THESE WOMEN FROM HONDA PERFORMANCE DEVELOPMENT, INDYCAR AND FIRESTONE ARE LEADING THE WAY.
Women have been participating in motorsport for the last 121 years, and yet, even in this modern day and age, there are still only a small handful who either sit in the driver’s seat, work in the pits or manage the messaging, at the very pointy end of motorsport competition. Walk around any race, pretty much anywhere, and you’ll see mostly white, middle-aged men. It’s no different whether you’re at a local autocross event or an international F1 race.
The very good news is that the tide is very slowly beginning to shift as more racing bodies (the groups that manage well-known auto racing competitions like Nascar, IndyCar, and even F1), work to bring more women in from all kinds of backgrounds. The #MeToo movement highlighted the need for more gender diversity while Black Lives Matter drove home the need for increased diversity on both the fan side and the racing side, if these kinds of motorsports are going to survive and even thrive in the coming years.
Everyone, from the organizers to the teams competing in IndyCar, all say that they want more women involved in the sport and agree that there’s still work to be done. Still, progress is being made thanks in large part to trailblazing women who engineer, manage, communicate about, run, and create some of the most interesting racing events and technology in the world. Last week we had the opportunity to sit down with a handful of women leaders at the IndyCar event in Long Beach, California, and chat with some of the female leaders in that racing space.
“WE CAN DO WHATEVER WE DECIDE TO DO”
Rebecca Johnson is the Director of Production and Senior Manager for Honda Performance Development, a division of Honda that specializes in engine design and production of racing parts, for everything from grassroots motorsports and road racing enthusiasts to IndyCar and more. She’s been in and around racing since she was young, getting her start in the midwest where she grew up and raced sprint cars, open-wheel vehicles that run on straight or oval dirt and paved tracks. She has been at HPD for the last 16 years, after spending some time at an OEM supplier.
“As women, we know no bounds. We can do whatever we decide to do,” Johnson said, “I like to compete, and in racing, you can see your results almost immediately.”
Johnson said that one of her biggest challenges is finding ways to encourage younger women to find their paths in the space. “I honestly believe that the coolest thing I’ve been able to do at HPD, has been as my career has grown and I’ve taken on more of the responsibility for associates,” Johnson said. “For example, I’m always trying to come up with things that are good for HPD and things that are challenging for our young associates, as well.”
SETTING UP THE FUTURE IS REWARDING
Young associates like Gwen Hashimoto, an HPD design engineer who just graduated from UCLA’s engineering school, are finding a different path than women like Johnson. Hashimoto didn’t come from a racing background; she was a lot more interested in things like quadcopters before she got involved in her university’s amateur racing club. “When you make your first part,” she said, “and then it goes on the car, and it actually works, that’s huge.”
Both women agree that one of the most rewarding aspects of working at the very pointy end of performance and racing. “It’s really incredible to get to work on IndyCar and DPI cars, and then turn around and work on some five-year-old’s go-kart,” Johnson said, “You’re trying to set some message for the future through your work, and it’s super important and really rewarding.”
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THE WOMEN IN PIT LANE AND ON THE TRACK
Women aren’t only showing up on the development side of racing. They’re working alongside well-known and loved race drivers like Jimmie Johnson and Helio Castroneves. Johnson is a household name, famous for winning the NASCAR cup series seven times a recent transition to open-wheel road racing in IndyCar.
Johnson’s trackside engineer, responsible for making him feel as comfortable as possible (which translates to being as quick as possible around the track), in whatever race car he’s driving, is Serena Halterman. Halterman is in charge of maximizing the performance of the Honda IndyCar engine for all conditions and strategies. That means that she makes real-time tweaks to the engine’s performance, based on everything from the weather to how Johnson feels behind the wheel.
In our brief interview with Johnson as he prepped for practice laps on the Long Beach course before the race (and prior to his crash during qualifying in which he broke his hand), Johnson said that Halterman brings “her brilliance, work ethic, and personality to the track every single day.” He praised her as a huge asset to the team, as she worked feverishly behind him to adjust the engine to the soaring temperatures on practice day.
Helio Castroneves has won the Indy 500 a total of four times (most recently in 2021), is often known for celebrating his wins by scaling the fences (which earned him the nickname, Spider-Man) around the track after a win, and in 2007, he won season five of the popular dance competition show, Dancing with the Stars. He’s one of the more charismatic drivers of IndyCar and has an ineffable charm. Any time he shows up behind the ropes, crowds gather to take photos and get his autograph.
“I don’t see color or gender on the track,” he said, “It’s a car, it’s a helmet. That’s it.” He did say that there are times when women do initially get pushback when pursuing a career in racing and his advice for women who want to pursue a career at the pinnacle of speed. “Women definitely gotta put their elbows out at the beginning of their career,” he said.
THE WOMEN BEHIND THE RACE MESSAGING
Women also occupy the upper echelons of both IndyCar and the brands, like Acura, that participate in the races that take place on both public roads (that are closed off during the race, like those at the Long Beach Gran Prix) and road courses (tracks like Mid-Ohio and Laguna Seca). They craft the messaging and the experience of racing for fans of all backgrounds and genders. While women are much more numerous in the communications and marketing space in both motorsports and automotive, it’s yet another way in which racing is adding inclusivity to its ranks.
SJ Luedtke is the vice president of marketing for all of IndyCar and she’s taken her 10+ years of marketing experience at Nike and turned her eye toward motorsports. One of the biggest challenges facing all motorsports events is how to continue to grow the fan base. “If you go to any race and look around, its mostly an older population,” she said. “So how do you tap into younger and new fans who might be interested? There’s a generation change happening and motorsports has to evolve.” Add to this, the challenge of going up against the very deep pockets of events like Formula 1 which comes complete with unending soap opera drama between drivers and teams, as well as a popular Netflix series, Drive to Survive, that’s helped raise the profile of F1 racing to the American public.
Luedtke’s solution has been to imbue the IndyCar racing experience with a sort of mantra, that she uses as her guiding star. “Our brand personality is that we are ambitious, fearless, unapologetic, and a little bit badass,” Luedtke said. She says that the key to keeping motorsports relevant to future generations of both women and men is to meet the new fans where they are–both online (gaming and future Netflix-like series) and in real life. “We have to build great events to continue to evolve our fan base.”
THE FUTURE OF GENDER-INCLUSIVE RACING
Cara Adams Krstolic is the Director of Race Tire Engineering and Manufacturing, the Chief Engineer, Motorsports at Bridgestone Americas, and Firestone IndyCar Operations Head. She notes that one of the best ways to get into racing is to pursue your passion and find mentors in the space to help guide your path. Kristolic got her start helping her dad rebuild carburetors, and eventually found her way into Formula SAE racing in Ohio in college, where she rebuilt a 600 cc Honda engine to keep it going during races. She is now responsible for all of IndyCar’s technical operations, and she’s known around the business for creating a welcoming environment for women in the traditionally male-dominated space trackside. Her advice to women looking to make their way in racing is simple: “Find a role model and be persistent,” she said. “Find an area that lights you up. Ask a lot of questions, and go for it.”
It’s clear that no matter who you talk to at the track, women are welcome, and it’s high time that more decided to join the ranks of drivers, engineers, communications professionals, and pit crews. Luckily there are women and men like those who work in and around IndyCar who clearly want to support and include a more diverse and gender-inclusive crew to ensure the future of racing is bright.