"It's difficult to see the changes year over year because the changes in diversity happen slowly over time," said Angela Ashmore of Chip Ganassi Racing, "but if I go back 10 years and think about what the paddock looked like to what it looks like now, it's totally different."
She made history in May as the first woman to win the Indianapolis 500 as a member of the pit crew. From Michigan, she is one of the brilliant technical and engineering minds on the team and is responsible for all of the electronics and communications systems on the car Marcus Ericsson drove to capture motor racing's greatest prize.
She wasn't the only woman standing in victory lane with the Swede and the Ganassi Racing squad, either. Ashmore was joined by Nicole Rotondo, the engine-tuning specialist from Honda Performance Development who made sure Ericsson had all the horsepower and fuel efficiency he needed to vanquish 32 rivals at the world's largest single-day sporting event. Dave Pena, the person in charge of Ericsson's car, became the first Black man to win the Indy 500 as crew chief and chief mechanic.
May 29, 2022, was an amazing day for the sport.
Of everything I'll remember about this IndyCar season, I can't think of anything more important than Ashmore's and Pena's wins on the sport's biggest stage, and all of the visible increases with more women, people of color and LGBTQIA+ crew members landing on pit lane and in victory circle. In a sport that's been predominantly white and male since its formation more than a century ago, 2022 was the year when IndyCar teams made noticeable gains in inclusiveness.
"When I was a student and I was just a fan watching racing on TV, I never saw a female in a technical role. I only ever saw the woman on an arm of a man. She was there as eye candy or to support her husband driving. But that was it. You never saw females in roles with responsibility." - Angela Ashmore
"The part that is really encouraging to me is that you're not seeing new groups of diverse people just participate," Ashmore said. "In my case, you're seeing them come in and be the best at what they do and be successful. And that's important. Because you've always got people who think we're here to check a box or to fill some quota.
"And it's nice to be able to have an accomplishment, like winning the Indy 500, to be able to say, 'No, I'm here doing a really good job, actually, and I just happen to be a woman.' Walking through the paddock, it is more diverse than I've ever seen before. They're people of different races and there's a lot more gender diversity than there used to be. That's a big step forward."
In July, Ashmore and Rotondo were joined in the spraying of champagne by Andretti Autosport's Jessica Mace.
The Ohioan, a veteran open-wheel race car mechanic, added to an over-the-wall legacy when she changed the right-rear tires on Alexander Rossi's race-winning car on the Indianapolis road course. Although Mace wasn't the first woman to win an IndyCar race as a tire changer -- that honor belongs to Tess Gape in 2003 -- she represents everything that's possible in the series.
Once rare and novel, the sight of women working with wrenches in their hands or plugging laptops into the cars to program performance-monitoring data-acquisition systems and engine-control modules became much more familiar last season. The growing number of Black men and women who work for IndyCar teams also reflects the exceptional strides made.
2022 Indianapolis 500. This isn't even all of the engineers and mechanics. This is an amazing group of intelligent hard working people, and I am proud of their successes and characters. 💕 pic.twitter.com/aux501gygu— Cara Krstolic (@Cara_Adams) June 1, 2022
Beth Paretta's women-led Paretta Autosport IndyCar program that debuted at the 2021 Indy 500 grew to contest four races in 2022 with Simona De Silvestro returning to drive in partnership with Ed Carpenter Racing. Caitlyn Brown, one of the mechanics from Paretta's original crew, went to work for Team Penske on Josef Newgarden's car and contributed to each of the five victories he earned on the way to becoming IndyCar's winningest driver in 2022.
Kate Gundlach, an IndyCar championship winner with her former Ganassi team, added to her win tally with the two victories taken last season as the performance engineer on Pato O'Ward's Arrow McLaren SP car. On the sister entry driven by Felix Rosenqvist, damper specialist Gracie Hackenberg helped make the speed that produced two pole positions and a visit to the podium.
There are more encouraging stories from the year, too.
Ashmore's Chip Ganassi Racing colleague Danielle Shepherd, a two-time championship-winning engineer from its IndyCar program, was promoted to the top position in her profession and redirected to Ganassi's factory IMSA sports car program. Shepherd promptly made history as the first woman to take the overall win as a race engineer at the 12 Hours of Sebring, North America's oldest and most prestigious endurance race. That Ashmore and Pena and Shepherd won the biggest races in IndyCar and IMSA in the same year and for the same team is remarkable.
