Well Suited: Legge is used to being the only woman in her races—and she's getting used to winning them.
'Now I just worry about driving fast'
Metro talks to Grand Prix racer Katherine Legge about girl horsepower, being a role model and being the only driver to pass another car on the San Jose course
By Sarah Quelland
GET better. Go faster. Win. That's what's racing through British Champ Car driver Katherine Legge's mind when she's in the heat of competition. In an arena dominated by men, the 26-year-old rookie is holding her own. In 2005, her first full season of professional racing, she took home three wins. At last year's inaugural San Jose Grand Prix, she was the only driver to actually pass another car on a course that made lead changes nearly impossible. She's constantly making racing history as the "first woman to ..." And she maintains an optimistic outlook even when races don't go her way—like last Sunday, when the Molson Grand Prix in Toronto brought in an unwanted first caused by a brush with the wall that damaged her gearbox. It was the first time Legge failed to finish a race in her Champ Car career. Still, she notes on her website, "I had the quickest lap time until that happened." Only days before that disappointment, Legge, who returns to race in the San Jose Grand Prix again, took time from her busy schedule to chat with Metro.
How did you get into racing?
Legge: I was 9 years old. My father took me to a go-carting event and I was hooked. My father and I would go go-cart racing every weekend for the next 10 years.
Who are your racing heroes or inspirations? Have you ever raced against any of them?
Aryton Senna, a Brazilian Formula One driver and world champion. I also look up to my owner and sometime teammate Jimmy Vasser, and Paul Tracy. I race against Jimmy and Paul.
I imagine you're frequently the only female driver in a race. How does that feel and what kind of response do you get from the other drivers and the fans? Does it depend on what city or country you're in at the time?
I wouldn't know any different because I have always been the only female in the race. I am pretty sure it is just like being the only rookie driver in the race. The drivers treat me as one of them and the fans have been very supportive. The country and city doesn't make any difference. Everyone has been great and, again, very supportive.
Does being a female driver in a male-dominated arena automatically make you a role model for young girls and young women? How do you handle that?
I think it does make me a role model, but that was not my intent. But it is nice to know that I am giving young girls someone to emulate and I hope I can achieve my goals in racing so young girls will have something to aspire too.
How demanding is your race schedule?
It's not too bad. We only race 16 times a year. During the off-season we test quite a bit, so it is a full time job. I work out twice a day with a company in Indiana called Pit Fit. A lot of my time is spent traveling to and from test and races or making sponsor appearances.
What are your interests outside of racing? What do you enjoy doing when you're not training, working or traveling?
I enjoy water sports and snow skiing. Being a race car driver requires almost all of your attention and time. The only real time we have off is in December.
How do your races in Europe differ from races in America? Do you feel there's a different kind of energy when you're racing in Great Britain?
Racing is racing. In the U.S. we run on street courses, like San Jose, whereas in Europe you only race on permanent road course, like Laguna Seca.
What kind of relationship do you have with your car? Does it have a name or a lucky number? Any special modifications?
I haven't named my cars recently, but I used to think it was good luck. Now I just worry about driving fast.
Who are your sponsors and how long have you been with them?
My sponsors are all new, and I joined them this year. My primary sponsor is Bell Micro Products, which is based in Silicon Valley. I also have sponsorship from Gulfstream, Ford Motor Company, Bridgestone Tires and KPLJ Ventures, which is an investment company owned by my team owners Kevin Kalkhoven and Dan Pettit, who live in the Bay Area.
Out-of-Body Experience: Legge says when she's racing she can't think about anything else: 'I am not really aware of what my body is feeling because I am so focused on what I am doing in the race and trying to win.'
How do you prepare for a race? Do you have any pre-race rituals?
Everybody prepares for a race in their own way. I basically do the same things each time. I talk with my engineers about the car and race/pit strategy. I talk with the crew about pit stops. I also make sponsor visits and sign autographs for the fans. I like to take the last hour before a race to prepare my helmet and focus on what I need to do in the race. I also, always get in the car from the left-hand side. I have done that since the beginning of my racing career and I don't really know why.
Can you describe the rush of the race? What's going through your mind when you're tearing around the course?
I concentrate on what the team is telling me, what line I am driving and what the situation is on the track. I am not really aware of what my body is feeling because I am so focused on what I am doing in the race and trying to win.
I like the competition and constant reevaluation of yourself, your driving and the car. That is what I like about racing. You are constantly trying to improve and get better, faster and win.
They say the design of the track in downtown San Jose last year made lead changes nearly impossible, yet I understand you were the one driver in the whole race who actually passed another car. How did that happen?
I got a good exit on the previous corner, and got a run on the car in front of me. That allowed me to make the pass. Frankly, I drove an Atlantic car in San Jose last year which is smaller than a Champ Car and I think the San Jose circuit was much better for the Atlantic cars and allowed for more passing. However, with the changes that have been made to the San Jose Grand Prix street circuit for this year, I think there will be a lot more passing in the Champ Car race than last year.
How significant are the risks involved in these races and what's been your closest call?
Obviously, driving a race car is a risky business, but the cars are strong and technology has emphasized safety so as a race car driver you put the risk of injury out of your mind. I have had lots of close calls.
What do you consider your greatest accomplishment, racewise, to date?
Winning three races, including my first Atlantic race last year and finishing third in the championship. I actually should have finished higher, but I made a couple of mistakes that cost me the championship due to my lack of experience.
Where are the Champ Car races the most popular? Where do you see the biggest crowds?
The most popular Champ Car races are Long Beach, Toronto, Edmonton, San Jose and Australia.
What are you doing after the San Jose race is over?
I will be flying to the Los Angeles area to visit a Painted Turtle Champ. Painted Turtle is a camp for kids with muscular dystrophy and is associated with the Hole In the Wall Camps which Champ Car owner Paul Newman is associated with.
Last year you participated in the very first San Jose Grand Prix. What did you think was successful about it and what do you hope will be different this year?
I think the attendance and enthusiasm of the fans was fantastic last year. It was a very exciting event and should be even better this year. As far as changes, I think they have already done that by working on the circuit to get rid of some of the bump and create more passing opportunities. In addition, I think the things they have done to make the facility more accessible to the fans and allow the fans to move around, like more bridges and better areas, will really make this a great race for the spectators.
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