Danielle Shepherd is no stranger to success. As part of Chip Ganassi Racing’s NTT IndyCar Series engineering program, she helped Scott Dixon to win his fifth championship in 2018 and was a key member of Alex Palou’s title-winning effort last year, which dovetailed into her appointment as race engineer of the new No. 02 CGR Cadillac Racing DPi-V.R entry in IMSA’s WeatherTech SportsCar Championship.
Shepherd’s promotion from serving as a support engineer who specializes in simulation to being in charge of the 5.5-liter V8-powered Cadillac prototype was encouraged by all of her peers at CGR, and with the No. 02’s comeback victory on Saturday at the punishing 12-hour race, she got her first win as a race engineer in America’s most iconic endurance race with the line-up of Earl Bamber, Alex Lynn, and Neel Jani.
“She definitely likes to push the limits and I like that she’s not afraid of making some bold moves sometimes as well,” said Bamber, the double 24 Hours of Le Mans winner. “That’s what is important in racing is to test the extremes, and she doesn’t leave any stone unturned before going to the race to make sure she gives us the best car, and I think that’s what makes her strong.
“We had a great car in practice and then in final night practice she was still tweaking away at it, trying to make it even faster than what we had. That’s the mentality. She wants to continuously improve, and that’s what I like about her character. And she does keep us on the straight and narrow.”
Deeply ingrained with CGR’s team-first approach to racing, Shepherd pointed the spotlight at the rest of the program’s crew members.
“It’s just more of a testament to the team as a whole,” she said. “It just shows how hard everyone here works, and how much how much work is put in by each member of the team, how well we’ve picked people to be a part of the team, and just how much effort overall by every single person at the shop has been put in to make the car better. Take what we learned last year with the 01 [Cadillac] running for the first time and work to not have mistakes on the car, to make it reliable. I think it’s just it just shows how strong Chip Ganassi Racing is, as a whole.”
Like most racers, the sport has been in Shepherd’s life for as long as she can remember.
“When I was a little kid, I was super interested in racing,” she said. “I always got to watch it on TV — my mom was really interested in it, so was my grandpa — even as a little girl. I was always watching. I thought I had a path in college but, once I started there, I didn’t really know what I wanted to do. I decided that the path I’d originally thought I was going to take wasn’t for me. And then I wanted to take on something that I was passionate about, which was racing, and try to make it a career.
“So I got some internships while I was in college and that led me to my first position in IndyCar where I started — I was with KV for two years doing some data stuff. And then I was lucky enough to join the Chip Ganassi Racing team, first doing data acquisition stuff, and then moving over to the simulation role after the first year. It’s just been a wonderful team to work with. We have so many great engineers, and so many great individuals on the team, just learning from them. Everything has been more than I could have asked for.”
It was through a connection at the college best known for producing NBA star Stephen Curry where Shepherd built the foundation for her career in motor racing.
“I ended up double majoring in math and physics, and it was a smaller school, too,” she continued. “It didn’t have any Formula SAE programs or anything like that, so actually, my advisor on the math program knew that I was interested in motorsports engineering, and he helped me get an internship with a math professor at Davidson College who was specifically doing mathematics research for motorsports, which was a really cool opportunity.
“That led to some connections in the industry, so it was an interesting path — probably not the not the traditional path that other race engineers have taken. A lot of them around here have engineering degrees, mechanical engineering degrees. So it was a bit of a bit of a different path, but it still got me here.”
Shepherd joins a small but growing group of women who’ve won major sports car events as race engineers or the other engineering disciplines found on the timing stand. She follows the likes of Leena Gade and Catherine Crawford in endurance racing and wants to be a catalyst for more women to join her in the future.
“I’m really glad to be in the position that I’m in and have had the support of all the other women on pit lane in all the other series,” she said. “I received so many congratulatory messages from them and from everyone else; it really is a team sport. You have the support of everyone around you and everyone on pit lane wants to see you truly succeed. And that’s why it’s a great group of people, men and women.
“I’m glad that we’re starting to see more women on pit lane. Hopefully they can see the role that I’m playing and hopefully it can inspire all of the women out there who are interested in motorsports to take that opportunity, take that chance, and just pursue their passion. So I’m hoping that overall it can just serve to inspire other women out there to pursue motor racing.”