A century ago, a Philadelphia widow named Maude Yagle did something no other woman had yet done: She became the first female race car owner to win the Indianapolis 500, even though she had to watch from the stands because she was forbidden from the pit and even though she had to enter her name under her initials while reporters fretted that the “weaker sex invades the speed game for no good reason at all.”
On Sunday, Beth Paretta and Simona de Silvestro and their majority-women team will mark another series of firsts: Together they are the first female owner (Paretta), female driver (de Silvestro) and female-led crew to compete together at the Indy 500, one of the world’s most famous races.
As Paretta is fond of saying, her focus is always on safety and competition, in that order. With her statement-making Paretta Autosport, she is also looking to break barriers — and be a heck of a competitor while she’s at it.
“We need to get people from all walks of life because genius lurks in strange places, and we need to have all hands on deck because we’re all better together,” she tells PEOPLE.
To that end she has recruited and prepped a mix of veterans and newcomers to the sport — “everyone who’s on this team earned the right to be there,” she says. Their months of daily training started before the sun rose, because of their other jobs.
The aerodynamics engineer, who previously worked in NASCAR, came to racing from Boeing. One of the data engineers is a 21-year-old college student; and one of the tire changers daylights as a dog groomer and bartender when she isn’t in the pit. Another crew member is a former Coast Guard mechanic. Two of the crew are moms with kids at home.
“I get chills,” longtime racing spotter Linda Conti said earlier this month. “We’ve had women throughout in different sectors. But to see a whole team that’s focused on women forward, giving women the opportunity in every single part of the team, I think this is groundbreaking.”
De Silvestro, a Swiss native who is preparing to make her sixth appearance at the Indy 500, tells PEOPLE “the cool thing is that we all starting this journey together. Some of them had never been to a racetrack and they walked into the speedway and they like, “Holy s—.” I think it’s like, wow. It’s really cool. We can be part of this together.”
Paretta Autosport’s debut at Indy traces back to 2015, when Paretta, a longtime racing and automotive executive, planned to field a team at the following year’s race. She ultimately decided against competing in 2016, but she revived the idea after Roger Penske launched a diversity initiative in 2020. His Team Penske, a dominant force in racing, is providing a technical partnership.
De Silvestro calls it a “dream-come-true dream scenario.”
“I’ve always been about getting the job done and getting the opportunity. So I was always like, yes I am a woman, but at the end of the day, I should get the opportunity because I’m good in a race car,” de Silvestro says. “And what Beth has really put together is actually creating these opportunities. If I look at my career, back in the day I did have podiums in an Indy car, but I’ve never had really the top teams call me and be like, ‘Hey, do you want to drive for me?’ … Beth, she’s actually giving this opportunity.”
Paretta says de Silvestro, whom she calls “probably the best all around woman driver in the world,” was her first pick after discussing a team with Penske. (Paretta texted her basically out of the blue, while de Silvestro was in Switzerland.) From there she filled out the rest of her team, which includes an all-women front office and a seven-person over-the-wall pit crew that includes four women.
“This is men and women working together, which I think is critical,” Paretta says. “This isn’t a no-boys club by any means. I don’t want anybody to ever look at it the wrong way and think that this is taking somebody else’s spot. The answer is to have more spots. It’s to build a longer table.”
For young women and girls watching at home, “it could spark imagination” for someone who loves the different parts of racing — the math and engineering and mechanics of it, the competition, the athleticism — but doesn’t realize they could be in racing themselves.
De Silvestro agrees: “I think we can inspire so many people through this … I think it’s going to create a lot of opportunities for the future.”
For years, Paretta has also been working in the classroom. The two projects go hand-in-hand. “What we want to do is, we’re showcasing what STEM education can lead to [and] ideally encouraging girls to know that they can do nontraditional things that are interesting,” she says.
“Racing is STEM in action. It’s applied STEM. Everything that we’re doing, yes, it’s sports. But literally it’s building a better mousetrap,” she says.
“I think more people would relate to racing if the story was told a little better,” Paretta says. “There’s a lot of people like, ‘It’s just people going around in circles.’ No. There’s so much more than the circles.”
So much more than just a race, but when they race on Sunday they will be giving it their all.
After encouraging tests ahead of qualifying, de Silvestro squeaked in and will start 33rd. “I’ve been talking quite a lot over the last few weeks with my engineers and thinking, okay, what can we do better?” she says.
One day, Paretta says, she hopes a team like the one she put together no longer makes headlines like this. “I would love if in five years’ time, us being all women is the least interesting thing about us. I hope that you’re just talking about — oh yeah, they got a championship or they’re on the podium.”
Race day inevitably brings butterflies, Paretta says, both for what’s to come and for what they can’t predict.
“The thing about the Indy 500, nobody can ever guess who’s going to win,” she says. “You can have a favorite but … we always say that the race chooses the winner. And it’s true. Every year it’s a surprise.”
De Silvestro, who last raced at Indy in 2015, can’t wait.
“Here I am six years later with a team that really believes in me and everyone really behind me really believes in me, that I can get the job done. And I think that makes it really special in that sense — because it’s down to you to get it done. And that’s what’s something that I’ve always fought for.”