Born and raised in the UK, she moved to Italy as a teenager to pursue racing. She then went to the States, where she has been racing ever since. We caught up with the legendary Pippa Mann for this week's Woman of the Week.
Bridget Schuil: Tell me about your first memory of motorsport
Pippa Mann: My first memory of motorsport was watching Formula 1 on TV with my dad. I was still too young to recognise any of the cars except the Ferraris, all of the others all seemed sort of the same colors, and I couldn’t read yet, but the red Ferrari’s stood out. I supported Ferrari before Nigel Mansell drove for them, before I even knew who Nigel was, because they were the only cars I knew on track.
BS Thus far, who has been the most supportive of your career?
PM Nobody can get anywhere in motorsport without the support of their families. My dad was a race the sport or have any inside track. In the beginning, we muddled through it together, trying to work out the next move. My mum was shocked when I first told her I was quitting school and moving to Italy to kart semi-professionally, but over the years she's become a huge supporter of mine in an abstract way. She's never been into motorsport and she still isn't a fan. She doesn't understand my love for it, but she does understand that I have this incredible passion for what I do, and I like to believe she’s grown proud of me, watching me overcome the obstacles in my path, and seeing how determined I am to make this life work for me. It’s obviously a very unstable life, in terms of income, future prospects, and I’m not sure any parents would really choose this for their child, but she sees how hard I work, and as someone who has worked incredibly hard in a very different male dominated industry her entire life, as I’ve grown older we’ve really been able to connect so much better.
I also had an engine tuner in karting, who would cringe if I name-dropped him, so I won't, but if he reads this, he certainly knows who he is, and he was very influential in my karting career. When I moved into racing cars, my team manager in World Series by Renault, Roly Vincini was a great ally, and an instructive team boss who also helped shape my career. He was one of the people who encouraged me to take the opportunity to come to America and try oval racing as he felt I would be naturally good at it. Then, of course, my current team manager at Dale Coyne Racing Darren Crouser, and Dale himself and his wife Gail, have just been the most incredibly supportive team any driver could ask to be part of. From the top, through the engineering staff, to the mechanics who work on my car each May, Dale Coyne Racing has really become almost like my family. I would not have had the opportunity to run any of the previous 4 Indy 500s without them, and Darren was actually also there back in the beginning for my first Indy 500 with Conquest Racing too.
BS So what do you love about motorsport?
PM Driving the cars. That's literally what I fell in love with. I just love driving race cars. It's interesting the lengths of adversity people will go to just to get in a race car - we all do so much work behind the scenes and are willing to pit ourselves against serious hurdles just to have the opportunity to put your hands on that steering wheel again and drive a race car.
BS What have those obstacles been for you?
PM Regardless of who someone is – male, female, American, British, Brazilian, – the biggest difficulty is trying to find sponsorship. Drivers need to be their own social media managers, their own marketing strategists, their own sponsor seekers. There are very few true paying rides. Almost all drives are contingent on drivers bringing at least some sponsorship to the table. To keep racing, we have to find money, and to find the money, you have to be able to learn all of these skills that you probably never realised when you were younger were key to becoming a successful racing driver.
I feel like it’s often perceived as being easier for a female driver to find sponsorship, but from my own personal experience, and that of other female race drivers I know, I have to say that in the real world, that truly just isn’t the case. Danica Patrick is often used as an example, or more often the example as a rebuttal to this point of view. She found enough sponsorship to run with a front running IndyCar team for many years, and then she had the support of her sponsors to make the jump to NASCAR, and run with a front running NASCAR team. If you take pre-conceived notions out of the equation, and just look at the results, she’s the most successful female open wheel there has been on either side of the Atlantic full stop. She is an IndyCar race winner. She is a multiple IndyCar podium finisher. She finished in the top 10 of the IndyCar championship 6 years in a row, and one of those was inside the top 5. However Danica is the exception, not the rule, and in the entire time she has been racing there has not been another single female driver who has been able to find the sponsorship, and financial support to keep racing for multiple seasons with top teams, in the top tiers of motorsport. You only have to compare Danica’s story to that of Simona de Silvestro.
On her way to IndyCar Simona won 5 races in the Formula Atlantic championship, all of them on road and street courses, and in 2009 she led the points for most of the season, but ended up third in the championship after going out on the first lap at the season finale. She never found the funding to move into true top line equipment in IndyCar, but she had some great races where she rose above her equipment, her talent shined through, and everyone could see her potential. She is potentially the most talented female open wheel racer on road and street courses we have ever seen, and in 2014 her manager thought they had found the money for her to pursue her original Formula 1 dream. She was meant to undergo a year-long training and testing program with Sauber to get her ready to step into current F1 machinery, but the money fell apart, and she was left of the side lines about half way through the year, never having had a taste of the current F1 car. All this was of course going on while Bernie was busy making noise about how he wanted to see a female Formula 1 driver, and he wished there was someone worth helping/investing in out there...
