Beth Paretta Is on a Mission to Change How Women Race at the Indy 500
And she’s giving racing driver Simona de Silvestro her best shot at the 500 yet.
Paretta Autosport announced its bid to run this year's Indianapolis 500 just four months ago. To run a one-off 500 car is tricky enough; to build a female-focused team from the ground up is giving yourself another level of difficulty. From training a pit crew to go over the wall to giving driver Simona de Silvestro a car capable of fighting Team Penske, Chip Ganassi Racing, and other stalwarts, it's been all-consuming since the start.
Last weekend, that paid off. Running a majority-female team, team owner Beth Paretta and racer de Silvestro made history by qualifying for the 2021 Indy 500. The team—trained in the early mornings and weekends—has a majority female pit crew and women visibly occupying all the roles you'd expect a race team to have. It didn't happen five years ago with Grace Autosport, but Paretta has realized a long-held dream that she wants in a few years' time: that being female will become the least interesting thing about her squad. I spoke to Paretta and de Silvestro just before they hit the Brickyard on what they were doing and why.
To start this off: Paretta and de Silvestro are some of the warmest, funniest people in racing. Women in racing tend to share a quality with the metal of a just-run racecar; tough enough, for sure, but also ready to burn you if you push it hot enough. Speaking to Paretta, it was very obvious this was a project much, much bigger than running a one-off entry.
Going for Another Run
Paretta's previous Indy 500 entry, under the name Grace Autosport, fell apart in 2016. Dallara was short on chassis that year with no spares, and despite tracking down every last car the team could, including searching barns, it couldn't secure anything raceable. It was the absolute worst nightmare: it had an engine deal, a driver, and a team to run the car but just nothing to put any of that into.
Coming back with Paretta Autosport, Paretta was determined that wouldn't happen again. "The way that it really works is you have a driver and a pile of money and you rent a car and when you rent that car from that team you get the car and the people," she said. "So my intention was this is the way I wanted to start, because it's a way that you can start and then get your legs under you. So you go to, say, Penske and you say, OK, I want to run, you go to Andretti and you say, OK, I have a driver and I've got money. How much does it cost to rent your car? And as you can imagine, depending on the team on the grid, the price is a little different.
"You always try to get in the best opportunity you have with the pile of money in your pocket," she went on. "It's a lot of musical chairs and other people are vying for those same seats. The only reason I announced in 2015 the intention for 2016 was I figured if I made the announcement, it would be easier to get sponsorship because then it would be an entity so that if I was picking up the phone and calling, I could point them to an article. So that was the method behind that madness."
And Paretta did have a partnership. "Penske was going to work with me, and then I also had Andretti teed up and where the difference was was whether I got a Honda or Chevy engine—it was funny because Roger was even figuring out a way to run me, even with a Honda," she explained.
Team Penske, however, lost the championship in 2015, so it broke the news to Paretta the deal was off, there would be no fifth car. With both a Honda and a Chevrolet engine deal, she still found herself short of a car—and then screwed by a team that has since left the series. "We were going to make an announcement in April at Long Beach. And then at the 11th hour, they wanted to change the terms of the deal."
Paretta went on, "Sometimes people are not—they maybe underestimated my savageness, want to take advantage of it. So I said, no, I was like because it was kind of trying to screw me over. And so and I think he thought I would be gullible. I said no. But then that put me on this wild goose chase of like, OK, I've got my engine, I've got my money, I've got my driver. Let me go find another car, another chassis to drop it, another team to run with."
It wasn't meant to be. Despite a search for every last chassis in Indianapolis, Grace Autosport withdrew from the 500, Paretta took the L and herself away from motorsport, her family dominating her priorities for a few years. But to come back, she knew things had to be all lined up. "So how is that not going to happen again?" she asked. "Well, because Roger is not going to do a bait and switch."
On a Mission
The point of Paretta's entry isn't just to do a one-off, ego-boosting proof that she, or even de Silvestro, can do this. The idea is they put together comes from years of Paretta's work in education, encouraging girls into STEM, and transforming the people who are perceived as the "right" fit for racing jobs. "When I hire women for the team, from the very beginning, I explain to them we're going to be doing a lot more off track than any other team," Paretta said. "And that comes with this because the business model has changed.
"If you're going to have [popular British pharmacy] Boots on the side of your car"—Paretta kindly threw me a UK reference—"Boots is getting value from the fact that you're talking to kids. And it's not just the logo on the side of the car. It's all the other stuff that's going to deliver that. You have to justify what you're doing, it's got to work like a perfect kind of circle because the business model has changed, you don't have the old cigarette money when Marlboro was paying."
It's not just for girls, either, of course. Paretta told me, "Even the stuff we're doing with discovery, education or any of those like school things, I say this to any sponsor is [that] the school stuff is co-ed. And the boys will get the content of what our female engineer is saying. The young woman will also notice that it's a woman teaching the lesson. There's just a subtle thing that happens. But the content is the same for a boy or a girl."
