Bald John looked giddy, which confused me as I pulled into the pits after our first practice for the Indy 500. He didn’t speak, but helped me out of the car with a wide, goofy grin and unusually fumbling fingers.
Also confusing was my best friend, manager, and PR person, Holly Wilson, climbing over the low pit wall with a towel and a bottle of water—normally a crew member’s job. I saw the stern look on her face and fear clenched my insides.
I shouted to be heard through my helmet. “What’s wrong?”
She shook her head. “Everyone’s fine. No one’s hurt. I have good news and bad news. Bad news first.”
Do we have to do this again? Now?
I yanked off my gloves, helmet, balaclava, and earplugs. I wiped my face with the cold, wet towel she’d brought and looked up and down the Indianapolis Motor Speedway’s pit lane, seeing thirty-three other drivers talking with their engineers.
Why am I not doing the same?
I drank down half the water. As a babble of voices erupted from my Beermeier Racing team pit box, Holly glanced over her shoulder, worried.
My sense of unease increased. “Tell me.”
“The bad news.” She hesitated. “This is only the first practice. Where you are in the finishing order doesn’t matter, because teams are playing with car setup. Position doesn’t mean anything.”
“I get it. I was last in this practice last year, but finished seventeenth in the race.” I relived the overwhelmed feeling I’d had the year before, my first time driving at IMS and my first time attempting to qualify for one of the biggest races in the world. I’d nearly stopped breathing during the rookie test, when I proved I could handle speeds over 220 mph around the two-and-a-half- mile oval. The first full practice had been equally stunning, as I learned to deal with other cars on the massive track. In contrast, the practice a year later had felt good. I’d felt relatively comfortable with a car on the edge. I’d had fun.
“What’s the problem?” I asked.
“Keep the bad news in mind.”
I waved Holly on, bored of whatever this was. I wanted to talk to my engineer, though I saw he was busy with a small crowd of people—press?
Holly put a hand on my shoulder. “The good news.” She broke into a smile. “Kate, you were the fastest in that session.”
Her words didn’t register. “What?”
She pointed at the scoring pylon, the tall, electronic tower that soared over the track displaying the running or finishing order. Sure enough, my number was at the top.
I blinked twice, but the digits didn’t change. I sank down on the pit wall, unable to feel my legs. “Holy shit,” I whispered.
“It’s a damn good start.” She laughed, then sobered. “But don’t let it go to your head. Stay calm when you talk with the media.”
I glanced at the group in the pits again and finally understood what was happening.
“You can be pleased,” she went on, “but don’t get cocky. The other teams—”
I grinned at her. “It doesn’t mean anything for qualifying or the race. But it’s sure as hell a better way to start than last place.”
I turned back to the scoring pylon and the start/finish line of the legendary track. Position one: the number 82 car. Me.
Maybe this will be my year at the 500…
I had ten seconds to fantasize about drinking the traditional milk in the victory lane before my crew descended on me with back-slaps and hugs. After a few minutes of answering questions for the reporters going live on the PA or radio, I spent time talking with Nolan Oshiro, the genius engineer who made decisions about race strategy and technical details for me. But before we were done, a rep for the IndyCar Series, which I was driving in full-time that year, arrived to take me to the media center to talk with the press.
I hadn’t ever been called to the ground-floor interview room of the media building—a shorter, longer structure next to the Speedway’s famous pagoda tower—so I hadn’t known the drill. As a result, the other top finishers had come and gone, and I faced a couple dozen journalists alone.
The bottle of cold water I clutched—my second—helped me rehydrate after losing about five pounds in sweat over the course of the practice session, but it didn’t help me feel warm. Though I’d been overheated in the car, I already felt clammy from wearing a soaking-wet firesuit in the air-conditioned room. Plus I felt anxious, nervous.
The price of success.
At first, reporters asked the normal questions about how the car felt, if we had what it would take to win this year, and if I’d known I was that fast.
Then a voice spoke from my left. “I have two questions. What does this mean for you? And do you think it’ll make more people take you seriously?”
“Is someone not taking me seriously? My name’s on the car. What’s not serious about that?”
The male reporter dug himself deeper. “There haven’t been many women running the 500, and none of them have come close to winning.”
“Third isn’t close to winning?” I shot back.
Be nice, Kate. Educate, I reminded myself.
I tried again. “People take me seriously. Will this get me more exposure in the rest of the world? I hope so. I’d love to bring more attention to this great race, to the Beermeier Racing team, and to my sponsors, Frame Savings and Beauté.”
