By Luis Torres, Staff Writer
INDIANAPOLIS – No matter what happens in the 105th Indianapolis 500, Paretta Autosport are already making their mark in the NTT IndyCar Series.
Simona De Silvestro may be piloting the No. 16 Rocket Pro TPO/MoneyLion Chevrolet, but the journey goes even further. The awe inspiring employees back at the shop, who spend countless hours preparing an Indy 500 machine, have their stories.
For Lauren Sullivan and Chelsea Pechenino, their difference making mindsets have gotten them far into the engineering careers.
Sullivan is the team’s Aero Engineer, who happens to be employed by Team Penske. You heard that right, the sport’s powerhouse.
The Saint Louis University graduate is an engineer, currently handling the aerodynamic program for Penske’s NASCAR teams. Working for an owner that’s essentially the man at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Sullivan knows Team Penske is its own league.
When Sullivan was personally approached by team president Tim Cindric about Beth Paretta’s vision, she couldn’t resist.
“I was honestly shocked and had to take some time before I responded,” said Sullivan. “To be part of Team Penske is one thing, but to be asked by Team Penske to support this effort that they are passionate about is another thing.”
Pechenino is the Assistant Data Engineer, working with Casey Eason, who she sees as a mentor.
“Anything electronic, data engineers work with,” Pechenino explained. “From radios to the timing stand, to fuel calculations, to sensors, to the car configuration, we do it all. It’s a very versatile role where there is always something that needs to be done.”
The Georgia Institute of Technology student was always intrigued about a female-led IndyCar squad as far back as 2015. That’s when Paretta had her sights on Grace Autosport to hit the grid, but it never materialized.
When Paretta Autosport came to life and got the call to be involved, Pechenino thought it was a joke.
“I hadn’t told anyone about applying except my parents who wouldn’t prank me, but I was in disbelief,” Pechenino explained. “I can’t recall the exact conversation, but I remember my friends asking if I was okay after and then their excitement when I told them.”
Both were challenged this past weekend when De Silvestro was in the Last Row Shootout to make the 33-car grid. While Paretta Autosport is the pseudo fifth Penske entry, it was nerve wracking times. Fortunately, De Silvestro was able to qualify 33rd while Charlie Kimball and RC Enerson were unable to find speed.
Nicknamed “Sassy,” Sullivan understood what she signed up for. Difficult circumstances is where decision making are excruciatingly vital. Such action would make a difference of helping De Silvestro making the 500 or failing to qualify. In fact, other personnel could also be affected.
“You rely on what you know,” said Sullivan. “Make decisions–because indecision is worse than the wrong the decision.
“It would be disrespectful to the team to not mention our race engineer, Raul Prados. Personally, I relied on his expertise and followed his lead. He has managed to stay out of the spotlight, but he is a very integral part of this co-ed team.”
Pechenino’s viewpoint was different, describing the past weekend as if they “were in the eye of a hurricane.” Yet, the pressure was well balanced.
“There was a lot going on around us, but we all felt calm because we had been training and preparing for a while,” Pechenino explained.
“It was unlike anything I had ever experienced before; but knowing that all our systems had been checked multiple times and our data from the car was being received, gave us a great sense of confidence to let Simona do her runs and make sure we were prepared to help her.”
Sullivan’s explanation about team chemistry best summarize Pechenino’s comment about calmness.
“The most important traits for successful team chemistry in engineering or racing are being teachable and willing to learn,” Sullivan commented. “Acknowledging you always have something to learn – no matter how experienced you are – makes you open to different opinions and malleable for the task at hand.”
Pechenino shared that familiar sentiment where respect and communication are key components for team chemistry.
“We all understand that each member has expertise in a different area and are trying to learn from each other,” Pechenino responded. “It also helps when everyone meshes well together instantly. The team just hit it off on day one. The men and women all enjoy each other’s company on and off the track.”
Now that everything fell into place in favor of Paretta Autosport, the mind shifts to race day at IMS. Both ladies are ready for what’s in store, but their roles also impact education and equality as a whole. Perhaps, the main ingredient on getting the ball rolling to where motorsport equality blossoms.
“Sassy” has been honored of being a part of such historic moment. “Race for Equality and Change” always caught her attention and wanted to be a difference maker. That’s when Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM for short) really becomes essential for society’s future.
“Being part of the momentum that is pushing engineering forward in the world of motorsports is where my focus is,” said Sullivan.
“Like many other women in STEM, I have always been one of a handful of women in my professional endeavors. Instead of allowing my wake to leave things untouched, I would rather my wake hold open the doors for those who are next so that their energy and efforts can be focused on opening the next set of doors instead of their own.
“Any path that is easy to follow, first had to be trailblazed and then cleared of obstacles – women like Janet Guthrie, Maude Yagle, and Anita Millican (to name only a few) were the trailblazers and it is our job to continue clearing the obstacles as we follow the same path.”
On that note, Sullivan takes her roles with serious and honorable pride. All thanks to STEM, “Sassy” found tremendous gratitude and gotten opportunities to do awe inspiring things. Including a tenure as a Wind Tunnel Test Engineer at Boeing McDonnell Douglas in St. Louis.
“Professionally, I have the opportunity to continue learning and developing my skillset,” said Sullivan. “Personally, I have a platform to engage with the younger generation and broadcast the beauty of what a STEM education can provide more effectively.”
For Pechenino, science molded her into the person she is today, finding solutions to each imposed question.
“Very early on, I was encouraged to do experiments and ask questions to understand the world around us,” Pechenino elaborated. “I was fortunate enough that some teachers allowed my classmates and I to design our own experiments.
“I distinctly remember a teacher saying that science is a field where wrong answers can eventually become right ones, just by researching and new discoveries.”
Right now, Pechenino is pursuing degrees in Mechanical Engineering and Business Administration. Admitting they’re distinctly different, the fourth year student noted the challenges of balancing both career paths. Especially, when the pandemic altering education as we know it.
“In-person learning to fully online with such a fast change-over was hard, especially for other students who have grown up with learning in a classroom,” said Pechenino. “Balancing schedules became harder as teachers no longer had direct contact with students which left both parties feeling isolated.
“Thankfully, I lived with all my close friends, so we were able to work together and make it feel a little more normal.”
After qualifying, the collegiate emotions sunk in. It just wasn’t about the racing element, but the bigger picture.
“I focused on learning everything that I could and working hard to help the team succeed,” said Pechenino. “The feeling of awe lasted about an hour after qualifying and then it was ‘Okay, let’s get back to work!’ It’s been an honor to be a part of this organization and I’m so happy to be working to help the future generations of young ladies.”
When it comes to what fuels both of their fiery passions as engineers, each gave a unique perspective.
“There’s no limit. There’s no boundary. All “boxes” are self-imposed and the lines demand to be redrawn,” said Sullivan.
“The checkered flag and the podium, which I think motivates everyone in this industry. When you love something, you’ll work hard and be successful and I love motorsports,” said Pechenino.
Motorsports Tribune asked both where they see female’s involvement in motorsport at the end of the Double 20s. What kind of effort it’ll take to accomplish such landmark feat?
“When the greats, like Roger Penske, open doors for you and believe in the same dream, the effect is massive,” Pechenino responded. “With the support of more people who have faith in what you can accomplish, the sky is the limit.”
“At the end of the decade, I hope that a female-forward team is no longer a hot topic because it’s been normalized,” Sullivan stated. “To get there, we need consistent, intentional outreach. The door has been opened. It’s time to walk through it.”