The Driven Life: Katie Hargitt on Fuel the Female

This is the latest in a series of self-improvement/motivational-themed podcasts (also transcribed for those who prefer to read) involving people in the racing world sharing insight into successful habits. Up next: Katie Hargitt, IndyCar reporter and founder of Fuel the Female.

Fuel the Female has gotten some decent attention and is gaining a lot of momentum. First of all, can you explain to people who haven’t heard of it how you came up with this concept and what you’re trying to accomplish?

I’ve been in motorsports for 20 years, both as a driver and as a reporter. And every step of my motorsports career, I’ve had really powerful female mentors. When I was a driver, I was a part of Lyn St. James’ Women in the Winner’s Circle and her driver development program. Once I got into reporting, I was traveling with ESPN NASCAR as a runner and got close with Nicole Briscoe and Shannon Spake; Jamie Little was pregnant at the time.

So I’ve always just had these great female mentors and I said, “When I’m in the position to give back to girls who want to be in motorsports, I’m doing it.” That’s always been that pie-in-the-sky goal that I’ve wanted to chase.

And with the way the world is going, last year I feel was like the year of the woman. There was this really powerful movement for women internationally and I woke up one day last winter and I thought, “This is the year. We’re gonna do it.”

So I approached my friends at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and asked if we could do just this day where we brought out some high school girls from the Indianapolis area and introduced them to the careers that are available in motorsports as it relates to STEM — so the engineers, the mechanics. Because I feel like there are a lot of resources for female drivers, but not so much those women who are in the technical aspects of the sport.

And they were all on board and so helpful in the planning process, and we brought out 100 Indianapolis public schools high school girls and they kind of “toured” the careers. So Cara Adams, who is the chief engineer at Firestone, came and spoke with them. Jessica Mace, who is a mechanic at Andretti, also came. We had lunch at Firestone, thanks to Lisa Boggs, who is the Director of Motorsports for Bridgestone Americas. And Danica stopped by.

So we just had these really powerful, influential, magnetizing women speak to these girls — a lot of them underprivileged — and it was so energizing to see the way their eyes opened up and they were just drawn to motorsports. It was fun watching these 100 girls fall in love with motorsports in the way I did when I was younger.

That’s so cool. And you’re going to do a similar event coming up?

Yeah. So this year we’re doing pretty much the same thing again. We’ve expanded to a few other public and private schools in the Indianapolis area, which is really exciting to be able to offer this to more girls throughout the Indianapolis area.

And instead of doing a tour of the speedway, they’re actually going to build model race cars this year with the help of engineering students from IUPUI. So I think what’s really cool about that is, they will see how your career can progress. You go to school — you’re an engineering student, for example — and then the professional women will pop in throughout the day. So they’ll see the student who grows into the professional woman and be able to see themselves in these different roles throughout the day, and the day will culminate in them racing these cars across those famous yard of bricks. Not on the track — that will be a little bit busy — but the yard of bricks extends past the pagoda (in the fan zone).

Let’s back up for a minute and talk about why this is needed. Historically, it seems like motorsports has been a boys club and it feels like this industry overall has been pretty slow to adapt and catch up to other areas in society. Do you agree with that, and do you think there’s a particular reason why that has been the case?

I do feel like that do a certain extent. I’m working on some statistics and some history about women in racing and it’s so hard to believe that women weren’t even allowed in the pits in Indianapolis until 1971. Like, what?

They weren’t even allowed in the pits?

They weren’t even allowed in the pits until 1971! Since that day we have not had a lead engineer, mechanic, or a driver go to victory lane at IMS. It’s 2019. It’s about time that happens.

This season in IndyCar, we don’t even have a female lead engineer on a race team. To kind of put these numbers in perspective, only eight women in IndyCar work on the competition side of things. When I say competition, I mean directly affecting the car. One of the most progressive teams I can think of right out of the box is Scott Dixon’s team. He has two female engineers, Kate Gundlach and Danielle Shepherd, and I like to say that it’s no mistake that he won the championship last year. They have these two really smart, powerful women on his stand.

And to talk about that number eight again, that doesn’t even fill up one full-sized team. So the goal for Fuel the Female is to just make this a normal thing so that we don’t even have to have this conversation anymore. If growing Fuel the Female eventually puts Fuel the Female out of business, so be it. We are a 501(c)(3) so we’re not necessarily a business, but if I don’t have to have Fuel the Female anymore, I’d say it was a success.

Absolutely, yes. And the thing is, obviously women are interested in motorsports. You see plenty of women who want to work in the sport though PR, broadcasting, stuff like that — but they’re not on the competition side as you mentioned. So clearly, there’s some progress to be made and there’s people who would like to do that if their career path happened differently.

Yeah, there’s a substantial divide in what women do in motorsports. There is no problem with women on the communication side; I think we have flooded that area of the business. But there’s definitely a lack of female influence on the technical side and I think there’s where we can really focus our energy.