“And to women drivers?” he persisted.
“Absolutely. Women can be fast and win anywhere men can.”
A different man spoke. “Were you thinking about beating the other woman in the field today? And how’s your relationship with Sofia Montalvo?”
Don’t say she’s a bitch. Don’t say she’s a bitch.
“Sofia and I are friendly, but I wasn’t thinking of her or anyone else. I was trying to get the most out of the car.”
The other female reporter wagged a finger in the air and winked. “You weren’t out there focused on the statement you were making for women?”
I barely caught my snort of amusement. “I was thinking about hanging on, making adjustments with the anti-roll bars and weight jacker, and giving my team feedback to make the car better. That’s all I should think about at more than two-twenty.”
The questions returned to more standard lines—what did my speed today mean for the race and what would my team change on the car before the next session. Then someone suggested I was the first woman in the 106-year history of the Indy 500 to ever top the speed charts.
“Am I? Some of you know more race history than I do.”
The reporters debated the question and the volume in the room escalated until one voice broke through.
“No, she wasn’t,” drawled a small, wiry man in his early fifties. He leaned against the doorframe, holding what looked like a change of clothes for me.
Everyone turned to him, and some reporters looked a question at me.
“Uncle—er, Stan Wright, from Beermeier Racing. Expert mechanic.” I wasn’t sure why he was there, but I’d found that Stan—who everyone on the team called “Uncle Stan,” regardless of age or relation—always turned up exactly when he was most needed.
Uncle Stan smiled. “Just plain mechanic and sometime errand boy—checking up on you for Alexa.” The last was directed at me, referencing Alexa Wittmeier, co-owner of Beermeier Racing, the team I drove for.
“You said Kate wasn’t the first?” one of the youngest reporters asked.
Uncle Stan nodded. “Couple decades ago, PJ Rodriguez was the first.”
The checkered flag flew to mark the end of the first practice for the 1987 Indianapolis 500, and the number 23 car’s crew slapped each other’s backs in disbelief. Noise from the small crowd on hand was drowned out by the roar of thirty-seven snarling V-6 and V-8 engines entering pit lane—but not before the crew heard boos mixed in with cheering.
At the front of the pit space, a crew member waved his arm up and down, and PJ pulled the car in. As she shut down the engine, the crew member approached, but PJ waved him off. He turned back to the pits, relief evident in the slump of his shoulders.
PJ unbuckled her belts and muscled herself out, perching on the rim of the cockpit, her feet on the seat. She pulled her helmet and balaclava off, shaking out thick, black hair, and wiped her forehead with a sleeve.
In contrast to other pit spaces, where crew members clustered around each car and driver, PJ sat alone. Her lips tightened briefl and she squared her shoulders before climbing the rest of the way out of the car, helmet in hand. Only then did she turn to look at the scoring pylon, frowning as she searched for her car number at the bottom of the list. Her first practice that year, only her second time attempting to make the race…she knew she’d be at the bottom of the speed chart. She looked again. Nothing.
Finally understanding, she looked higher on the pylon, her mouth dropping open as she followed the list of numbers all the way to the top.
Position 1: 23.
She froze, shocked. Certain there’d been some mistake. After a long minute, she turned her head and met the eyes of her race engineer, Jerry Watson. “Really? How?”
He shrugged and stepped closer to the pit wall, gesturing for a crew member to take PJ’s helmet. “A fluke.” He looked sternly at the joy spreading over PJ’s face. “You did good—your fastest lap was 210.772 miles per hour. But don’t get ahead of yourself. We’ve got three weeks of on-track sessions before the race itself. Anything can happen. Some of the favorites didn’t even get out there today.”
PJ waved an arm at the pylon, her enthusiasm undimmed. “But they cannot say I can’t drive if I did this.”
“They’re gonna say whatever they want, kid. But you keep on believing.” He glanced over his shoulder. “And brace yourself, because here comes the press.”
Within seconds, PJ was surrounded. Men with notebooks in hand tumbled over the pit wall and swarmed the pit space, pressing in on her.
“PJ, did you know you were fastest while you were out there?”
“How did the car feel?”
“Did you really think a girl could go that fast?”
“Do you think you can do it again?”
She heard a guffaw, and a low voice. “Of course she can’t. She’ll probably collapse from the strain of this session.”
“Do you think people will say you’re too masculine if you go too fast?”
