Katherine Legge: The woman who ‘had to fight and claw’ her way into motorsport

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Katherine Legge: The woman who ‘had to fight and claw’ her way into motorsport
The car doesn’t know the difference between male and female drivers – Legge

In the reception of a nondescript Northampton office block, a young woman sits and waits. It’s a rare moment of quiet for someone used to the thrilling speed of the racing track.

The woman is Katherine Legge, the year is 2004 and the office is the UK headquarters of Cosworth. Legge is, in her own words, “stalking” Kevin Kalkhoven, Cosworth boss and owner of the United States’ biggest racing franchises: Indy Car, Champ Car and Atlantic Series.

At 23 years old and with almost 15 years of driving behind her, Legge had run out of money and was struggling for sponsorship. She feared her dream of being a racing driver was coming to an end.

She was refusing to leave – until she got a meeting with Kalkhoven – so Kalkhoven sent his daughter Kirsty out to get rid of her. After a short conversation Kirsty went back to her father and said: “You ought to meet this person, there’s something different about her.”

In a sport where fine margins and money make the wheels go round, this was Legge’s sliding doors moment. Kalkhoven offered her a chance to compete in the first three races of the Atlantic Series that season.

Looking back now Legge says: “That was the first time I’ve driven a car full-time in anything. It was the first time I’d had such a big, heavy, powerful car. The first race was Long Beach and I won that.”

Victory in her debut race. She would go on to win three of her first six races that season. As she says now: “The rest is history, and I think the moral of the story is tenacity.”

Legge on the starting grid early in her go-karting days

Legge’s journey into racing started almost by chance. After seeing an advert in the local paper for a go-kart track near her home in Guildford, the self-described tomboy and adrenaline junkie nagged her father Derek to take her. Eventually he relented, and her obsession with motorsport began.

“I just loved it,” she says. “The first race I won, I was nine years old. They give you the flag to carry and I wasn’t strong enough to carry it!”

Her pace, however, was not in doubt. She progressed through the same ranks as many Formula 1 hopefuls, coming up against young talents such as Jenson Button and Lewis Hamilton and, on occasion, beating them.

Legge was making a name for herself, but the idea of forging a career in the sport seemed a distant dream. “I didn’t know I was going to be a racing driver. I didn’t even know that it was possible because at that time there really weren’t any females doing it.”

She looked for inspiration outside of motorsport.

“Ellen MacArthur – do you remember how she used sail around the world single-handed? I looked up to people like that and I thought if they can do that then I can be a race car driver.”

But the further she progressed, the harder it became to find funding. She was beginning to realise how much of a challenge it was just to make it into the car.

“I wasn’t one of these people who had a rich family and was handed it on a plate, but I’m also grateful for that in a way because I think if it’s easy, then you don’t want it as much.

“I don’t know many people have driven the variety of things that I’ve driven, but then I had to fight and claw my way through racing, so I took every opportunity that was thrown my way.”

Katherine Legge crashes at Road America 2006

When Legge was breaking through, motorsport’s land of opportunity was the USA, and it was there her career took off. But chasing the highs of motorsport brings huge risks.

In 2006, she was racing at Road America in Wisconsin when a mechanical failure caused her to lose control entering a 180mph corner. The force of the crash caused her car to disintegrate in dramatic fashion.

Her dad, who rarely misses a race, was watching, gripped by fear.

“I’m not religious, but I was just praying to any god that would listen that Katherine would just be alive,” he says.

Derek hasn’t spoken to the media about the accident since it happened, and his voice breaks as he recalls it.

“I thought she’d died…”

It took 15 minutes for him to discover that not only had his daughter survived, but she had somehow emerged with only bruises.

“It was one of the worst moments of my life and one of the best moments of my life. Literally within 15 minutes I was down in the depths and then elated.”

As for Legge, she said she would have finished the race if she could.

“It didn’t faze Katherine at all. She’s wired differently,” Derek says with a knowing smile.

‘Wear a sports bra’: A lap of Daytona with Katherine Legge

That 2006 crash had followed an uncertain time in Legge’s career. She had tested a Minardi F1 car the year before, but a shot at an F1 drive never materialised despite her ambition to race in the world’s most popular racing category.

Instead Legge’s is a career that reflects her assertion of having to fight for drives throughout motorsport – touring the world in search of work, a freelance racer for hire.

She competed in the German ‘DTM’ touring car championships from 2008 for two years, then spent two more years racing in the US Indycar series, taking part in the famous Indy 500 race. The following year saw her compete in the ever-more popular Formula E electric racing series – and a stint in the American Nascar series came in 2018.

But none has yielded the kind of success her early career suggested.

Fast-forward to January 2019 and Legge, 38, is lining up on the the grid for the iconic and gruelling 24 Hours of Daytona endurance race.

It’s an event she knows well having finished second in her class in 2018, but this year there is extra scrutiny. She is the lead driver in a ground-breaking all-female team.

“So far it’s been received by everybody really well because it’s being taken seriously. We have the best female drivers in the world. It’s not a gimmick. We’ve got a legitimate shot of winning.”

Legge was instrumental in recruiting Brazil’s Bia Figueiredo, Swiss driver Simona de Silvestro and Denmark’s Christina Nielsen to the line-up. All “bad-ass women”, according to Nielsen.

However, none of this would have been possible without the persistence of Jackie Heinricher, a former US Air Force Medic and successful businesswoman whose name shines proudly from the car they’ll be racing in.

