Frustrated. Restless. Stressed.
The emotions were palpable on Indy 500 qualifying day. Simona De Silvestro, the lone woman on this year’s entry list, was one of the last drivers to attempt to qualify. She hasn’t competed at Indianapolis Motor Speedway since 2015, and now six years later, the Switzerland native was trying to make IndyCar history as part of the women-led team, Paretta Autosport.
“I think a lot of younger women, girls, don't realize that it's an opportunity because you turn on the TV, and [see] a bunch of dudes dinking around on cars,” says Andra Buzatu, a mechanic for Paretta who spent four years in the Coast Guard. “So you're on the TV, and now you're starting to see a couple women on every team. And then you have a team that’s 70% female. You’re like, ‘Oh, maybe I'm interested in this.’ I think it's really good to just kind of plant that seed and be a part of that. To be part of that is really great because I kind of wish I had it when I was younger.”
But that first attempt didn’t go as planned. De Silvestro averaged 228.173 mph over her four qualifying laps, landing her in the bottom five and in danger of going into Bump Day. She went out again and improved to 228.395 mph but still remained out of the top 30.
As the final seconds of the first qualifying day counted down, De Silvestro and Paretta Autosport wheeled out the No. 16 car for one last lap. But, they fell short at 228.013 mph, sending them to the notorious Bump Day, where only three of the five bottom drivers would make the field. And one of the competitors they would be up against Will Power, the 2018 Indy 500 champion.
“Everybody's scratching their head, like, ‘I can't believe that you guys are in this situation, as was Will Power,” says Beth Paretta, CEO and team principal. “And honestly, selfishly, I wouldn't wish that difficult [day] on Will Power at all, but I am glad in some ways that he was in the same boat so that nobody, no amateur fan, could look at it and say that the narrative was that we were lowest on the charts because of it being a women's effort, because that was not why we are at the end at the bottom of the timing sheet. Anyone who understands racing, and anybody that was at the speedway knows that. We were struggling with the balance of the car, and honestly, Simona got more out of that car than we deserved. I mean, that was really all down to her just being so good at what she does.”
Less than a year.
That’s how long it took for Paretta to assemble her team with the 2010 Indianapolis 500 Rookie of the Year as the driver. And after those months of combing through CVs, résumés and her LinkedIn, Paretta did something IndyCar hasn’t seen before.
While they have a technical alliance with Team Penske, Paretta Autosport is a women-led team that hopes to unite the current generation while inspiring the next during the 105th running of the Indy 500.
“We are a professional race team of women who strive to do our best and inspire people to pursue their dreams,” Paretta says.
The dream began in fall 2014 when she was talking with a colleague who managed racing drivers. They were discussing something unrelated when the man asked if he could run an idea by Paretta. At the time, he was representing a female driver, and wanted to know Paretta’s take on an all-women team for the Indy 500.
“The impetus for his idea was because he had just come from a Formula One race and he saw two lady engineers on one team, and it was kind of like seeing two unicorns,” Paretta says.”It was like this spark of an idea.”
Paretta could not stop thinking about it and could see all the possibilities. “If we grab all these women from different teams and put them on one team, it's this huge, huge visual,” she says. “But in addition, it could be something that could spark interest in kids, you know, like the idea of having your target audience being like 10 to 12 year olds. So I started doing a bunch of research, and then I basically created a monster.”
Having a woman as the driver wasn’t new. There had already been multiple women who had started the Indy 500, including Sarah Fisher and Danica Patrick. The 2010, ’11 and ’13 races all had four women in the field. But there’s also more to a race team than the driver.
“It was that idea of, ‘Let's tell the story that there's a bunch of people on a race team—not to take away from the feat of the driver—but all of those other people are critical to getting the car to run and get beyond the grid and set up and all those things,’” Paretta says. “Obviously every driver knows that all those people are critical, but that also is what I thought would maybe be more relatable to an audience, because not everybody wants to be a racing driver. But you'd be like, ‘Wow, that'd be kind of cool to be an aero engineer or strategist or a pit crew member or mechanic.’ And then it feels like, ‘I could be part of this.’”
Paretta pulled the plug at the 11th hour in 2016 because the car wasn’t right. But four years later, the dream became a reality when the team was announced as an extension of IndyCar and the IMS’s “Race for Equality & Change” in July 2020. Paretta Autosport announced its entry into this year’s Indy 500 in January 2021, six months later.
“We are just like you, and so if you can see us, you can be us,” said Lauren Sullivan, Paretta Autosport’s performance engineer, during a press conference before the Indy 500 qualifying round.
Andra Buzatu is used to stressful situations. After all, she spent the last four years as a servicemember in the Coast Guard.
Her first unit was search and rescue out of Oregon, which primarily dealt with aiding fishing vessels and people stuck out at sea. But they were a heavy weather unit, constantly battling tumultuous waters and towing boats through 16-foot waves. During her first unit, Buzatu was apprenticing under the mechanics, and she decided to go to school to become a machinery technician.
Her next unit was on an anti-drug, anti-migrant ship in Virginia. The operations consisted of being woken up late at night to go run down a drug boat. Then, Buzatu says, the servicemembers had to “babysit all the guys and take them back to wherever they came from.”
