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Purdue School of Engineering and Technology

Purdue School of Engineering and Technology

School of Engineering and Technology at IUPUI fueling growth of women in motorsports

May 23, 2019

Lauren Turnbull has been working in Gasoline Alley at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway this month as part of IndyCar's technical inspection team. Before any cars went on the track, she helped make sure they were fully compliant with series rules and regulations. Photo by Liz Kaye, Indiana University

Lauren Turnbull has been working in Gasoline Alley at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway this month as part of IndyCar's technical inspection team. Before any cars went on the track, she helped make sure they were fully compliant with series rules and regulations. Photo by Liz Kaye, Indiana University

Before IndyCars are allowed on the famed 2.5-mile Indianapolis Motor Speedway oval, they have to pass through garage C32 for tech inspection, known simply as "tech" to teams and their crews.

In the inspection bay, cars are fastidiously measured and weighed, all in the name of compliance and safety. A team of inspectors works in a choreographed dance of sorts -- there's one measuring wing assemblies, another peeking under the car, yet another measuring ride height.

"We're checking things like the track width, the wheelbase, weighing all the cars -- just making sure that the competitive balance is still there," explained Lauren Turnbull, part of the inspection team.

It is both significant -- and not at all -- that Turnbull is the only woman in C32.

This year marks the 103rd running of the Indianapolis 500, a cherished motorsports tradition since 1911. Yet not until 1971 were women officially allowed in the pits or the famed Gasoline Alley garage area. Of course, women began driving in the race in 1977 with Janet Guthrie -- followed by others including Lyn St. James, Sarah Fisher, Danica Patrick and, again this year, Pippa Mann -- but records are less clear about when women became more prominent in the garages as crew members and engineers.

 

The consensus, however, is that their numbers are better than ever, with room for growth.

"There's a significant amount of growth in terms of females participating in the IndyCar series," Indianapolis Motor Speedway president Doug Boles said. "When you think about it, you immediately think about the drivers, but there are so many women who are involved in actually putting these cars on the race track.

"Whether they're gearbox folks, engineers on the pit stand or folks working in technical inspection, there are more women involved in making sure that this sport takes place than just what you think of when you think of the drivers. And it has grown quite a bit, even over the last two or three years, versus where it was."

Part of that growth can be directly traced 3 1/2 miles southeast of the speedway, specifically to the School of Engineering and Technology at IUPUI, where its pioneering Purdue program in motorsports engineering continues to prepare men and women for careers in racing.

That preparation comes with opportunities for students like Turnbull, a rising junior who is one of three motorsports engineering students to land an internship with the NTT IndyCar Series, in Indianapolis for May and traveling the rest of the summer.

"Every year we have the opportunity to have two to four students in that program," said Terri Talbert-Hatch, associate dean for recruitment, retention and student services at the school. "The key to it is that the students who do this are just completing either their first or second year of studies, so it really gives them a taste of motorsports early on."

The internship program gets more competitive each year, Talbert-Hatch said, with 15 students applying this year.

Once they've had that taste, many of the students are hooked. Rising senior Lizzie Todd, who had the internship in 2017, is interning this summer with Penske Racing at its shop in North Carolina.

"I want to be a race engineer -- I want to call the shots, tell the cars when to pit, what wing angle changes to make, chassis changes to make the car go faster," Todd said.

Eight women are working full time on the competition side of the series, including two engineers on defending series champion Scott Dixon's car and a chief engineer at Firestone, the tire supplier for the series.

That's a nice number, yet it's a small fraction of the total number of engineers and crew in the country's leading open-wheel racing series. Expect that gap to close over time, with the motorsports engineering program at the School of Engineering and Technology being up on the wheel to help.