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Wednesday, May 25, 2011
Anna Chatten making IndyCar history

By Brant James

INDIANAPOLIS -- Anna Chatten just wanted to go home. It was late one May evening in 2009. It had not been a great day. She was tired. Her car was right there.

But one of Indianapolis Motor Speedway's notoriously zealous security workers, nicknamed "yellow shirts," stepped in her way as she and two of her co-workers attempted to enter a secured lot reserved for crew members of race teams preparing for the Indianapolis 500.

"The guy says I couldn't go back to the reserved lot," Chatten recalled. "I said, 'Well, that's where my car is parked.' And he says, 'Your car is not back there. That's where the mechanics park.' I said, 'No, that's where my car is parked, and I'd really love to go home.'

"He wanted to give me a hard time about it like I was just at the track with my dirty crew shirt on for fun at 10 o'clock at night."

Another long day in the life of the only female mechanic in the Izod IndyCar Series, where despite the unmistakable progress made in the last decade, she said, subtle snubs and obnoxious comments, however occasional, continue to underscore the work left to do for gender acceptance.

"It has and it hasn't [gotten better]," said Chatten, a front end mechanic for driver JR Hildebrand at Panther Racing. "I've been doing it long enough and it's a pretty close-knit series where most of the time I know the guys I'm going to work with or they know of me. The situation I'm in with Panther, I chose to come here because the crew chief on my car, I worked with him previously at Walker Racing. He's a good guy and I knew I wouldn't have to put up with any crap, so that was a really big deciding factor.

"To be really honest with you, for as long as I've been doing it, there's always going to be one a------ in the bunch. It gets less and less, but I don't think I can say it's ever really gone away. You always have to do just a little bit more."

To be really honest with you, for as long as I've been doing it, there's always going to be one a------ in the bunch. It gets less and less, but I don't think I can say it's ever really gone away. You always have to do just a little bit more.

-- Anna Chatten on being the only female mechanic in the Izod IndyCar Series

Which is what Chatten has done since taking a job in the now-defunct Champ Car series 13 years ago, working on the over-the-wall crew servicing the race car during pit stops. Up until last season, Chatten worked the air jack, a pneumatic hose system which, when inserted into a portal in the car, jettisons pods under the vehicle and lifts it high enough for tires to be changed. Chatten's career over the wall is currently on hold until she fully recovers from being hit -- along with fueler Mike Briggs and left front tire changer Chris Bennett -- during pre-race pit stop practice by their driver, Mario Moraes, last year at Mid-Ohio.

"He ran us all over and my foot took the worst of it," she said of her broken foot. "So it's still not 100 percent fixed. I totally do want to get back. Pit stops are fun to do, for sure. I definitely want to do it again, but it puts in a different perspective when you're debilitated from it. My days wearing high heels are numbered."

It is believed that in 2009, when jacking Milka Duno's car for Dreyer & Reinbold, Chatten became the first and only female to work over the wall during the Indianapolis 500, but track historian Donald Davidson cannot confirm that milestone.

Among Chatten's less glamorous but equally crucial duties is assembling the front end of the race car, helping devise and execute the calibrations that affect the way it rides on the race course and making sure Hildebrand is properly situated in the cockpit.

Chatten said drivers, as a rule, have been the most gender-blind of her co-workers.

"She's got a great attitude and she's not scared to speak her mind and we all appreciate that and that makes it much more fun for all of us to be around each other," said Hildebrand, a rookie who qualified 12th at Indy. "I view it as an advantage. She's been around a lot of race teams and is really experienced, but because she's a female she has a different outlook and it's fun having her around. She adds to the chemistry of the group."

Females are beginning to make inroads as engineers and officials in various racing series, but Chatten said she knows of no other mechanics. The road for females isn't being blocked, she said, just rarely taken.

A family connection is often required to generate an interest. Chatten was introduced to motorsports as a 7-year-old by her father, a motorcycle racing enthusiast who had bought a go-kart for amusement. His daughter tagged along to the track and was soon racing. Chatten wasn't next-level good, so she applied her interest working on karts to furthering her mechanical career.

"For females to get involved in this sport, I think the best thing you can do is when you bring your little boys to the race track, bring your little girls, too," she said. "My dad only had little girls. He didn't have much choice in the matter. I think it's really hard for females to come up with interest on their own without it being presented to them. It's not really marketed toward us."

Chatten's ascension to highest-level of open-wheel racing in North America began in rural Illinois go-karting competition, which two decades later has produced two female history-makers. Chatten grew up in Peoria, 150 miles south of Roscoe, home of IndyCar star Danica Patrick.

"I'm a couple years older than her, but us two girls from Illinois used to race against each other. Who would have thought?" she laughed. "It's odd we both grew up in small towns in Illinois and ended up in professional auto racing."

And one day maybe both of them can walk without objection to their parking lots.

Follow Brant James on Twitter @brantjames.