Katherine Legge makes a name for herself in the IZOD IndyCar Series
It’s Valentine’s Day 2006, and Katherine Legge is sitting in a stylist’s chair at Ona Spa in Los Angeles. Wearing a white robe over her black polo shirt and jeans, Legge is undergoing a mini makeover of sorts, a pit stop, if you will, before being formally introduced that night as one of the newest drivers in the Champ Car World Series.
First comes an eyebrow wax, followed by makeup application and hair styling. When she finally leaves, Legge is tuned up like a true Hollywood star.
The pre-event pampering is just one of those things she’s had to deal with as a woman in a male-dominated sport. Although if it were up to her, she’d undoubtedly spend that time in her driver’s suit and helmet, strapped in a car and turning laps in excess of 200 mph.
After making waves in the Atlantic Championships and Champ Car World Series, Legge, 31, makes her IZOD IndyCar Series debut this season, driving the No. 6 TrueCar entry for Lotus Dragon Racing. Since she was a little girl, the driving force and the passion in her life has been racing. She’s never wanted anything more than to be behind a wheel.
Persistence pays off
Born July 12, 1980, Legge grew up in Guildford, England, a small city in Surrey about 30 miles southwest of London. The self-proclaimed tomboy was first introduced to the world of racing while on vacation in Spain. Legge, 9 at the time, tagged along as her father, Derek, and an uncle went to a go-karting event.
“I loved it,” she says.
Back home, an ad in the newspaper for a local karting facility caught Legge’s eye. She and her dad checked it out, but it was her father who drove while Legge acted as his “mechanic.” But racing captivated her, and she nagged her dad until she finally was given a chance as driver. She admits her first time in the kart was terrifying. Still, it was the start of what would become her obsession.
No one in her family had been involved in racing. But Legge’s “daredevil” and “adrenaline junkie” sides were immediately awakened for several reasons.
“The speed, obviously,” she explains. “The competitive part. The pure driving I love.”
Legge’s mother, Vivienne, was a bit skeptical.
“She says, ‘It’s noisy; it’s dirty; why do you like it so much?’” Legge says. Despite her mother’s hesitation (Legge knows Mom still gets nervous watching her race), she continued her fledgling karting career, often the only girl out on the track.
Legge eventually earned a scholarship to compete in Formula Ford, an entry-level open-wheel racing series. In 2000, she became the first woman to earn a pole position in that series.
She moved on to two developmental series: Formula Renault in 2001 and 2002, garnering a “Rising Star” honor from the British Racing Drivers’ Club, and Formula Three in 2003. In 2004, Legge came to the U.S. for a three-race stint in a Formula Renault mini-championship. But due to a lack of sponsors and the critical funding they provide, Legge never participated in a full season.
She tested with an Indy Lights team at Texas Motor Speedway to earn a ride in the Infiniti Pro Series, but before she could get behind the wheel, the team folded.
Constantly hearing “no” and running into dead ends was starting to take its toll. But Legge didn’t give up. She moved back to England and showed up unannounced at a meeting where one of the participants was Kevin Kalkhoven, then a co-owner of the Champ Car World Series. Legge wasn’t going to leave without his advice on how she could secure a ride in the Atlantic Championship series. With sponsors difficult to come by, Legge looked at it as her last chance to realize her dream.
Kalkhoven, impressed with Legge’s resume and dogged determination, got in touch with Jim Griffith, co-owner of Polestar Racing Group in Chardon, Ohio. Kalkhoven wanted Griffith to test Legge.
“(Griffith) said, ‘Can you be in Phoenix next week?’” Legge recalls. She was added to a list of drivers testing for the Atlantic Championship at Phoenix International Raceway, and her skills were obvious from the start.
“We had to slow her down a bit,” Griffith recalls. “She was pushing really hard from the beginning.”
Legge was impressive, and she landed a ride with Polestar –– but only for six races. She still had to prove herself in order to run the full season.
She made the move from England to the tiny town of Chardon to be at the team’s shop every day and learn as much as she could about racing. Not knowing anyone in the U.S., Legge stayed at the home of Griffith and his wife Pam for the duration of the season, about six months.
“They ended up being American parents to me,” Legge says. “They were really great.”
Surrounded by racing every day, Legge started learning what Griffith calls “mechanical sympathy.”
