Women of the Indy 500 Talk About Going Over the Wall and Breaking Barriers

Mechanics Jessica Mace, Anna Chatten talk about going "over the wall."

May 22, 2015, 6:18 PM

— -- The Indianapolis 500, one of the most watched races in the world, has long been a male-dominated competition with cars flying around the track at breakneck speeds and pit crews taking mere seconds to change tires.

But women are now blazing trails in this world of high-testosterone racing, from the driver’s seat to pit crew.

Just last week, driver Katherine Legge announced she was teaming up with motorsports executive Beth Paretta to form Grace Autosport, the first all-female IndyCar Series racing team, with the goal to compete in the 2016 Indy 500.

This year, two women, out of 33 drivers, have qualified to race in 99th Indy 500 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway on Sunday: Switzerland’s Simona de Silvestro and England’s Pippa Mann.

Only nine woman have ever raced in the Indy 500, starting with Janet Guthrie, a driver in the late 1970s. Another was 34-year-old Sarah Fisher, who now owns an Indy team. She had the distinction of losing two cars in separate spectacular crashes during qualifying heats this week, both worth hundreds of thousands of dollars.

“That was maybe a $450,000 loss,” Fisher told ABC News after the first car hit the wall, spun and turned a looping backflip.

Whereas nine women have raced the track, only two have worked elbow deep in grease and car carcass in the pit crew. The adrenaline-pounding work of pit crew is arguably one of the more dangerous roles in sports. It’s a job, Fisher said, in which every millisecond matters.

“Those people over the wall train to be in that position,” she said. “Whether it’s a female or a male, as a race car driver you train to be in that position. When you’re over the wall, you sign off on that opportunity, and it’s the same regardless of who you are.”

Indy veteran Anna Chatten has been a mechanic for nearly 20 years and was the first woman ever go over the wall and work pit crew during an Indy 500 race.

When she first started, Chatten said guys would come up to her and ask her what she was doing on the track, but “now everyone knows me on pit lane,” she said. Chatten’s fellow mechanics have come to accept her as one of their own, she said, but spectators are still caught by surprise.

“Lots of people make the mistake that I might be PR [public relations] and not a mechanic,” she said. “This guy rolls up just as were about to roll the car out, so a bust time, not the best time to talk. But I’m accommodating. ... So the guy asks me, ‘Who is that guy in the paisley hat?’ Now there’s 20 people wearing paisley hats this month, so I say, 'Which guy?' And he got very offended and said I am not a very good PR person. And I said, ‘Great, because I’m not the PR person.”

Chatten is responsible for setting up the gearbox, the souped-up manual transmission in race cars, every time a car runs. It’s a piece of machinery with more than 600 combinations.

“If you get one little piece not in the right spot, it's game over,” she said. “Because all of this stuff works together, one little piece in the wrong spot and it's game over.”

And although she is wearing the same safety gear that all pit crew members wear, the job can be extremely risky.

“I did get hurt once and busted my foot up,” Chatten said. “We had a driver that came in and wasn’t good at making his marks. You have half a second to decide if he was going to make his mark, and the pit wall was really high and I didn’t have enough time to get over the wall. So it hit my foot and broke my foot.”

The second woman ever to work pit crew during the Indy 500 is Jessica Mace, a 27-year-old mechanic from Bellville, Ohio. She’ll be changing tires for racer Conor Daly in the Indy 500. Mace and her team can change a tire on the track in about three seconds -- in a ritual so practiced it seems they are on fast forward.

“Changing tires is one of the most physical things you can do,” Mace said.

Although she wears a fire suit and a helmet like her fellow male pit crew members, Mace said she is still treated differently, sometimes, in the heat of the moment.

“[The drivers] will ask the guys to do something and I will just get left out and, if you want to do that, that’s fine with me, I will work harder,” Mace said. “You deal with it and keep moving forward because you are not going to change their minds. You just have to work through it.”

Mace said she grew up watching racing and that her grandfather raced cars for 40 years. She doesn’t see driving in her future, but said men are starting to become more accepting of women on the track.

“We are here to work with you," she said. "So you can fight us and your car won’t perform well, or you can deal with us and we can work together."

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