That does set Paretta up for a harder task than just finding a squad that's good enough at short notice. These engineers and mechanics have to be able to communicate—which isn't always their comfort zone. "The funny thing is, typically technical people or mechanical people are not used to being front and center and then add the layer of women in these roles.
"We tend to not point out that we're women, so it's uncomfortable," Paretta said. "But I say to all of them: It's going to be uncomfortable, but it's going to be worth it. You're not alone, we're doing this all together. You're not going to be thrown to the wolves. So because I feel like because we're being so forward with it, we then have that responsibility."
Which is why Paretta Autosport isn't just about Paretta herself as female team boss. Or Simona de Silvestro as female driver. Those are roles we've seen women in before. Specifically, they're roles we've seen Paretta (who ran the Dodge Viper sports car program) and de Silvestro (who's raced everything from Indy to Formula E and at one point was set for a seat in F1) in before. But we see one or two women in a sea of men and it's not the same.
Why does that matter? Any woman in a paddock can tell you, even if it's not obvious to men. "I just say consider someone who doesn't look like you. Consider someone that you would think is nontraditional," Paretta explained. "Because throughout my entire career, it's funny because people 'took a chance' on me. And I say that with air quotes because the reality was I was a good candidate the entire time, but I didn't look like a candidate."
Don't Call It a Comeback
Simona de Silvestro, Paretta's driver, is running her sixth Indy 500. She got some of her career-best results in IndyCar, including a podium in 2013, and is widely considered one of the most competitive, female, single-seater drivers ever.
A few years in Formula E and Australian Supercars hadn't taken the 500 off her radar, she told me, but it had to be the right opportunity. "[IndyCar] was always something kind of on my mind," de Silvestro told me. To be honest, though I would only have gone back if it's the right opportunity and this is definitely the right opportunity. I think it's one of the best cars I ever had to go to Indy."
She continued, "So from that point of view, it all made a lot of sense and I'm super happy as well. To be part of this because it's all new, it's giving a lot of opportunities to young women to get in the field, to get to be part of it from the get go. And so it's quite special."
Those opportunities aren't just about her as a driver. One of the big successes—and something Paretta didn't necessarily expect to be able to do in their first year—is their pit crew.
The team is running a majority of women going over the wall. Women who hadn't worked in motorsport before, for the most part, but needed an opportunity. The same call Paretta made to de Silvestro to get her onboard brought in an influx of women keen to train at eye-bleeding hours to run her car in the 500.
De Silvestro told me, "There was this kind of rumor, some women who wanted to come and try out and some of them didn't even know what it was about. They showed up at the Penske shop and they got told that the opportunity is here, that if they are quick enough, they can go over the wall in the pit stops. And some of them were like, 'Wow, we can actually do that.' And I think that's kind of the whole point behind this."
When de Silvestro looks at her racing career, she always knew she wanted to be a race car driver. "I just tried to achieve that. With this team, I think we've been able to create such a big opportunity."
Trained by Penske, the pit crew isn't one woman getting a chance in a backmarker team. De Silvestro said that makes a big difference. "They're really learning from the best out there. I think that's something for women that has been missing, in the past, just being associated with really the best people. It's a really good mix. The guys that are on the car are teaching some of the girls and the girls are learning from the best. So I think it's just kind of cool to see that everyone's really motivated."
At the end of the day, whoever is the quickest at changing the tire is going to get the job. "That's what the whole point is," de Silvestro said. "But first of all, giving the opportunity to these women to actually try it out. They've been going to the shop at 5 a.m. every morning to practice. And now they're really quick. So I think it just shows that if you do it right and give the opportunity, the chances of success are pretty high."
Paretta told me the idea of the team isn't to give exclusive opportunities to women. The point is to be "co-ed" in a true way—to be able to run a full, inclusive squad, year-round, that is out there to take her incredible competitive drive to win to the top.
She described it to me as this being unlike a treehouse with a "no boys allowed" sign—the ladder's intended for everyone.
And it's not just about her squad. IndyCar's Race for Equality and Change has to be a combined effort. Paretta told me, "About a month before us, the junior team called Force Indy, which is focused on African Americans—crew and driver—launched. They're the loveliest people and they're doing a lot of stuff with karting because it's not like there's a bunch of African American people kicking around, just looking for jobs, they've got to start earlier so they're building that funnel.
"But I talked to them to see if we can actually do a proper linkup with our teams because my dream is that I would run two cars full-time, in IndyCar, maybe eventually have a sports car team, too, because I love that so much."
Paretta doesn't just want to run a novelty squad, she's aiming to build a world-beating program—just like she did with the Viper. "Just like a Ganassi, just like a Penske, just like Andretti. But if I had two full-time IndyCar entries, I would even run a man as a driver because how cool would it be if that man is coming in and there's a bunch of women jumping over the wall and calling strategy and drive? That's the point. That's where we get to that. My hope is that in five years from now, us being predominantly women is the least interesting thing about us."
I'll give Paretta the last word on the project because we often just see the driver. And that's part of the fault of the media, the way that's always been covered. It's like, what other sport do you just focus on? One person on the team, like like like our American quarterback? Like, no, we all know that there are other positions and there's such focus on this driver."
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