise’ announcement of an additional outing.
“It was going to be four all along, that was a tease,” reveals Paretta. “What I loved is that it was one in June, one July, one August, one September. It kept our narrative going and it was all around the country so we were able to get to new markets and see new fans in person.
“Of course, the Indy 500, everyone watches that, but it was really cool to then go to Laguna Seca and see people wearing the T-shirt with Simona’s face on it.”
Significant attention was also garnered among mainstream media. Paretta points out that “the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times and [even] People Magazine” covered the team’s qualification for the 2021 Indy 500. She also refers to “6.8 billion media impressions” as a result of the achievement.
This kind of attention is a crucial aspect for a new team attempting to encourage as much commercial engagement as possible. Announcing the team’s debut a full year before it lined up at the 2021 Indy 500 not only allowed time for potential sponsors to contact Paretta Autosport, but it also presented a new commercial opportunity for brands unsure of how they fit into the motorsport industry.
A bit in @people magazine— Beth Paretta (@BethParetta) May 29, 2021
Simona de Silvestro Races at Indy 500 for Paretta Autosport's Female Team | https://t.co/5b2VXcXfPt https://t.co/UgJG91qUrV
“What’s interesting - it’s happened on more than one occasion - is I’ve talked to a company that has shown interest in motorsport sponsorship, and they haven’t been able to settle on the programme,” Paretta says.
“There was one in particular that was going to be in Nascar, and they were seven months into negotiations and they couldn’t really close the deal. [When the agency I work with made this company aware of us], the CMO said, ‘tell us more about that’. That deal was then closed in eight hours.”
It’s the authentic feel of the team that makes it so attractive to potential sponsors, and it’s what Paretta’s most proud of when she reflects on the team’s successes and challenges. The female-first nature of the team is something that drives its message home, yet there is currently no sight of a return to the IndyCar grid for Paretta Autosport.
The support offered by Roger Penske was a one-year deal with an option of further years but, as Paretta admits, she knew that the team was likely to lose a lot of their support once Team Penske announced its collaboration with Porsche Motorsport to field an LMDh (Le Mans Daytona h) car.
That’s not to say the support hasn’t been invaluable, with “a great relationship” allowing Paretta Autosport to flourish, and she notes Roger Penske specifically was helpful behind the scenes with any challenges they had. But Penske’s venture into endurance racing had its consequences.
“That became what’s effectively still a labour shortage,” she explains. “There weren’t enough people to do both. Everybody could say ‘just hire more people’, but you can’t just hire a 25-year IndyCar veteran. We showed what we’re capable of, but then what you’ve seen last year and this year is we’re still caught out on the labour shortage.”
Paretta Autosport should have been lining up at the Indy 500 in just over a week’s time, but Paretta unfortunately had to pull out due to difficulties securing an engine for the event’s open test. It may have been possible to get things turned around in time, but this would have been a one-off entry for the season, so Paretta was only interested if it meant her team had the best opportunity to perform.
“I want to make sure that we always have the best opportunity possible,” she states. “I’m responsible for making sure that we have a car that is safe [and] competitive, [giving us] the best possible shot. If all those tools aren’t really in place, it’s up to me [to make the decision].
“Being protective of the programme and not wanting to start on the backfoot, I pulled the plug. It’s the right decision even though it’s a tough decision.”
What does the future hold?
This tough decision raises questions not just around the future of Paretta Autosport, but also women in motorsport in general. Barriers to entry are more obvious when this team is a needle in the motorsport haystack - a haystack that is also predominantly white men.
Paretta points to Jamie Chadwick, three-time champion of the now-defunct W Series, who is now plying her trade in Indy NXT, the support series to IndyCar. If she has a disappointing season, people will point to that as an example of women on the whole not being ready. In Paretta’s words, it’s a “monolithic” attitude.
Paretta points out the pressure of women succeeding in motorsport should not be placed on the shoulders of young drivers, such as Jamie Chadwick who currently competes in the Indy NXT series
Challenging these attitudes is the driving force behind Paretta Autosport and, even in their short time on track, the team has already given hope to those watching and waiting for representation.
Paretta expands: “I’m privileged to receive so many notes on social media. You’re so busy working [that] you forget how many people are watching. When you get those notes or you meet people at the track, it helps us to remember that it’s worth it.
“If you asked me who was my role model as a kid, I didn’t have a direct [female] reference. Now the hope [is to change that] with us being more visible. I met a 16-year-old girl and she’d seen Drive to Survive, [she wanted] to be a team owner! It makes you realise ‘I’m proof of concept’.”
Whether Paretta Autosport returns to IndyCar is a different story, although it’s clear that the Indy 500 will always have a place for the team when it’s possible. Paretta says that “future plans are in progress” and indicates the team’s future is not necessarily tied to IndyCar, stating that “down the line” she would “love to be in a few [different series]”.
Spreading the team’s message on a global scale would be a challenging but impressive step for the Detroit-based team. But ensuring there are suitable role models at all levels of motorsport will ultimately encourage more women to get involved.
The likes of Susie Wolff (left) and Hannah Schmitz (right) being visible in influential positions means there are role models to inspire the next generation, something Paretta couldn’t call on growing up
This is already something that’s shifting with the likes of Susie Wolff, the newly installed managing director of F1 Academy, and Red Bull Racing principal strategy engineer Hannah Schmitz in high-profile positions. But seeing a woman given a fair chance on track is the next big hurdle that motorsport needs to overcome.
As always, this comes down to opportunity.
“Give them the tools, give them the time, give them the opportunity – they have the interest, they have the work ethic – but give them the space to realise their potential,” Paretta says. “If you’re not giving them the opportunity, it’s a false start.”