To give another example of how tough it is for females to find sponsorship, I can share a story I know intimately - mine. I had a good season in Indy Lights in 2010. I was a race winner, a multiple pole winner and podium finisher. I sat on the front row of every single super speedway we visited, and I became the first female driver to ever win pole in any category at IMS. I finished 5th overall in the Championship, and I won the most popular driver award as voted by the fans. I wasn’t able to parlay that into a full time IndyCar ride, but I was able to turn it into an opportunity to attempt to qualify for the 2011 Indy 500. There were 42 cars for 33 starting spots, and I had one day of prior testing an IndyCar under my belt. I was not expected to make the show. 4 of the full time drivers that year including Mike Conway with Andretti Autosport, future IndyCar series and Indy 500 Champion Ryan Hunter Reay, and my own full time team mate at Conquest Racing Sebastian did not make the field, but I did. Yet I have never been able to find the funding to turn that into something that would see me in a car full time, or even something that has been able to secure my returning place to Indy on a year on year basis without a last minute scramble to try and ensure I am on the grid each year...
It has now been 6 years since the last time I had the opportunity to race full time. Since then I have started almost a full IndyCar season’s worth of races, but they have all been on ovals. I have been with 3 different teams, 3 different chassis configurations, and I have worked with 8 different engineers over the course of those races as whenever I get the call during the season to come hop in the car for a race, it’s usually with someone who I have never worked with before. Sometimes I go an entire year between Indy 500s without getting my hands on the wheel of a race car. In those circumstances it’s hard to be able to really show what you can do, and with the series being so competitive, it’s tough to come in under those circumstances and really compete at the level where you want to be. At the same time I have also been incredibly lucky. I have had the opportunity to start 5 Indy 500s so far, and I have engineers who want to come back and work with me if/when I am able to put programs together, and that then creates a strand of much needed continuity. I am also so exceptionally grateful to Dale Coyne Racing for keeping me around these past 4 years - knowing I am rejoining that family again in May if I put the financial side together, and to have their support while I try to put that financial side together is huge.
BS I've heard whisperings about an exciting new project you're doing. Can you tell us about that?
PM Yes! I’m super excited about it! Abby McLaughlin and I, back by Top Kart and Top Kart USA have just announced an all female karting team that we are heading up. It’s called Team Empower, and our goal is to provide these young female races with the tools, on and off the track, to literally empower them to chase after their motorsports dreams.
When I was back racing in European and World Championship karting there were very few other girls around, and the few that there were were often stand-offish towards one another. The fight I fought back then has made me who I am today, but there were many times in my career where I wished I had had another female mentor to look up to, and where I craved the friendship, and female solidarity of other female drivers. After I moved to the U.S., I was finally able to start getting more plugged into a network of female drivers who do support each other, and get on with one another, and who have formed friendships, and I started to think more about how I could get more involved in helping younger female drivers - being that person whom I didn’t have, and providing that opportunity for those younger drivers, as well as trying to provide them with an example of how we as female drivers can form strong friendships in this sport.
I’m also excited about the opportunity to get back into a kart myself. It’s been a long time, and there will be plenty of rust to come off, but I can’t wait!
BS So, have you encountered sexism, and if so how do you deal with it?
The very first time I drove my own kart at 13 years old I was told not to drive it flat out down the straight because I would scare myself. Needless to say I came past with my foot firmly planted to the floor. As I came around for the next lap the tuner who was meant to be helping my dad and I was frantically waving at me to stop. He hadn’t bothered to tell me I was meant to be running the engine in because he thought telling me I would scare myself was the appropriate thing to do. There was shouting (on both sides), I remember there being tears (sadly only on mine), and I remember the opinion I formed of him on that day vividly. However my dad and I didn’t have anyone else we could turn to at that time, so we ended up working together for the next 2 years... Our opinions of each other never improved much after that first encounter the entire time...
When I was 17 years old, I moved to Italy to race karts semi-professionally. As I am sure you can imagine that was an entirely new level of learning experience both on and off the track. In fairness to most of the guys who worked directly on my karts, they were great, but I was certainly involved in my fair share of shouting, being told I couldn’t or shouldn’t do something because I was a girl... Plus, while the mechanics sort of knew what to make of me when I was dressed in my kart suit, they didn’t know what to make of me at all when I showed up for team dinners wearing a T-shirt, but with sparkly flip-flops and bracelets on my wrists...
When I was 20 years old I started racing cars. My first team boss was a bully, and he still would have been a bully whatever my gender, but the girl angle gave him a nice, obvious, soft target to work on time and again... By the time I was 24 I was used to other drivers trying to put me in the pit wall whenever I tried to overtake them, I was used to the names I would get called in the paddock or the rumours about my orientation that would be spread about me because I not only refused to sleep with the guys in the paddock, but usually responded to being hit on while at the track with a death glare, or even vitriol. I had been told by one team boss that to go faster perhaps I “should just get laid”, and I had another engineer who liked to term a small lift where there shouldn’t be one in a fast corner “carrying a handbag”. I turned up for one test with a team in the off season where the team owner nearly had an aneurism because I was wearing a pair of pink sneakers, bracelets on my wrists, AND a swipe of mascara... (He told me to change the sneakers, wash my face, and lose the bracelets before I was allowed into the garage.)
