Better Car, New Adventures Await Versatile Katherine Legge In 2016
Having at least dabbled in eight professional racing series in the past 11 years, Katherine Legge has picked up a label most drivers don't want.
And yet "journeyman" has become a badge of honor for the 35-year-old British transplant, who's back behind the wheel of the radical DeltaWing in this weekend's 54th Rolex 24 race at Daytona International Speedway.
While readily admitting she'd swap places with her contemporary Danica Patrick, whose career has taken a fairly straight line to top equipment, job security and wealth, Legge also points to experiences she would have missed out on, and experiences she's going to have. Like driving for Grace Autosport, the still-coming-together "all-female" team that hopes to race in the 100th Indianapolis 500 this May.
"Danica went down a very different path to the path I went down, and who's to say which one was right?" Legge says during lunch at a Tampa, Florida, restaurant, where the closest she came to being recognized was a patron squinting to read the DeltaWing logo on her polo. "She's had success in her career to a certain extent at stages, too. I think my journey has definitely been very different. I don't know, I've been part so many cool things."
Since the days of pioneers Janet Guthrie and Lyn St. James, no woman racing in America has shown more versatility than Legge. In fairness, that's been dictated more by her options than her desire to branch out, but since first coming to the U.S. in 2005, Legge has raced in Atlantics, Champ Car, IndyCar, DTM (German Touring Car Masters back in Europe), Formula E (electric cars) and, since 2014, the WeatherTech SportsCar Championship.
She has driven a Daytona Prototype and tested both a Formula One and A1 Grand Prix car. And, yes, she still wants to try NASCAR, which we'll get to in a bit.
That's a lot of divisions, but not since 2005, when she burst onto the scene and won three races in the Atlantics feeder series, and then 2006, when she had flashes of brilliance in Champ Car and, has Legge had the car, or resources to win.
Most recently, driving the DeltaWing has been more about proving the innovation of a car that looks like the peculiar love child of a Le Mans prototype and a fighter jet. DeltaWing is designed to be as fast as the competition while using half the fuel and tires. It has led laps and shown improvement, but working out its reliability shortcomings has been a process and a headache for its drivers.
"Part of me just wants to be in position to win a race every week," Legge says. "I want to be on the top of the podium every race I go to. But as a driver, being part of this development program -- yes, we weren't ever going to win races at the beginning because we're developing stuff -- has made me a million times better because I've learned so much about the technology, about the car, about patience, about all these different things. I think now I've really stepped up my game as a driver."
A novel approach to Indy
In May, Legge will take her broadened skill set and insights back to Indianapolis Motor Speedway, where she raced in the Indy 500 in 2012 and 2013, finishing 22nd and 26th, respectively. The new "all-female" team won't really be all female, because there are simply too many jobs to fill, but the aim is to have women in key roles including ownership, driver, engineers, mechanics and some over-the-wall pit crew members.
The focus, Grace Autosport principal Grace Paretta told espnW.com this week, is on building a foundation for the future, rather than trying to pull off a "Miracle On Ice moment" in the 100th Indy. Although sponsorships and partnerships haven't been announced, the effort definitely will happen, Paretta vowed, potentially with a debut in the Phoenix race on April 2.
I'll go on record as saying she has more talent than other women who have been on that grid. I don't believe she has gotten rides because she's a woman.Grace Paretta, Grace Autosport principal, on Legge's IndyCar potential.
"The success of this team will be measured in its endurance as a team," Paretta says, outlining plans for Grace Autosport to eventually become a permanent IndyCar team with additional entries in the minor divisions to develop up-and-coming female drivers and engineers.
Legge will bring not only her driving experience, but also her engaging and marketable personality, photogenic looks and ability to articulate the team's mission to promote STEM education (science, technology, engineering and math).
The team's goal is to demonstrate to young girls there are opportunities in racing for them, whether driving, managing or engineering. "When kids go to the track," Legge explains, "little boys might go, 'I want to be a race car driver,' or, 'I want to go over the wall,' or, 'I want to be an engineer or run a team.' We want to have girls be able to say, 'How cool is that? She's running a race car.' And it makes science sexy.
"So hopefully, that's what we'll achieve by doing the project. [Racing] is probably one of the very few sports in the whole world where women can compete on an equal footing, because it's repetitive strength as opposed to outright strength. Yeah, it's a huge mountain to climb, but we're on it."
Future holds many possibilities
Legge has never given up on the idea of driving for a front-line team that's built to win now rather than develop a concept. She is intrigued by NASCAR, where her friend, former Champ Car standout AJ Allmendinger, made the Chase playoffs in 2014.
It's a long shot, because NASCAR rides are hard to come by, even for established drivers. But Legge has taken it as far as meeting with some of Allmendinger's contacts at Michigan International Speedway in 2014, and attending the Nationwide Series race at Watkins Glen International last year.
"Do I think I would be good in a stock car? Absolutely," Legge says. "Because of my DTM experience and just the fact I love ovals. I have most of my success in an open-wheel car on ovals. But it is a different sport. I suppose I haven't been proactive enough in contacting those guys if I want to make the jump just because of my laser focus with DeltaWing."
There was a time when it seemed Legge would thrive in open-wheel racing. Fate and circumstance were her undoing as much as anything. She drove for Dragon Racing in 2012, but the team had lousy Lotus engines for the first part of the year and never got on track after switching to Chevrolets after Indianapolis.
Paretta believes that if Legge had hired a manager to market and advise her earlier in her career, she might have eventually found success in IndyCar. Legge has since hired manager Adrian Sussman, and the formation of the female IndyCar team germinated from a conversation between the two.
"I think the hopscotching is what has hurt Katherine in her reach and appeal, and I think also the consistency," Paretta says. "If she had stayed in the [IndyCar] series, she probably could have proven herself, gotten herself into a more stable ride in better equipment. But I also was enamored by the fact she didn't take the easy route of marketing herself in saying, 'Oh I'm a girl, and therefore I should get a ride.'
"I'll go on record as saying she has more talent than other women who have been on that grid. I don't believe she has gotten rides because she's a woman."
Legge wonders what might have happened had she waited for the right opportunity in IndyCar, rather than taking "the first offer that came along."
Still, she looks back without regret. She is fiercely loyal to Dr. Don Panoz, the Georgia-based automobile entrepreneur and managing partner of DeltaWing Technology Group. She does, however, want the opportunity to win.
"Now that I've got the experience, I would really like to prove myself in race-winning equipment -- absolutely," Legge says. "I feel like it's finally getting there with the DeltaWing. There's always going to be that question of how does the DeltaWing compare because it's not apples-to-apples (to competing cars), but you can compare me to my teammates, who have really good reputations.
"So I always feel like, if we're all on the same level, or if I'm quicker, or if they're a little quicker, or we're all the same, that's a good indication of how well I can drive."
For now, she's best known as the woman who can drive anything.