As Heinricher runs her hand over the bonnet she says: “It’s an amazing feeling. We’ve worked for years to bring this whole effort together.

“Sponsorship is probably the hardest thing you can get in any sport let alone racing and let alone women. The door was slammed on me over and over for two years. This makes me feel like all that time paid off.”

The race begins well enough for the team, the first all-female line-up here since 1994.

For the first two stints of the race, driven by Figueredo and Nielsen, the team hold their own in a field that includes several former F1 stars and a sister team car driven by men.

Then comes Legge’s chance to shine. Considered the team captain for her experience and leadership off the track, she hauls the car up six places as night falls and fatigue begins to set in for all teams.

And then, drama. Legge tangles with one of the lead ‘prototype’ cars, sending them both on to the grass. Having lost several positions in the spin, a fired-up Legge claws her way up to third by the time she hands the car over to De Silvestro, wowing fans and commentators with her skill and determination.

Another milestone for the Daytona 24 changes everything. Halfway through the race – in the dead of night – torrential rain arrives, putting out the fans’ campsite fires and many teams’ hopes. For the first time in history the race is under threat of being ended early because of conditions.

Legge senses her chance to seize the initiative again. But this time her willingness to risk everything is punished.

Her car brushes the wall at speed, breaking the suspension and forcing Legge to limp back to the pits.

“Why didn’t you tell us?” comes the question over team radio, as mechanics frantically try to fix the damage. “I’m sorry,” is all an emotional Legge can muster in response.

The race is eventually called off around 10 minutes earlier than scheduled, and the team finishes 15th in their class.

“It hurts, but we gave it everything,” says Legge. “Once you’re done there’s nothing you can do. But we’ll keep fighting – we’ll never give up.”

Caterpillar Acura racing Daytona 24 Hours 2019: (l-r) Ana ‘Bia’ Beatriz Figueiredo, Katherine Legge, Simona de Silvestro, Christina Nielsen and Jackie Heinricher

It’s not difficult to find evidence of women attempting to blaze a trail in motorsport history. It’s just that each time a pioneer puts on a helmet, after the initial wave of publicity fades, so does the trail being blazed.

The presence of women in the cockpit began as early as the late 1920s, when Helle Nice drove in several races, including for an all-female team.

But only two women have actually contested a race in F1’s 69-year history. Maria Teresa de Filippis drove a Maserati during three grands prix in 1958, and Lella Lombardi qualified for 12 races across 1975 and 1976, with a highest finish of sixth at the 1975 Spanish Grand Prix.

Several more have competed outside F1. One of the most high-profile female drivers away from the F1 paddock was rally star Michele Mouton, who won four World Championship rallies and was runner-up in the World Championship during the 1982 season for the all-conquering Audi team.

Mouton, arguably, provided the greatest inspiration for women in motorsport during her 12 years as a driver, and it’s a cause she has picked up again as head of the women in motorsport commission for the FIA, the sport’s governing body.

“It’s a pity we don’t have more female drivers, and it’s hard to tell what the targets are – we have to wait and see,” says Mouton.

“But we have initiatives in place to be working on the grassroots. It’s a difficult time for women in motorsport but we must increase the numbers at the bottom of the pyramid.

“There was no problem with sexism when I was in competition. Women need the passion – they need to be motivated.”

But is there a lack of wider support? Has modern-day sexism caused this shortfall?

The new all-women W Series can be viewed as a positive step to provide a platform for women in the sport, but for Legge the jury’s out.

“I think part of me is against it because I think you have to race against the best. So, in a way, I think it’s putting the spotlight on women in a negative connotation. Why segregate us? It’s one of the sports where men and women can compete on equal footing. So I think it’s a step backwards in that respect.

“Then I think, well, if I didn’t have the money and I wanted to go into racing and they’re offering this big purse, and then maybe if you shone there then you would get the opportunity that you wouldn’t have had necessarily… I can see that, too. It’s ‘tbc’ in my mind.”

Inside the Caterpillar GTD car with Katherine Legge

While Formula 1 is under new ownership which moved quickly to remove the ‘grid girls’ in favour of a more progressive side, some fear there not enough is being done to promote women drivers.

Despite Susie Wolff taking part in two practice sessions for Williams in 2014, Helmut Marko, a senior figure at the Red Bull team, recently said the “huge physical demands are maybe too difficult and too strenuous for women”.

Two-time F1 champion Fernando Alonso believes women have been under-served until now, and says there is still work to do to establish a more permanent presence.

“There’s no reason why women could not succeed in Formula 1 or motorsport in general, and there are more and more coming. I think in future it will balance much more than we see now and that’s what we all hope.

“[Katherine Legge] is great – she is an example to all of us, and I wish her all the success.”

Money is the fuel that currently drives young racing talent to the top. In the absence of funding, talent alone is all too often not enough – for now, it has to be coupled with an extremely rare tenacity and drive.

That, combined with the simple fact that there are fewer girls than boys entering the sport at an early age, means the number of women currently getting to the top of the sport is still shockingly small.

Although Legge may not have had any racing role models growing up, she is now the one providing inspiration for future generations.

Hopefully the only stalking they will have to do is in pursuit of the car in front.

BBC Sport has launched #ChangeTheGame to showcase female athletes in a way they never have been before. Through more live women’s sport available to watch across the BBC this summer, complemented by our journalism, we are aiming to turn up the volume on women’s sport and alter perceptions.

Find out more here.

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