The daughter of late CART IndyCar Series and Indy Racing League team owner John Della Penna is making her first foray into the sport with a mission to bring more women into motor racing through a 501C-3 charity.
Michelle Della Penna’s Della Penna Motorsports Next Gen Foundation is making its big launch this weekend at WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca, where her father found remarkable success in his early days as an entrant in junior open-wheel racing. Through the Next Gen Foundation, the organization aims to “empower girls between the ages of 5-16 with the knowledge, expertise, skill and mentorship — and most importantly, the opportunities — to supercharge a future in motorsports — whether it’s behind the wheel, in the pits, or behind a computer.”
With her family’s long tenure in the sport, Della Penna’s found the perfect way to continue the tradition by addressing the shortage of women racers in the various roles that sustain the industry.
“This whole foundation is basically a love letter to my dad,” she told RACER. “It’s almost two years since his death, and I was trying to figure out a way to honor his legacy and carry it on. My middle son races go karts and I happened to be at the track with him one day, we were out on the grid, and there were only two girls there. And I started to look around and was like, ‘Why are there only two girls out here in a pack of 20? That doesn’t make any sense.’
“So I started to suss out this whole idea that girls in general are not represented in motorsports, let alone girls of color. And racing has a very high barrier to entry, so if you don’t have someone in your life who can expose you to it, you’re probably not going to be exposed to it, you’re not going to play it in school, you’re not going to get to race go karts at the YMCA. And so the idea started to create a scholarship fund where we could get some girls who are interested in karting and pay for their seasons.”
From there, Della Penna’s motivation grew and it wasn’t long before the scope widened to go beyond developing young women as racecar drivers.
“As I began to extrapolate that idea and started to write down my visions, it’s turned into this full-fledged foundation where we really just focus on young girls, in general; young girls of color, young girls of different physical abilities, just young girls across the board, and how can we support them at a young age, get them interested in motorsports, help foster that love, help develop talent, and then create a pipeline where they can prepare themselves for a career in motorsports when they get older,” she added.
“Because there’s a lot of top-down initiatives with Roger Penske and Paretta Autosport; everybody wants to have more women, more women of color, but there’s not a lot of organizations that are working at the exposure level of five-, six-, or seven-year-olds, creating the support that they’ll need to really become successful. That’s our goal to approach all the different facets of motorsports; not just driving, but the STEM aspects, journalism, pit crew, mechanics — all of it — and then create the support that they’ll need to be able to actually make the career of it.”
Next Gen’s launch on Saturday at Laguna Seca will coincide with playing host to the Bay Area’s Radical Monarchs, “an organization that seeks to create opportunities for young girls of color to form fierce sisterhood, celebrate their identities and contribute radically to their communities,” whose young members will get to experience IndyCar racing, teams, and cars in person at the event.
The next step for Della Penna and the NextGen Foundation is to raise the kind of funding that will bring sustainability to the program. Former IndyCar champion and current NTT IndyCar Series team owner Jimmy Vasser, who drove for John Della Penna on the 1990’s version of the Road to Indy is among a group of supporters who want to see the Next Gen Foundation succeed in a big way. Firestone Racing’s Cara Adams, its director of race tire engineering and production, is another key advocate to get behind the initiative.
“The first step is to go to our website and see more about what we’re trying to do and hopefully support it,” Della Penna said. “We have put together a sponsorship package for corporate sponsors, and this is our first pilot event in Monterey just to bring awareness show proof of concept. We are planning on doing a bigger official launch, official fundraiser, trying to coincide with the Indy 500.
“But we are just in the nascent stages. We have gotten a little bit of funding, and we have a wonderful team that’s trying to bring in different companies and organizations that we think could partner well with us. Then from there, we’re going to just continue to grow and continue our fundraising efforts so that we can really do all the different events and programs that we want to do.”