Interview with Indycar racer Pippa Mann

Today see’s a first for this site as we recently completed an interview with Indycar racer Pippa Mann. For the die-hard motorsport fans that don’t know of Pippa Mann, she is a British racer who rose up through the junior single-seater ranks in both Britain and Europe, eventually spending two years in the highly competitive Renault World Series. Despite becoming the first female pole sitter and points finisher in the series her two years in the series were largely frustrating with issues beyond her control.

This severely derailed her career momentum in Europe, before she embarked on a career in the American open-wheel racing scene. After rising through the ranks she began to show promise in her second year of  Indy Lights. 2010 saw her become the first female pole-sitter at the hallowed Indianapolis Motor Speedway, before picking up a debut win at Kentucky to finish 5th in the standings with a highly respectable 312 points.

From here she carried her career momentum over to the premier Indycar series, where she qualified for her debut Indianapolis 500, despite a competitive field and a small team. From here she has carried on her momentum with successive part-seasons in 2013 and this year, making the Indy 500 both years. She has yet to display her full potential in the Indycar series, although that is down to unfortunate circumstances rather than a lack of talent. Here is the interview in full.

What made you decide to switch your career to America?

In 2008, I was going into my second year in World Series by Renault, and I had really started to get to grips with the car and the formula towards the end of the previous season. I was strong in the off season testing, and everyone, myself included, expected me to have a very good year the following year. But the new car for 2009 and I just didn’t mesh at all. From ergonomic problems I had fitting into it, to the fact it just didn’t suit my driving style with the set-ups we were running on the old car.

It took me all year to start to get comfortable again, and that meant that I just didn’t bring home the results I wanted. I was frustrated. I knew I had probably lost my opportunity to continue racing single-seaters in Europe, and I started looking to potentially race sports cars in 2009. I started to race a Porsche in the UK Cup Championship, and by my second and third race weekends, I was up in the top 10 of that championship on pace on a regular basis and starting to have a lot of fun. I thought my future was probably set, but then I got a call, asking me to come to the US and meet with a team, who were looking for a female driver for one of their sponsors in Indy Lights for the following season.

They had looked at who was racing currently in the US, then decided to cast the net wider to include Europe, and when they did that, I was the only one at the time who was racing in any of the big open-wheel championships in Europe. Given at the time I was the only female driver to have a pole in World Series by Renault, to have scored points and top ten finishes in some of their races, they were interested. So I packed a bag, got on a plane, and I guess the rest is kind of history now!

What has been your racing highlight so far in your career?

I think it probably has to be qualifying for the 2011 Indy 500. It was my first ever IndyCar race, and I had just one day of testing before we started running at the speedway with everyone else. I was with a small team, expanding from one car to two cars, and my team mate was struggling in his first full-time season of IndyCar, leaving my team boss worried he might not make it into the race.

There were 42 cars competing for 33 slots, and my job was simple. I was there to make sure we got at least one of our team cars into those 33 spots however long the odds against us seemed… We made it. Just. I was the only one-off rookie attempting their first IndyCar race at that Indy 500 to make it in.

Several full-time drivers racing all season long, including my own team mate, did not make the show, and yet with our shoe string budget, and two to three guys only working on the car, we made it happen. It’s probably not a highlight that other people expect me to think of, they expect me to talk about my poles in 2010, or winning Kentucky in that year, or even my first Indy 500 itself maybe… But all of those pale into the fact I was not only in my first Indy 500, I earned my way in the hard way, and together we were the little team that could.

What has been the best race of your career so far?

This is a tough question! The easy answer is winning Kentucky in 2010 in Indy Lights, but actually, despite not being a race that many people outside the team would notice, I think the 2014 Indy 500 was pretty special too… We had an issue at one of the pit-stops that put us several laps down at my second pit stop, but the car was fantastic all day long, and I learned so much from the fact we got back out there, and I was able to run in dirty air for the entire rest of the 500 miles.