The big thing I noticed when I moved to the US is that the attitudes towards female drivers here are different. Here my team genuinely doesn’t care about my gender, and nor do most of the other competitors out on the track. Here, when someone in the paddock does or says something completely inappropriate it’s so much more noticeable because it happens so much less. On track, if someone does one of the big European style swipes at you towards the pit wall, you notice, because it’s just not the done thing to do - especially at the speeds of oval racing, and regardless of gender. Here, racing in the US, if you put your helmet on, and go out there, and do a good job, you get the respect of your competitors, and of your team, and that’s how it should be anywhere. Even when your car is painted pink.
In the world of social media, and comments on articles on the internet, and Facebook, there is still a vocal faction of the racing community who does not want to see female drivers on the track, or want to see them succeed. The amount of hate someone like Danica receives is actually quite shocking. The amount I receive is much more moderate most of the time, (unless I make a mistake, but that’s another story...), and I do my best to simply ignore it and instead spend my time responding to the people whom behave in a much more positive manner towards me. I try to thank the people who are kind to me, and supportive after a tough day at the track, and I take to social media to share my joy with them when things go well. Interestingly, in the environment of US racing, most of the key-board warriors who are so quick to let you, and everyone else know their opinion, will be just as quick to assure everything that their dislike of you has nothing to do with your gender - simply your talent level. Given that’s the case, it’s amazing how many more of them we seem to attract each compared to your average male driver...
BS That's an interesting response. Most women I ask that question say they haven't experienced sexism, and then go on to detail how they deal with it. What's different about your logic?
PM These are just my personal experiences, however as someone who has lived and raced on both sides of the Atlantic this is my opinion: In Europe, as a female driver, you are constantly bombarded with opinions and questions about being a female in racing - from the media, the public, and even from within your own team. You feel that acknowledging some of the thing being said to you as actually happening validates them, and you certainly don’t want to be accused of being too thin skinned to survive in this sport, so you just ignore them, and carry on. It is perceived as showing weakness to complain about type of behaviour that we just learn to accept as normal, and had you asked me these questions when I was racing in Europe, I would have probably effectively refused to answer by simply telling you that everything was always fine. You have to be so tough to succeed in this business, and my way of dealing with it was much the same way that I have now of dealing with these people on the internet who don’t want me racing - I build a mental wall, and I keep them behind it.
BS So, choosing to not see or acknowledge sexism is a defence mechanism, rather than being genuinely unaffected by it?
PM For me personally, this was certainly the case. Plus, as with most other drivers out there, male or female, you will put up with a heck of a lot if there is chance of getting to drive a racing car a the other end of it!
BS What role do male allies have in this, then?
PM I think the biggest thing is just to understand this does exist, and does still go on, even though most of the time we choose not to see it. We understand we are taking on a male dominated environment, and we understand that this is a path we are not only choosing for ourselves, but fighting for. If a female friend chooses to vent to you, take her seriously, and listen to her, instead of writing it off as her being over sensitive. If you’re working with a female driver, just treat her like she would a male driver, and understand that this isn’t about being “politically correct”, it’s just about affording her the same amount of respect. If she’s struggling on track, work with her to help her improve the same as you would if she was a male driver. If she wins the race celebrate with her. And if you hear someone saying something about her behind her back, that you would not want said about your sister, your girlfriend, your daughter, or something you wouldn’t like said about your driver if it was a guy driving, then say something. You won’t always have a receptive audience, but you will know you did the right thing.
BS What advice would you give to girls and young women wanting to get into motorsport?
PM Be really, really determined. Have so much determination in your goals and what you plan to achieve that the nay-sayers and set-backs won't slow you down. Trust me, you're going to come up against them. Be stubborn. Dig deep, and find the part of you with so much drive and stubbornness that you will not be deflected, and you will make it through. This advice applies not onto to the driving side, but to everything else being a female driver in this sport entails too. Form a few strong friendships with people who you really trust, and when you need their advice, or their ear, call on them and don’t be afraid to ask for their input, and their help. Be strong in the wake of nasty comments, mean social media, and online bullying. Stand tall against the things people who don’t know you will say about you, and sometimes to you. Be relentless in your pursuit of sponsorship, and refuse to ever take “no” as a final answer. No only means no today, this month, this year, with this executive in charge of this company. Learn your own strengths and weaknesses better than your competition knows them, and learn how to play to your strengths whenever you car. Understand it’s not all going to be glamor, and the light at the end of the tunnel might be years more of searching, pushing, and working away each year just to hold a steering wheel once a year at one big race for very little financial return... But know that when you get there, if you really want it, it’s worth it.