This weekend, history is going to be made at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Paretta Autosport is set to become the first-ever female-forward No. 16 race team to attempt to qualify for the Indianapolis 500. But the history of female participation in American open-wheel racing is a fascinating one, and it’s part of what paved the way for this team to compete.
The name “Janet Guthrie” is synonymous with badassery. When Guthrie started considering the Indy 500, women were still banned from the garages and the pit lane at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Even having the credentials to compete didn’t earn Guthrie access; she had to fight for it every step of the way.
Hers is a career that’s definitely marked by a lot of “what could have beens.” Guthrie entered the high-profile American racing scene later in her life, and she was the victim of a lot of backlash and dug-in heels. If she’d had a chance to advance at a younger age, or if she’d been signed to a better car, or if A. J. Foyt actually let her take his spare machine, Guthrie’s story may have been a more triumphant one. But as it stands, she did the crucial work of breaking ground to allow women to compete today.
Then came Anita Millican, who was the first woman to ever be credentialed as a race mechanic in 1980. She was the first woman to go over the pit wall at the Indy 500. She was a machinist. She and her husband developed one of American open-wheel’s first wind tunnels, as well as one of the first shock dynamometers. She coded computer programs that analyzed data from the cars they tested. And for all of her hard work, she was still generally treated like a lesser person by other men in the garage, who simply couldn’t believe there could be a woman at work in a mechanical capacity.
From a recent IndyCar profile on Millican:
“In those days, women in racing were there, shall we say, to be (pretty) – dressed perfectly, fingernails nicely painted and flirting, anything to get a team shirt,” she said. “I worked with men and men only, and I absolutely had to have them trust me, so there was no flirting. I just did my job, and that helped with some of the chauvinism.
“I had to be very, very careful and conscious, even in uniform. I got called many bad words by a lot of people.”
Without Millican, who knows where we’d stand in terms of women making strides in the pit crew world. It can still be a rare feat, but it’s no longer banned, and women generally don’t need to be escorted by a man just to feel safe and gain access to their workplace.
Anna Chatten enrolled in a racing mechanics program when she was 17 before she nabbed a job as a mechanic at Walker Racing in 2000. And she’s been jumping over the pit wall ever since, including when she was six months pregnant.
“I would definitely not sugarcoat this for anybody. I definitely had to always work a little harder and make a few less mistakes,” Chatten said to WTHR in 2020, adding that she had hoped to have seen “15 more of me” by now.
That being said, she wanted to encourage her two daughters to believe that anything is possible, no matter how difficult the work.
“Motor racing is a lot of instant gratification,” she added. “A lot of other industries it’s long term. Motor racing, you put it on the race track, it’s judged right away, and I get a lot of gratification from that.”
Chatten may be one of the few women working over the pit wall in IndyCar, but she has set an incredible precedent for the women coming up the ranks.
Cara Adams is exceptional. As the chief engineer of racing operations at Firestone, she’s in charge of the racing tires that deck out Indy cars and that compete on every track. She joined the tire and vehicle dynamics department in 2003, then was promoted to the race tire engineering team in 2007, where she developed the Firehawk-brand race tires for the road, street, and oval races. Her most recent advancement came in 2019.
Adams is still the only female chief engineer in United States-based racing and is one of four female engineers in IndyCar.
And that brings us to Beth Paretta, who has been heading up racing programs for ages and has been aiming to bring a female-forward race team to the Speedway since 2014, when she announced Grace Autosport would be competing at the 500. While that deal ended up falling apart, things have coalesced for Paretta and her new team, which will see Simona de Silvestro driving the No. 16 car in her attempt to qualify.
“We know that there’s added eyeballs,” Paretta told me, referring to the fact that the entire world will be watching a group of women take on running a race team for the first time. “Anybody that’s in a non-traditional role, there’s always that added pressure. So I like to say that out loud. It might be obvious, but you’ll have to have a bit of a thick skin at times. But when you’re with our team, you’re not bearing that burden alone.”
And that’s been her goal. Paretta has brought together a team of incredibly qualified mechanics, drivers, engineers, and more, many of whom are women, to try their hand at this year’s Indy 500. Not every member of the team identifies as a woman, but there’s certainly a significantly higher percentage than you’re likely to have seen in motorsport at any turn. Those women include veterans of motorsport and those who have never gone over the wall to change a tire. They include women who are familiar with public speaking and those who will be asked to stand in front of a crowd in order to perform their job for the very first time.
How the team fares remains to be seen. But no matter what happens, we’re watching history in the making.