“So, if something is going wrong, they feel it,” he explains. “They don’t drive it until it breaks. Or, if it’s a handling issue, she’s more tuned in.”
Griffith saw daily how serious Legge was about succeeding.
“She really wanted to work on her race craft, understanding the car, how it needed to be driven into a certain corner and the gearing that needed to be right,” he says. “She was willing to sit for hours and go over data from the car. She was by no means a prima donna.
“She wanted to get it done.”
In between learning the ins and outs of mechanics, helping get the car suited to her driving style, and sticking to a training regimen, Legge was growing accustomed to a more “Americanized” lifestyle that included plenty of trips to the local Cold Stone Creamery.
Even more importantly, Legge was learning what it took to win. In her very first race with Polestar at the Grand Prix of Long Beach, Legge took the checkered flag, making her the first woman to win a major open-wheel race in North America.
But she wasn’t done. Legge won the next race at Edmonton. And the next one in San Jose, Calif. At the end of what was essentially her rookie season, Legge had three wins and five podium finishes to her name.
“At that stage, I was younger, and I thought that I should win those,” Legge says. “They made me feel I was right and I was vindicated in thinking I was good. I was just very confident.”
In November 2005, Legge realized another dream when she tested a Formula One car for the Minardi team in Italy. After two laps, though, she hit the wall. If only for a little bit, she was following in the footsteps of Ayrton Senna, the Brazilian Formula One driver who was her racing hero while growing up.
The next level
In 2006, Legge jumped to the next level in open-wheel racing. After two strenuous days of testing, she earned a ride in the Champ Car World Series, driving for Kalkhoven’s team, PKV Racing.
She was the first woman to compete in the series full time. In June of that year, she became the first woman to lead a lap in Champ Car when she led 12 at the Milwaukee Mile. She ultimately finished in sixth that race.
On lap 46 of that year’s Grand Prix of Road America in Elkhart Lake, Wis., the rear wing flap of Legge’s car flew off. The loss of rear downforce caused her car to slide up into the catch fence and go airborne. The engine and gearbox flew off, and the huge impact spread debris all over the immediate area. Legge was going about 160 mph at the time.
About all that remained in one piece was Legge herself. She ended up with just a few bumps and bruises.
The whole ordeal was “a bit scary,” Legge says, adding that her eyes were closed for most of it. In a post-race interview with the SPEED channel, Legge, proving her competitive grit, said she would have gotten back in the car and finished the race if she could.
Four days later, she was back in the driver’s seat.
“To me, it wasn’t an issue,” she says of the wreck. “It wasn’t anything I could control. If it had been my own responsibility, I would feel differently. I’ve always had respect for the dangers, but you have to put them aside.
“It did make me sad that my dad had to see it. He said, ‘Katherine, for 15 minutes, I wasn’t sure if you were even alive.’”
Legge finished her Champ Car career with four top-10 finishes. During the 2007 season, though, rumors circulated that Champ Car’s future was uncertain –– and the future of its drivers was equally up in the air. Rather than wait and see what would happen, Legge took the safe route, which, she points out, is quite unlike her, and moved back to Europe to compete in the Deutsche Tourenwagen Masters series.
More commonly called DTM, the Germany-based series uses touring cars, which are basically heavily modified street cars. Legge calls it the “European version of NASCAR.”
For three years, she was a factory driver for Audi in the DTM series, all while keeping an eye on what was happening in the United States. By this time, Champ Car had merged with IndyCar. Legge’s goal of driving in the IndyCar Series was reignited.
Eyes on the prize
IndyCar is the premier open-wheel racing series in North America.
“You get to race some of the best drivers in the world,” Legge says. “You race on street courses, road courses and ovals –– high-speed and short. You’re tested everywhere you can be.
“When I did DTM, I missed driving these cars.”
The fan support, she adds, is vastly different from what she experienced in Europe.
“The atmosphere is really something special,” she says.
But before she could pursue an IndyCar ride, Legge had to take into consideration the thoughts of a special someone: her fiance, Peter Terting, a German sports car driver whom Legge met a few years ago at a racetrack.
“Racing is my life; it’s who I am 24/7,” she says. “I don’t get to meet anyone outside of racing. He was at one of the races, we got to talking, and fate brought us together because we met up the following weekend through a mutual friend. We had no idea who each other was.”