I could endlessly rattle off numbers of what happens to girls as they grow. By age 6, they believe that STEM is “not for them” or something they can’t achieve. So you have to get to these girls early on to help them realize that this is something they can do. I think with Fuel the Female, by showing them there are these successful women in leadership positions within STEM careers, the numbers are incredible with girls who know women who have succeeded in STEM. So by showing them the success in this unique position, I think we’re really going to help grow the presence of women in motorsports.

How late in a young woman’s life can she go down this career path? Does it have to be decided by at some point in high school? Can it be as late as college? Or is it something that happens even earlier than that?

It definitely happens in your formative stage. You’re communications, Jeff, so at what age did you decide you were bad at math? (Laughs)

Pretty darn early.

For me, it was like middle school, when I started getting into the trigonometry and the geometry and I’m thinking, “What the heck? It’s like I’m reading a completely different language.” So the earlier we get to these girls, the better, because it’s about that middle school age where they’re getting into the hardest math and science that they’re deciding, “This is too hard for me, I’ll just let the guys do it.” And for some reason the way men’s brains develop, they’re generally better at those types of subjects. But that’s not to say that women and girls can’t do it, too.

So yes, getting to the girls earlier is better, but we can get to them as late as high school. Obviously when you start getting into college then you’re talking about changing majors and not having that background information. But in high school they’re still doing the entry level geometry and trigonometry and physics and chemistry, and we can still get to them and change their minds and tell them, “You can do this and you can be good at it.”

Do you feel like in the IndyCar world, women are accepted by the men in the competition paddock? Do they have obstacles? Are people still looking at them like, “What are you doing here? You’re a woman. I’m not used to seeing woman here?” Or is it accepted now?

That’s a hard question because I think everyone’s experience is different. I’ve heard stories of girls saying they know they have to work 10 times harder than the men, but I also think some of that is that they know the history of women in the sport so they feel like they have to work 10 times harder than the men.

I think IndyCar is in a really unique position where we have such a diverse paddock. We’ve got people from Europe, from South America, from Canada where we’re used to these different cultures and we’re used to dealing with different people, so I feel like it benefits us in a sense that women aren’t as out of place because we have dealt with all these different cultures and we’re used to being exposed to that type of thing.

But I’ve also heard stories of some of the female mechanics where it’s little passive aggressive. Things like they’ve never been offered a female shirt and or female pants — where in a team uniform, if you have to wear that and you’re a smaller female, you’re drowning in your clothes. I don’t think we don’t have any of those cases anymore, but that is just within the last few years that some of these women weren’t even offered clothes that fit them.

You mentioned last year seemed like almost to be the year of the female. Just from my own personal experience, I’m more aware now that in general, people tend to hire other people that look like them. And so in order for really change to happen, there has to be more women in these roles so they can hire more women. How realistic do you think it is that you can help make gains in this area?

I think it’s extremely realistic. I just met with Lyn St. James — who like I said earlier, I was part of her driver development program and she stayed very active in my life — and she’s on the board of directors for Fuel the Female. We were just talking about our one-to-three-year goals and our three-to-five-year goals.

In three to five years, we hope that 10,000 girls have been affected by Fuel the Female in a positive way and we can just simply grow the presence of women in motorsports. Because if we get girls in the pipeline early, so they come to our education program and they’re exposed to STEM, they experience that day where they’ve built a race car out of these recycled parts and they raced it across the bricks at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, and they’re hooked.

And then they go to school and then they think, “OK, if I want to do that then I really have to study my geometry, I really have to study my biology,” or whatever. Then they go to college and they can get a scholarship to help them continue their career and then they get a mentorship from Cara Adams or Kate Gundlach or Andrea Mueller (from Team Penske), whoever, then we’ve got these girls in the pipeline and they’re encouraging their friends to do it. And I think in no time flat, we don’t have to have this conversation anymore.

You mentioned that you want to impact and affect so many more people in the near future. Where do you see it going beyond IMS? Can you picture it in NASCAR or at all sorts of venues?

Yes. So IMS and IndyCar are what we started with because that’s my wheelhouse. That’s where I’m working right now, and IMS has been so generous to help us with facilities and stuff like that. But we want to grow to NASCAR and NHRA and SCCA, all of the different series across United States, motorsports venues across the United States. Because if we only stay in Indianapolis, we’re only affecting a couple thousand girls, and in order for this to really change, we’ve got to affect that 10,000 number that I talked about.

To me, that’s not an option if that happens or not. It’s going to happen, and we’ve got to make it work. And we can only do that by people who are willing to back this sort of organization. So I hope that we can start making partnerships with motorsports venues across the country and people across the country who are also passionate about this.

One Reply to “The Driven Life: Katie Hargitt on Fuel the Female”

  1. It’s long past time for women to hold roles in motorsport besides pit reporter and pre-race show host. They are capable of doing things besides talking!

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