Meet Pippa Mann, Only Female Driver at Indy 500

by Jennifer Davis-Flynn

Way back in 2013, journalists were convinced that female IndyCar drivers were no longer a talking point. Katherine Legge, Ana Beatriz, Simona de Silvestro, and Pippa Mann were all strong competitors on the circuit. A year later, at the 98th running of the Indianapolis 500, only one remained: Pippa Mann.

“Here at the Indianapolis 500 you always think of there being female drivers in the field,” British Driver, Pippa Mann, told Bustle in a pre-race interview in Indianapolis. “So, while I’m incredibly glad and grateful I get to continue this tradition, it is a little strange to me that there is only me out there. I hope it returns to having at least one or two more [women] next year.”

Finding sponsors might be part of the problem. It’s no secret that famed racing dynasties dominate the sport, as evidenced by this year’s lineup of drivers with famous fathers: Marco Andretti, Graham Rahal, Ed Carpenter, and Jacques Villineuve. In many ways, IndyCar racing — unlike drag racing, which is filled with champion female drivers — still looks like an old boys club. It can be hard to break through.

This is Mann’s second consecutive year with Dale Coyne Racing, where, along with teammates Justin Wilson and rookie Carlos Huertas, she qualified for the fastest field in Indy 500 history.

During the race, Mann started at the 22nd position. Through Lap 50, Mann was steadily moving up to the middle of the pack and was on course for a finish in the top 15. However, her slow second pit stop and the resulting loose tire caused her to have to return immediately back to the pits, where her crew struggled with a tire nut. The time she lost was unrecoverable.

“It was a horrible feeling, sitting there on pit lane, with the engine off, knowing all chances of a good result were gone,” she said. But I also knew I wanted to get back on track if I could.”

Mann finished 24th overall — and she did it in a hot pink car, raising money for Susan G. Komen.

The partnership with Susan G. Komen began when Mann decided to turn her signature red and yellow helmet pink for an auction to raise money for the Susan G. Komen Central Indiana affiliate. Soon, the national organization got involved, and the partnership grew from a pink helmet to a pink car and the chance to donate by sponsoring laps at RaceWithPippa.com.

Although this isn’t the first time Susan G. Komen has partnered with a driver (Sarah Fisher raced a pink car in the Firestone 300 race at the Homestead Miami Speedway), it is the first time it’s happened at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway–at the best-attended single-day sporting event in the world.

“I’m proud that I’ve been a part of putting this partnership together, bringing it to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway for the first time,” said Mann. “We hope and believe that this is just the beginning.”

Women have gained significant ground [as drivers], beginning with trailblazing NASCAR and IndyCar driver Janet Guthrie in 1976. When she first began to compete, she endured taunts from fans in the grandstands yelling, “Get the tits out of the pits.”

Mann's interest in driving began when she would watch racing on TV with her dad as a young girl growing up in London, but it wasn’t until a new friend invited her to her birthday party at an indoor go karting track that Mann discovered her passion.

She got her first real go kart at 13; by 15 she was competing in the British National Championships, and by 17, she had moved to Italy to race go karts semi-professionally. It was around this time that she discovered IndyCar.

“I grew up watching Formula One, but when I was 17 my dad sent me a magazine article about Sarah Fisher, and she had just won the pole position and come second in the race in Kentucky that year,” Mann says. “I thought it was the coolest thing I’d ever heard of…the first time I had ever heard of a female driver doing that well in an open wheel race, anywhere in the world.”

Mann made her entrance into open-wheel racing in the U.S. via the Indy Lights series (a feeder series for IndyCar) in 2009, when she moved to Indianapolis. In 2010, she won three Indy Lights poles at three different race tracks, including the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, making her the only female pole winner in the history of the IMS. Pippa qualified for her first Indy 500 in 2011; there were 42 cars competing for one of 33 spots on the grid. She also raced in 2013, when she came in 30th place.

Mann believes that female drivers have the ability to engage the female fan base in a way that male drivers can’t. “That’s what I hope I’m bringing to the table, she said. “More interest from casual female fans. Giving you someone to cheer for.” (It doesn’t hurt that little girls love Mann’s hot pink race car.)

More women are working behind the scenes in IndyCar racing as well. At Firestone, the official tire of the Verizon IndyCar Series, Senior Tire Engineer for Race Tire Development, Cara Adams, lives in the pits and garages at the Indiana Motor Speedway from April through Memorial Day weekend.

She works with every driver and team to make adjustments to the Firehawk Slicks found on all IndyCars. Engineers like Adams measure tire temperatures and pressures and provide data to team engineers, helping to make cars even faster. It’s obvious from her glowing expression when talking about testing tire polymers and tread types that Adams loves her job.

“Back in the mid-70s’, women weren’t even allowed in pit lane,” Adams says. “But now, it’s fantastic. Everyone’s very welcoming.”

Women have gained significant ground since then, beginning with trailblazing NASCAR and IndyCar driver Janet Guthrie in 1976. When she first began to compete, she endured taunts from fans in the grandstands yelling, “Get the tits out of the pits.” It took almost 30 years for Danica Patrick to enter the scene, becoming the first woman to win an IndyCar race (in Japan 2008) and the Pole Position at the Daytona 500 Nascar race (2013). She’s now a household name and spokesperson with millions in endorsements.

But, as in any sport, every woman wants to be seen as a competitor, not as “female driver.”

“Being a female driver in IndyCar is not something odd. It’s not something different. It’s not something new,” said Pippa Mann. “That’s actually a good thing. I don’t think it’s a bad thing that we’re made to work just as hard as the guys do…because it stopped it being about gender.”

Images: Ali Markus