The guys I was racing against in the first two stints of the race finished 12-17th place, and our goal going in was to try and bring home a top 15 finish. Given our pace was on a par with theirs even after our stop issue, and I was actually still running with that group all afternoon long, just laps down and unable to play – it didn’t come away looking like much on paper, but we as a team were all really pleased with everything but that one bum pit stop during that race.

Then of course the 2011 race itself being my first Indy 500 was pretty special to me too. I actually didn’t have a working water bottle in that race, and was pretty badly dehydrated – I was having searing cramps all up and down my right arm, and particularly in my right shoulder from where you’re muscling the car around the track, but I was absolutely determined it wasn’t going to stop me, and I was going to finish the race in my rookie year. I came 20th.

Have you started looking at your 2015 plans yet? E.g talking with teams?

Yes, absolutely! I think it’s no secret to say that Dale would very much like me to come back in 2015, and I would love to drive for him again too. His team has been the most incredible home for me the past two years at the Indy 500, and I really enjoy working with the great group of people he has put together.

Susan G. Komen also had a great experience this year at their first Indy 500, and they want to come back with us too, so the plan is to bring the pink car back for it’s second Indy 500. Right now I am working hard on the business side of that equation, so that we can put the funding in place to make this all happen!

What inspired you to become a racing driver?

Actually it was pure chance. I got to drive a go-kart on an indoor kart track when I was around 12 years old, and absolutely loved it. That was it. Bitten by the bug, and I’ve never looked back since!

What are some of your earliest memories of motorsport?

Being taken to watch the British F1 race with my Dad at Silverstone, and watching the standing start from the grandstands opposite the front straight. I was a race fan long before I ever got to drive anything, or the thought that I could one day drive had even crossed my mind.

What advice would you give to aspiring drivers?

Be determined. Learn the business side, and be just as determined in that too. Don’t let people tell you you’re not going to be able to make it happen. Expect to work really hard, and expect it to be hard – for most of us this life is not easy, and you have to be prepared to bust a gut 24-7 on the business side, always put time and effort into being prepared physically for when the next opportunity comes your way, and you have to be very strong mentally too.

There may be times when you’re out of a race car for long periods of times in your career, but you just have to keep digging, keep adapting, and be prepared to take on other work and diversify (such as instructing, coaching, etc.) to survive.

Would you ever be tempted to race in other forms of motorsport e.g Sportscars?

Oh absolutely. I think I mentioned earlier on in this interview that I got to race a Porsche a few times in the UK before I moved to the US, and I have never had the chance to drive a GT car since, but I had an absolute blast in those races – it was so much fun. If the opportunity arose, I would love to do some sports car races alongside my commitment to the Indy 500 each year, however with the current licensing system, it’s very difficult for someone like me to get those opportunities.

In terms of license grade I am ranked the same as someone who races IndyCar full-time, and has multiple IndyCar wins under their belt… Yet I only get to race a couple of times a year in open-wheel, usually only on ovals at the moment, and I only have those few races in a GT car in the UK under my belt… So if you were looking at taking on someone with my high a grade of license, you probably wouldn’t pick me!

It’s something a lot of drivers in my position, or similar positions to me in the US are facing right now, and to be honest, it’s something even some of the guys who are coming up through the sports car ranks themselves are facing. I understand why there needs to be a licensing system to make it fairer to the AM drivers who fund a lot of sports car teams, but at the same time, I do wish there was a little more flexibility in the rules. There’s an awful lot of us who would love to race, and who could do a good job, falling through the cracks with this current system.

If you could compete in one motor race that you haven’t already which one would it be?

Ooooh. Good question. I guess I would love to compete in one of the big 24 hour sports car races one day – either Daytona, or Le Mans. That would be pretty special!

Why do you feel there has been a recent spike in European interest for Indycar/Road to Indy scheme?

