By Ivy Samuel
On May 23rd 2021, history was made. Paretta Autosport, a team with a female driver and a female owner, qualified for the 105th running of the Indy 500.
Now if you’re unfamiliar with the Indy 500, what you need to know is that this is one of the most prestigious motorsport events to happen in the calendar year. It takes part during the IndyCar season but is open to one-off entries. For 500 miles (200 laps) 33 drivers race around the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. The winner celebrates with a traditional bottle of milk.
Unfortunately, like most areas of motorsport, the Indy 500 has a chequered history with women. For the first few decades of its existence since 1911, women were heavily discouraged from participating, pretty much disallowed. In fact, the first female owner to win the Indy 500, Maude Yagle in 1929, wasn’t even allowed past the grandstands.
Almost fifty years later, a pioneer by the name of Janet Guthrie was the first woman to qualify as a driver. She took part in the Indy 500 a total of three times from 1977, her highest finish being 9th which she achieved in 1978 with a broken wrist. Guthrie faced a plethora of discrimination due to her gender, but it’s thanks to women like her that the Indy 500 has seen 9 women compete, the most successful being Danica Patrick who finished 3rd in 2009.
On Sunday, when all the drivers line up on the grid, Paretta Autosport won’t have the first female driver to compete and they also won’t be the first team to have a female owner. But what they will be is the first team to do both.
The Indy 500 has never seen an all female driver owner partnership. And nearly 100 years since Maude Yagle’s win, and a time where women weren’t even allowed in the pits, Parretta Autosport will have a pit crew where women are the majority.
It would be easy to simply dismiss this and pretend it doesn’t matter. In truth, we probably won't see the impact this will have until at least a few years down the line. But that’s no reason to understate its significance.
These days, we are almost used to seeing the odd woman in the paddock. There are female racers, strategists, and team principles taking part in a number of motorsports categories all across the globe. The idea that a woman could be denied entry into a race purely because of her gender, is foregin to most of us, and for good reason. But it wasn’t all that long ago that women were told that this sport is not for them. And that’s a culture that Beth Paretta, the owner of Paretta Autosport, would like to see change.
For the first time, when women and young girls, who are fans of motorsports, sit down to watch the Indy 500, they will see with their own eyes that this sport is for them. There won’t be the odd one or two women in the pit area, there will be a team. The dream is that one day, it won’t be such a spectacle.
The Paretta Autosport car will be driven by Simona de Silvestro. At 32 years old, she has driven in multiple categories including Formula E, Supercars, and the IndyCar series. De Silvestro spent four years, from 2010 to 2013, being a regular on the IndyCar grid. And she achieved a career best of 2nd place at the 2013 Grand Prix of Houston. Simona de Silvestro is no stranger to the Indy 500. This will be her 6th start and though she qualified 33rd, the Indy 500 is a race that is rarely short of drama.
Paretta Autosport qualifying for the Indy 500, signifies the next stage in what has been a series of firsts for women in this category of motorsports. But this is by no means the chequered flag. Because, despite all the evidence; despite all the achievements, there are still doubters. There are still some people who truly believe that putting a woman in a car is somehow a “gamble” in comparison to her male peers.
From Maude Yagle, to Janet Guthrie, to Danika Patrick, and now Paretta Autosport. Women are continuing to challenge what is expected of them in this sport. For Beth Paretta and her team, this is surely just the beginning, and I doubt that this will be the last time that we hear of them.
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