"Well, the thing is with firsts is by definition, they only happen once," Ashmore said. "And so there will come a time -- and it's getting closer -- where there's not going to be any more firsts left. Those things will have been accomplished and then we're going to start having second- and third-time winners and that's when normalcy will happen. It won't be news anymore, which will be a great thing."
There are more women and people of color who proudly stand and represent the gradual change taking place in IndyCar, but it isn't time to celebrate. We're many years away from hanging a "Job Done" banner on the entryway to Gasoline Alley.
Turn the clock back 10 years, as Ashmore suggested, and you'd find gearbox specialist Anna Chatten, one of IndyCar's most tenured female mechanics, as the lone woman working on pit lane. Similar to Chatten, Pena might have been the only Black person among the hundreds of combined crew members throughout the paddock. Today, they are not the only ones who are leading IndyCar's transformation, but the overall percentages remain lower than desired.
"There's a lot of work to be done there," said Team Penske president Tim Cindric, who played college basketball in the late-1980s at Indiana's Rose Hulman Institute of Technology. "From a diversification perspective, the first challenge is helping get the word out that, as a career, this is something that's possible. I grew up in a very diverse world through athletics, and when I would go the racing world, it was usually just one way. Most of the people were white males. It was an oddity to see [anyone else] in the paddock."
As the leaders of some of IndyCar's largest teams can attest, the times are changing.
"And now, I look at it from what our IndyCar, our IMSA team, our NASCAR team, and we're represented by people from 14 countries," Cindric continued. "Within our sports car program, we have a female mechanic and a female engineer. Lauren Sullivan, one of our technical coordinators, she's actively involved in our IndyCar program. She was working on our NASCAR aero program as an engineer; she'd worked for Boeing previously and wanted to go racing and has risen through our organization. The good thing to see now is the fact that we're receiving very diverse interest through the responses to job postings, whereas before, you really never saw that.
"There's a renewed respect level I think we've seen in racing. Because with the women who've come in to work for us, they have really shown -- it's actually refreshing -- how determined they are to succeed. Our veteran mechanics, in particular, will go out of their way to mentor anybody that has the drive. Our motto's always been that if you have the skill set and the right attitude, we're going to teach you whatever you need to know."
McLaren Racing CEO Zak Brown, who oversees the company's teams in Formula One, IndyCar, Extreme E and Formula E, points to the obvious benefits of seeking employees with different experiences and backgrounds.
"It is something that is very passionate and important to us," said the American whose IndyCar team might be the most diverse in the series. "It is very deliberate. We want to put together the best racing teams, and there are lots of unbelievable people in this world that I think are gravitating towards our sport and are welcome: male, female, race, sexual orientation. Our Formula One team has 26 nationalities, and I think people coming to you and working with you that have different perspectives, whatever those different perspectives are, adds value to the conversation and the decision making and the contributions. It's a competitive advantage for us to have a diversity of thinking."
The best news leaving 2022 would be for IndyCar's new history makers and cultural beacons to inspire more -- who might not otherwise look to auto racing as a welcoming environment -- to join them on pit lane.
"I have been asked a few times since Indy 500 to go and speak at school events, and most recently, I went down to the Cayman Islands and spoke at the Cayman International School where I think seven or eight different schools came to participate," Ashmore said. "Marcus [Ericsson] was there, and so was [Ganassi junior driver] Kyffin Simpson. And the thing that really struck me is that I just assumed the kids were excited to mostly talk to the drivers. We spoke for a while about careers in [science, technology, engineering and math], and using math and science in real-world applications, specifically in motorsports.
"Then they had a Q&A session, and I couldn't believe how many of those students had questions for me. They were really good, well-thought-out questions. And then after the session was finished, just the number of students that came up to me to speak to me. ... I figured the school was forcing them to be there, but they were like, 'Wow, that's so inspiring. I love hearing your story.' And that really hit home for me, to know my achievements and what I do has as an impact on other people's lives.
"When I was a student and I was just a fan watching racing on TV, I never saw a female in a technical role. I only ever saw the woman on an arm of a man. She was there as eye candy or to support her husband driving. But that was it. You never saw females in roles with responsibility. It's cool to think there's kids that are that same age now watching on TV, just like I was when I was that age, and seeing me in a role that's technical being successful and that it's actually having an impact. They're seeing Anna [Chatten] and they're seeing Kate [Gundlach] and they're seeing Danielle [Shepherd] and all of these women and diverse people throughout IndyCar, and that's going to make a big difference."