Throughout her time in the military, Buzatu was set on going to nursing school because her mom was a nurse. But she says that dream only lasted until she was 21. One day when she was working down in the engine room, she realized that she didn’t want to stop what she was doing.
Buzatu got out of the Coast Guard last September and decided to enroll in the NASCAR Technical Institute on a whim.
“I've been through a lot of stressful environments,” the 23-year-old says. “So coming into this and seeing people stress over racing, it's much different than me stressing over babysitting a cartel member.”
Even though she’s used to the stress, traveling and long days, Buzatu admits that the transition from military to racing life was difficult in more ways than expected. For one, she’s had to “learn how to put the guns away” and “be nice and don't over-tighten things.”
“At the Indy, this is my first time really, really jumping in to working on the car full-time. I've been in the shop a few times before we went over stuff. So I had a general idea of everything, but really honing in on every single little piece [and] sensor. And they're all delicate,” Buzatu says. “And I had to kind of step back and be like, ‘Okay, I'm just going to observe and try and do what I can.’
“But I think the best thing being in the military gave me was just being able to handle stress, just to be able to handle situations like that. You have people where one little thing goes wrong and their head starts flying off their shoulders, and you can't do that in the military. You do that, people die.”
While it was new territory for the veteran mechanic, knowing that she was going to be a part of a women-led team in a male-dominant industry did not make her nervous or anxious. Being aligned with one of the greatest racing teams in the world created a security blanket, Buzatu says.
“You can't walk in there and be weak. You wake up, right? Men and women wake up. You brush your teeth, put on your clothes and you go to work,” she says. “It doesn't make it any different because we have boobs. It's all the same thing. So you just walk in there like you know what you're doing, and people will believe it. And then you figure it out as you go….
“We're just doing the damn thing.”
The alarm blares in the pitch black room, and Amanda Frayer fumbles to turn it off. It’s 3:30 in the morning, and the former field hockey and basketball player has a 45-minute commute in front of her.
From 5:00 to 5:45, the crew has pit stop practice. Then they hit the gym for a 30-minute workout. By about 6:30 they’re done, and it’s a mad dash to everyone’s day job. Frayer has three jobs—outside rear tire for Paretta, a bartender some evenings and her day position as a dog groomer.
And she’s not the only one to juggle multiple roles on the team. Several of the women are full-time students who also have jobs alongside the work at Paretta, and a few work on the NASCAR side for Team Penske.
“It's really cool to see that anybody can do this,” Frayer says. “It's not your black-and-white, picture-perfect life person coming into this industry. It's people from the military coming in, you've got a dog groomer, just trying it out.”
Frayer, along with several of her teammates, doesn’t have motorsports experience. She didn’t even watch racing growing up. But like most things in life, it’s all about who you know.
One of her friends’ fathers works for Penske, and he decided to give Frayer a call about the opportunity because of her athletic background. After an evaluation and two trials, she’s working alongside veterans like pit coach Shaun Rinamon, who Paretta says runs the “Harvard of pit schools.”
“If you were to look at me, you'd be like, ‘I'm not gonna ask that girl to try to be on a racecar team. She probably wouldn't have any interest,’” says Frayer. “But I got asked and I took the opportunity. I met so many amazing people…. You just gotta say yes and give things a try. You never know what's gonna come up or who you're going to meet. You know that you could meet somebody through somebody else and that opens a whole new door for you. And your life could change in a matter of minutes.”
For Frayer and the rest of Paretta Autosport, it did over the span of several months. They went from an average of 17- or 18-second pit stops on a static car to five seconds a few days before the Indy 500 qualifying rounds. They gained sponsors, like Rocket Pro TPO and MoneyLion, who happened to be in different stages of launching their own women-forward initiatives. MoneyLion had been putting their final touches on their campaign, Women Who Roar. Paretta says it was fortunate timing as the team worked to becoming a well oiled machine thanks to the people who said yes.
“At the end of the day, racing is all about being in the right place at the right moment,” De Silvestro said during a press conference before qualifying, “and right now, we just have literally all the tools in our hands to really show what we can do.”
Joy. Relief. Pride.
A multitude of emotions flooded Paretta Autosport as De Silvestro threw her arms around the team owner. Tears filled the eyes of several crew members as they realized they survived the make-or-break seconds of Bump Day and the breakneck speeds needed to qualify for the Indy 500’s 33-car field.
The team captured the final spot at 227.892 mph, becoming the first team owned by a woman with a woman driver in the race—a year after the 500 didn’t have a female driver for the first time in 20 years.
And standing alongside De Silvestro and Paretta during their first IndyCar race will be a fierce group of women sporting ponytails and braids who've inspired people across generations.
But Paretta says they’re just like any other team, just trying to get a job done, and “that’s how we want to be remembered.” After all, the Indy 500 is really anybody’s game.
“We are at the very end of the pit lane. We qualified last, but that doesn't mean anything. Something somebody told me was that Indy picks its winner,” Frayer says. “You can be fully prepared with the best engine, in that first pit box winning or leading laps around the track, but you never know what's gonna happen. They can hit a squirrel and they crash into the wall and it completely changes the whole entire game.
“So even though we are kind of far down on pit lane and we qualified last, you never know what's gonna happen. We could still come back and win. So we're not gonna give up and anything can happen.”
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