Drawing from my personal experience, and from recent conversations I actually had with European drivers when I visited Monza to watch the F1 race a few weeks ago, I think that often there is a lot of fear surrounding the unknown that is racing in the US, and racing on ovals in particular.

In Europe, you seem to race a lot of the time thinking you’re in a bubble where sure, motor sport is dangerous, but nothing’s ever going to happen to you… In the US, with the speeds we race, so close to the walls, you can’t live inside that bubble any more, and you have to accept that our sport can be brutal at times. Not everyone can do that, and I think it takes a lot of people some time to get past that mentally.

We strive to make our racing as safe as it possibly can be, but when something goes wrong at 220+ mph next to a wall, it’s unfortunately just physics that sometimes it can go really wrong. So I think that scenario, plus the fact guys find it so hard to believe that we’re cornering faster than they often go in a straight line, makes it tough for Europeans to get their head around. Combine this then with the old thing that someone who hasn’t driven an oval, and doesn’t understand one, thinks “it’s just too corners, how hard can it be?” and you get this odd juxtaposition of opinion surrounding what they don’t really know, but what they think they know about our sport here in the US… For years I think these opinions have all contributed to lack of interest, and not many people being prepared to take the leap.

However recently I think there have been a number of European drivers who have come across and made the transition well, and whom are happy to talk about how much they love IndyCar. I think someone like Conor Daly running the Indy 500 last year, then going back and telling all of his fellow drivers in the series he was racing in Europe a) how much he loved the experience, and b) how hard it actually is to race a car for 500 miles at those speeds in constant dirty air, and how incredible the challenge is… I think that helps educate, and as people start to understand better, there’s less fear of the unknown.

Then right now in the US, we have something which does not exist anywhere else in the world in terms of a concise, direct open-wheel ladder, where every champion gets help towards his crack at the next rung on the ladder. With the new Indy Lights car coming out in 2015, a much needed upgrade on the previous car I raced, that chassis is suddenly much more in line with what European guys have been racing.

The costs are still cheaper than most comparable series in Europe, and with the new championship prize rules, if you win, you’re effectively guaranteed a shot at next year’s Indianapolis 500 in an IndyCar through the prize money scholarship scheme, and potentially a few more races tacked onto that depending on the team, and what other money you’re able to put together too. If you win the GP2 title, there are no guarantees of anything.

In fact most recently Kevin Magnussen came from World Series by Renault, which I used to race, and by passed GP2 altogether on his way to F1. The ladder in Europe is complex, expensive, and winning the title lacks giving you that final push you really want from it. Here, winning means more than getting to write it on your resume. It means that shot I was talking about at the biggest race of the IndyCar season.

That’s a pretty massive prize and incentive right there. I know this is a long answer, but I also want to touch on one final thing before I quit talking about the ladder series. I think it’s very important for people looking at coming over from Europe to IndyCar and the MRTI ladder to look at Indy Lights before IndyCar. My reasoning? Learning the ovals. Learning them in an IndyCar is very hard, and for many drivers who come across it’s a very difficult and tough transition.

However, a season of Indy Lights gives you the opportunity to really get your head around them, and start to get your teeth into them. For the record, as the girl who is currently the only female pole sitter ever at IMS, I certainly didn’t do that in my first year, and I didn’t win a race on them in my first year either.

It took me two years to get comfortable, to learn what I needed from the car, when to push, and when to understand that just doing what you could with what you had was going to be the best decision for your race result. And now, I’m in a position where ovals are viewed as my strong point, and it’s where most of my opportunities to drive an IndyCar come from. If I had tried to rush things, and get ahead of myself, I’m almost 100% certain I would not currently have the opportunities I do to get in the car each year, and so I will always be very grateful for everything Indy Lights has taught me!

That was an amazing interview with British Indycar racer Pippa Mann, she provided some brilliant answers and for more info on Pippa’s latest news and goings on please visit her website http://www.pippamann.com or Twitter account @PippaMann . Please enjoy these great answers!

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