Legge and Terting agreed that taking a shot at IndyCar was the best move.
“I said, ‘I really want to do this; I think I can make a go of it,’” Legge recalls. “He could see it was a burning desire of mine.”
So Legge packed her bags and once again made the move back to America. Realizing her goal stalled when she couldn’t find a ride for the 2011 season.
“We gave up a year to re-evaluate,” she says.
But this year, Legge is no longer left watching from the stands. In January, she signed a two-year deal with Lotus Dragon Racing to drive the No. 6 TrueCar entry in the IZOD IndyCar Series. She approached this season with a mix of excitement and nervousness, although it has gotten off to a somewhat slow start.
Unlike teams using Honda and Chevrolet engines, Lotus teams have dealt with a delay in delivering the new Lotus engine. Because of this, the team didn’t have nearly as much time to prepare the car and bring it up to speed –– literally. As a result, Legge spent very little time acclimating herself behind the wheel.
She admits she would have liked to be more confident before her IndyCar debut.
“Normally, you want to go into your rookie season with 12 test days,” she says. “We had less than a day in the car when we went to St. Petersburg.”
Legge started 25th in the Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg. Overheated fluids knocked her out of the race, and she finished in 23rd.
“We were plagued by engine management problems all weekend,” she says. “We were basically testing at the race.”
Unfortunately, the next race, the Grand Prix of Alabama, brought more of the same. Again hindered by a lack of engine availability, Legge and the Dragon team were still learning about the car during the actual race.
She started and finished in 23rd place after spinning out on lap 66.
Two weeks later, in the Grand Prix of Long Beach, Legge finished in 19th position.
Despite the slow and somewhat disappointing start, Legge keeps her head held high.
“This can be extremely frustrating for a driver, especially a driver trying to prove herself,” says Jay Penske, Dragon Racing team owner. “Yet Katherine has dealt with it in a very professional manner and has maintained the highest level of enthusiasm throughout the process. She remains focused on the big picture.”
Legge knows this season will be a learning experience, and that’s one reason she hasn’t set any specific goals.
“It’s a long journey, and we have to be realistic about how fast we’ll improve because we’re already so far behind the other teams in testing.”
But one thing she wants is noticeable improvement –– making strides this season and entering the 2013 season stronger than ever.
“As long as we’re improving, we’ll be happy,” she says.
Legge has additional strengths outside the car that give her “star potential,” Penske says.
“It’s not enough to simply be quick behind the wheel,” he says. “Drivers today also need to fulfill the increasing commercial responsibilities that go along with competing in a top-level series. Katherine has proven that she can engage sponsors, interact with fans and represent IndyCar in a manner that will make her successful for some years to come.”
Legge is especially anxious to try her hand at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. She is well aware of the tradition and spectacle of the Indy 500, having attended in 2005 and again in 2011 for the 100th anniversary celebration. The latter was a huge motivating factor to be a part of it this year and cross it off her “bucket list.”
“I’ve seen plenty of them on TV,” she says. “But there’s nothing like actually being there. The first time especially was an amazing experience.”
The Indy 500, widely considered racing’s biggest stage, will be a test for Legge, who hasn’t had as much oval-racing experience.
“I’m going to take as much advice as I can from people who have been there and done it,” she says. “I just want to learn. I’m going to take it step by step and try to make as few mistakes as possible.”
Should she qualify, Legge would be the ninth woman in history to start an Indy 500.
Legge and Terting, who live downtown, like to “switch off” by watching movies.
“Peter always seems to win the battle with some sort of action movie,” she says with a laugh.
Legge also enjoys shopping, especially at Keystone at the Crossing, and running along the canal as part of her training routine. The couple also enjoys skiing and hiking near Terting’s home in Bavaria, Germany.
Right now, Legge is 100 percent focused on racing, which doesn’t leave much time for planning a wedding.
“I do have a dress,” she laughs. The couple wants to tie the knot in a cozy ceremony in front of family and friends in England. The date hasn’t been set, but they’re aiming for some time at the end of this year or early 2013.
From a humble start in go-karts to the highly visible IndyCar Series, Legge’s competitive spirit and absolute commitment to winning have been her driving force.
“You can never really reach perfection,” she says of racing. “There’s always something you can do.”
Polestar’s Griffith says, “She doesn’t just want to be a female driver; she wants to be a driver –– and a winning driver.”