The Indianapolis Motor Speedway will be awash with big opportunities and realized dreams in May when Roger Penske, his Race For Equality & Change Program, team owner Beth Paretta, and IndyCar favorite Simona De Silvestro join forces to field an entry created to showcase women racers.
The five-time Indy 500 starter and factory Porsche driver will pilot the No. 16 Paretta Autosport Chevy supplied and staffed in partnership with Team Penske. It marks the 32-year-old from Switzerland’s best chance at Indy, and the first for Paretta, who tried to field a female-staffed entry in 2016 under the Grace Autosport banner.
“Roger and I have known Beth since 2007 when she worked at Aston Martin, and after, when Beth was in charge of the SRT Motorsports program at Dodge when we won our first NASCAR Cup championship back in 2012,” Penske Corporation president Bud Denker told RACER. “We’ve known Beth for a long time, and when we announced the Race For Equality & Change program in July of last year, Beth gave us a call.
“And subsequent to that we ran the (2020) Indy 500 and did not have a female in the race. We have talked about wanting to ensure that based upon our commitment to equality – and whether it be gender, or whether it be ethnicity or anything else – that we take matters into our own hands at the NTT IndyCar Series and Penske Entertainment, and have a female qualify for the 105th running this coming May. So we did that by aligning with Beth, and we put the deal together pretty quickly. It’s taken us a couple of months to put everything together, including some contracts.”
Paretta’s last full-time venture in the sport came with overseeing Dodge’s championship-winning effort in IMSA’s WeatherTech SportsCar Championship GT Le Mans class. In recent years, she’s remained close to racing with a few ventures that connect directly with the new Paretta Autosport initiative.
“The entire time though, between then and now, I have continued to work on the education side of things and worked with schools, educational foundations, working on drawing the connection between the racetrack and the classroom and trying to encourage STEM education and careers in racing,” she said.
“About year and a half ago I said, ‘I need to now go back to getting back on the grid,’ so when the Race For Equality & Change was announced, I was excited, because it was the right people behind it with the right intention for the right reasons. And so that’s what prompted my call. Whenever we’ve bumped into each other it’s always, ‘Hey, what are you working on? What’s going on? Let’s sit down and talk.’ So this wasn’t one phone call, this was something that started years ago.”
A number of talented women contacted Denker and Paretta about the vacant seat in the No. 16 Chevy. The duo arrived at the same swift conclusion.
“And then we then said, who would be the driver, knowing we would have a technical alliance with Team Penske to prepare the car, prepare the team, do all the things that we do obviously to have a fast car?” Denker said. “Together, we both felt that Simona De Silvestro would be the best driver to do this with.”
“We know how tough she is; she’s a gritty racer who knows this track and we’re getting her everything she needs for real opportunity to win this race.”
Paretta looks at De Silvestro as someone who would be a perfect fit at Indy and beyond.
“She doesn’t get rattled, and the fact that she’s a factory Porsche driver says a lot,” she said. “There’s a lot of people that would like to have that job, and they’re not many people who have it, and she does. And in fairness to, she’ll be the first one to say, she’s a driver. She happens to be a woman. One of the things that I’m fond of saying for a lot of the women that I’ve worked with is, we’ve had our jobs despite the fact that we’re women, not because of it. And I think with Simona, everyone in the paddock would agree that her, talent, her approach, her work ethic, her commitment to fitness, is parallel to any of the leading drivers.
“I’m excited to see what she can do in this car. And I’m really excited to see if we can put more races together. And if this turns into something longer-term… as we know, it’s tough to drop into one car for one race. I think she’s going to be well-suited because she’s been driving full-time this entire time between Formula E and the GT series and Australian Supercars. So she hasn’t been without a ride, but with that said, I think it will be fantastic to have her in a full season when we can, because we can then grow as a team. And then that’s when we’ll get the very best out of every member of the team and hopefully be contending for top 10, top five and podium finishes.”
As the architect for Penske’s Race for Equality & Change program, Denker has been instrumental in the creation of Force Indy, the new Road To Indy USF2000 team led by Rod Reid that aims to groom and launch African-American team members and drivers towards the NTT IndyCar Series. With Paretta Autosport, Penske has its vehicle to address the lack of women in leadership roles throughout the top series.
“I think that’s the key piece is this is not a one-race stunt, or an opportunity to properly fill the field for the race,” Denker said. “It wouldn’t have even crossed our mind about that, because what we want to do is have this start at a point where it can carry on sufficiently, with proper resources including, funding, sponsorship, and people.
“Beth and I and Roger talk so much about (how) the greater good of the program is going to be not to just putting a female owner and a female driver together, but to find the right women to be engineers, the strategist, to go over the wall to change tires in Indy 500. So the real opportunities here go far beyond the driver. And that’s where we think the real opportunity is found, just as we did with Force Indy.
“So this is not to be a one-race deal for women in terms of the race itself. It’s hopefully going to be sustainable and more races in the future. And hopefully, become a full-time team in 2022. We know Beth, we trust Beth, and we know the mission she had back in the Grace Autosport day, as well. And from there we’ve taken it to to another level.”