By Kirby Arnold, Staff Writer
INDIANAPOLIS – The clock sometimes moves slowly when the seconds are counting down to history.
The Paretta Autosport team, the first at Indianapolis Motor Speedway owned by a woman, driven by a woman and crewed mostly by women, sat in the 33rd and final spot in the Indianapolis 500 during last-chance qualifying Sunday. Simona de Silvestro had driven a four-lap average of 228.353 mph on the third qualifying run of the day.
Then they waited.
Sage Karam and Will Power, the first two drivers to post speeds in the 75-minute session to determine the final three spots in the race, were safe in the 31st and 32nd positions. But two others, Charlie Kimball and R.C. Enerson, still could bump de Silvestro out.
The final 50 minutes were an exercise in waiting.
Neither Kimball in the A.J. Foyt Enterprises Chevrolet nor Enerson in the Top Gun Racing Chevrolet had enough speed in their first runs. And when they tried again in the final minutes, they were slower.
Nobody made an attempt the final five minutes, but that didn’t make the time go faster around the Paretta pit. Owner Beth Paretta and the engineers on the pit box watched the telemetry screens, and mechanics around the car eyed the time on the speedway’s video screens. Nobody celebrated until the clock hit zero.
Then there were smiles, hugs, cheers and tears.
“It’s a relief,” team Paretta said.
The team had hoped to qualify on Saturday among the top 30, which would have locked them into the race and avoided the high-stress wait for the last-chance session. It was a mentally difficult 24 hours before de Silvestro wheeled onto the track Sunday.
“It was tough last night, but it wasn’t because of a lack of hard work,” Paretta said. “There’s an element of luck that has to happen here. Indianapolis Motor Speedway can be a strange place sometimes. You saw the challenges we had. The biggest key for me was to make sure that our crew and the women who are new to this were in the right head space. You can start overthinking things, and that’s just a disaster. But we kept everybody calm and focused and they did beautifully.”
Paretta, an auto industry and racing executive who formed the team with technical backing of Team Penske, said there’s nothing she has experienced in the business world that quite matches the emotional stress of trying to make the 500 with a new team.
“It’s kind of like the launch of a brand, the launch of a company, the launch of a product,” she said. “You want it to resonate and do well. And you just saw your stock price go up!”
During the final minutes of the last-chance session, spotter Linda Conti stood behind the pit stand and leaned into her phone to watch time expire.
“It’s really awesome to be part of history,” said Conti, who has worked with Indy 500 teams since 1997 and was team manager in 1999 for rookie Robby McGehee.
“I was a little worried about my streak. I’ve never been associated with a car that didn’t make the race,” Conti said. “But this was pretty close. It’s almost as close as Robby McGehee his rookie year. He had a lot of trouble that year. But this is the most satisfying. We had so many people behind us.”
Among those congratulating her on the team’s presence at Indy, Conti noted the number of men who spoke with her.
“I’d ask them, ‘Are you a race fan?’ They’d say yes or no,” she said. “Then I’d ask, ‘Do you have a daughter?’ And they would say yes. They were full-force behind us. I can’t tell you what this means. This is my favorite qualifying ever, even though it was the most stressful.”
Paretta said the team will take a moment to relax after the stress of the past few days, and then dive into race preparations.
“Practice pit stops, get the car back to race trim and get ready for the greatest spectacle on earth,” she said.
Paretta said the team’s over-the-wall assignments have been determined for the 500, although she wasn’t ready to announce them. The team has had guidance from several men with Team Penske.
“We want to see how the week unfolds,” Paretta said. “In fairness, if we don’t have a lot of women over the wall, that means that they’ll be trained for the next race. But this is just the start. We hope to be here for years to come.”