As the men invaded her personal space and their questions continued to rain down, PJ felt her breaths grow more shallow and panicky. She let the sound wash over her and focused on slow, smooth breathing. A moment later, she threw up her hands, bumping three notebooks out of the way.
“Enough,” she shouted.
In the brief, shocked silence that followed, she spoke again. “One at a time. No, I did not know my speed while I was in the car. Still, I don’t believe it. The car felt touchy and not so great in a couple of corners. Of course I thought I could go that fast. Being a girl—a woman—it has nothing to do with driving a racecar.”
“Now you’re getting all feminist on us—you one of those women’s libbers, PJ?” one reporter asked.
“If you mean do I think women can do anything they want to do? Then yes. But that does not mean I don’t appreciate men or want to—what is it? Burn my bra. Not that.”
Another reporter eyed her chest. “I’ll say. It looks plenty good where it is.”
PJ crossed her arms and flicked a glance at the man’s crotch before giving him a pitying look.
“Aren’t you afraid of being seen as too manly?” That was from a different voice, on her other side.
She turned to face him. “You tell me, am I ever going to look like a man?”
He inspected her curves and grinned. “No, ma’am, but behavior ain’t looks.”
“I do not understand why, if I am a good, fast driver, anyone else is less of a man.” She shrugged. “Maybe they need their manhood checked.”
Some of the men muttered disapproving responses, but didn’t say anything loud enough for her to hear.
A woman in the back spoke up for the first time. “Lyla Thomas for Autoweek. Can I get some background? Where you’re from, racing history, that sort of thing?”
PJ was surprised at a woman being part of the macho press corps. “I am twenty-six, my father is Mexican and my mother is American. I was brought up in the United States, Colombia, and Mexico City. I started racing go-karts at the age of eight, and then I moved into sportscars, then to formula cars. This is my second year trying to qualify here at Indy, because I didn’t pass the rookie test last year.” She glanced at the scoring pylon. “But I am clearly capable this year, no?”
Some of the men laughed, grudgingly, she thought.
Lyla Thomas looked up from her notebook. “What does PJ stand for?”
PJ rolled her Rs. “Patricia Julieta Rosamaria Rivera Rodriguez.”
The reporter quirked the side of her mouth up. “I see why you go by PJ.”
PJ nodded at her as the questions started up again.
“Do you think the other drivers on track stayed out of your way?”
“Why would they do that?” PJ studied the man’s feeble attempts at a comb-over.
“So you wouldn’t get hurt,” he replied. “Could that explain you being fastest?”
Another man slapped his notebook with the back of his free hand. “You’re onto something. That’s gotta be what it is.” He turned to PJ. “What if they won’t race you wheel-to-wheel?”
PJ couldn’t help herself. “Then they are weak.”
“You’re talking about champions!” The men were indignant. She shrugged. “If they are afraid to race me…”
A different reporter spoke up. “Kevin Hagan, Associated Press. What do you have to say to the fans who think you shouldn’t be on the track? Who think you’re taking a seat a man should have?”
“I say this is nineteen eighty-seven, and it is time for this conversation to be over. Women play sports. We race cars. Billie Jean King won the tennis match fourteen years ago, por Dios. If there’s a man who’s better than me, maybe he’d be standing here. Except that I was faster than your men today. Look at the list.” She pointed to the pylon.
She heard a sharply indrawn breath and saw heads shake. Heard one man mutter, “Not going to get you more fans.”
PJ met the eyes of anyone who’d look at her. “No one stayed out of my way today. I was faster. Maybe tomorrow I will not be—or maybe I will. But either way, I succeed because I work hard, not because someone gives me a gift.”
She saw a young crew member signaling to her from the pit box. “You must now excuse me and move so they can take the car to the garage. Thank you for your time.” She walked away, the young crew member scurrying after her.
The reporters shifted out of the way of the crew, except for Kevin Hagan, who lagged behind and sidled up to the mechanic climbing in the car for the tow to the garage. “How’s she to work with?”
The crew member settled himself down in the seat. “You know.”
“I don’t know, that’s why I’m asking. What’s she like?”
The guy in the car glanced around and shook his head. “There’s some as make it easy, and some that make you regret not knowing who the driver is before you sign a contract with a team. I’ll let you guess.”
“She don’t make it easy?”
The crew member rolled his eyes. “Off the charts.” He grabbed Hagan’s arm. “And off the record.”
The reporter nodded. “Anonymous source.”
“Meet me in an hour behind the garage for a cigarette, and I’ll tell you more.”
“Done.” Hagan smirked as the car was towed away.