In racing terms, the Indianapolis 500 is the Superbowl, the World Cup final and the Oscars all wrapped into one.
It’s more than just a race, it’s the culmination of a month’s preparation: blood, sweat and tears and that’s just to get into the 33-car field for race day.
For Katherine Legge, it’s been a long time between efforts, but this year she is back at the “Greatest Spectacle in Racing” after a decade away.
“I’m heading into this almost as a rookie,” Legge explains to DirtFish. “There’s no point trying to remember what I did a decade ago or trying to use that experience as the cars are so totally different now.
“There’s almost nothing that is the same, so I have to approach it as if I have never driven an IndyCar before.
“Thankfully, there is a lot of data that I’ve been able to look through, and simulator work that has given me sort of an idea of how the car behaves, so I’m in a better position this year than I was back then.”
Legge is perhaps one of the most versatile drivers in circuit racing, having started out in go karts and Formula 3 in her native Britain before making the switch over the pond to pursue a career in the US in 2005.
Her tale is one of perseverance and sheer pluckiness, but don’t let that take away from the unquestionable talent Legge needed to make it Stateside.
Prior to winning on her Champ Car Atlantics debut on the streets of Long Beach, Legge was possibly best known for her acrobatic accident in an F3 car at Rockingham, England; a victim of the quite frankly baffling high-speed first chicane taken at full pelt coming off the home straight of the oval course.
Back then, as it remains today, racing in F3 was expensive and the next step up the ladder even more so. If Legge wanted to continue her path towards Formula 1, she was going to need cash. And lots of it.
Opportunities dried up and Legge was facing the very real prospect of her career ambitions taking a nosedive.
“Everyone knows the story of how I stalked [Cosworth motorsport boss] Kevin Kalkhoven until I got a drive, right?” Legge said.
“I was this determined driver who needed a drive, and I just went to the Cosworth office in the UK and asked to see Kevin.”
She wouldn’t leave until she saw him, and the uncomfortable stand-off continued until Kalkhoven sent his daughter to send Legge on her way.
Luckily for Legge, the pair struck up conversation to the point where Kalkhoven was persuaded of Legge’s potential and gave her the leg-up she needed to forge a career in the US for 2005.
Her arrival turned heads. Victory in the opening round against an otherwise all-male field, with three more over the course of the season en route to third place in the final drivers’ standings was proof enough that Legge was made of something very promising indeed.
The following year, she was reunited with Kalkhoven’s PKV squad in the Champ Car World Series, achieving four top 10 finishes in a season which also featured the mother of all accidents at Road America.
But that’s all in the past now. Drivers have accidents, but Legge was – and is – unfazed by the sickening barrel-roll dramas at the infamous Kink and quickly added further strings to her bow in subsequent years in touring cars, Formula E and IMSA where she currently plies her trade alongside American driver Sheena Monk in an Acura GTD car.
There’s no doubt that Legge has been an inspiration to burgeoning female drivers since bursting onto the scene in Atlantics, even if she held what she called a “selfish” approach early on in her career.
“It’s very flattering to be labelled as an inspiration, I certainly won’t refuse that sort of compliment,” says Legge.
“I feel I was a selfish, me-first sort of driver when I was younger, because I didn’t really have the sort of role models who were actively racing at the time.
“It was all about Katherine, all about myself, but over time as I got older and I matured coming up through the ranks, I’ve loved supporting and championing women in motorsport. It’s something that is very close to my heart.”
Contesting the Indy 500 is a unique challenge and qualifying as one of the 33 permitted cars was an often-perilous task. And by no means a given either.
Followers of the race will need few reminders of Penske’s failure to qualify a single car in the 1995 edition, Bobby Rahal being bumped out in 1993 as defending National champion, while double Formula One world champion Fernando Alonso also missed out in 2019 in dramatic fashion.
That won’t happen this year as the current entry of 33 cars means the traditional “Bump Day” is not required, but for Legge the challenge of re-adapting to IndyCar following a lengthy break is not to be taken for granted.
“A lot of what I am learning about the car and the race is completely alien to me, because 10 years in racing is a long, long time, right?” explains Legge.
“I’m preparing for it as if I’ve never done it before, because if I do rely on anything I have done a decade ago, it’s probably wrong right now.
“But luckily my memory sucks so that’s not an issue for, so I can start from scratch. The cars are so different to the last time I drove one, I’ve never driven with an aeroshield before, so that’ll be new.”
But in the same vein, they have given me everything I need to be successfulKatherine Legge
Back in 2013, it’s safe to say that IndyCar was a different beast. The cars may have looked somewhat similar to today’s machinery, but make no mistake, there is very little in common with the early iteration of the DW12 chassis – then in just its second season – and the Rahel Letterman Lanigan car she will pilot around the Brickyard next month.
“I went to the Rahal shop and it’s like a Formula 1 team there now, the aerodynamics are totally different to a decade ago, so much more technologically advanced, it’s bonkers.
“But in the same vein, they have given me everything I need to be successful; I’ve got all the data, I’ll be on the simulator so it’s a lot more settling an environment, you don’t feel like you’re being thrown into the deep end, it’s a lot more structured now.
“Even the simulator, a decade ago I remember the team I was with got their sim and I did the tire modelling for it actually, but it was very rudimentary and new and only just becoming a thing. We certainly didn’t use it to train on.”
Legge’s first attempt at the Indy 500 in 2012 yielded a 22nd place finish, after using Bump Day to make the grid in 30th. The following year was an even tighter affair, occupying the final place on the grid and racing to a 26th place finish in the race.
A decade on and Legge hopes to follow in the footsteps of her own Indy idols, Janet Guthrie (who finished ninth in 1978) and Lynn St James (who qualified sixth in 1994) by setting yet more examples of what female racers can aim for in future.