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Indy 500 driver Katherine Legge wants to be 'not the best woman, but the best driver, ever'

On Sunday, racer Katherine Legge becomes the ninth woman to ever compete in the Indianapolis 500. (Photo: Getty Images)
On Sunday, racer Katherine Legge becomes the ninth woman to ever compete in the Indianapolis 500. (Photo: Getty Images)

When Katherine Legge started racing Go-Karts with her father at 9 in her native England, she loved the “speed and the adrenaline and the competition.” It’s what still motivates her today, at 42, as one of the world’s fastest female race-car drivers, preparing to participate in Sunday’s Indianapolis 500 after a history-making qualifying run.

It’ll be Legge and 32 men on the grid — and she’ll be just the ninth woman ever to compete in the race, now in its 107th run.

And while that makes her proud, she tells Yahoo Life, “It's important to me not just to be the best woman, but to be the best driver, ever.”

For now, though, Legge has found comfort in the sisterhood, of sorts, of other racers — including not only the “young up and comers” she’s teamed up with, but Janet Guthrie, 85, who was the first woman to ever compete in the Indy 500, in 1977 (when there weren't even women's restrooms inside the track); Lyn St. James, the first woman to be named Indy 500 Rookie of the Year; and Sarah Fisher, who has raced the Indy 500 nine times.

“Yes, we mostly stick together. We mostly have, like, girl power, because we're the only ones that understand each other,” she says. “There's a handful of us in the whole world who have been through the same experiences that the other has been through, which is very unusual. It's a strange life to have led. We can relate to each other, which is nice.”

She’s not crossed paths with Danica Patrick, noting that, regrettably, “We were always pitted against each other in the media.”

Other forms of sexism, at least within the sport itself, have not been so overt.

Katherine Legge, of England, takes off her helmet after she qualified for the Indianapolis 500 auto race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Saturday, May 20, 2023, in Indianapolis. (AP Photo/Darron Cummings)
Katherine Legge, right after she qualified for the Indianapolis 500 on May 20. (AP Photo/Darron Cummings)

“I experienced less and less, just because I've been around so long,” she says. “But some of the fans, honestly … I thought it kind of like dissipated, and then I had the accident the other day with Stefan Wilson,” referring to a crash between them during an Indy 500 practice run, “and I started to read some comments on my Instagram and stopped immediately, because I was like, oh no, there it is.”

But, she’s quick to add, “I'm grateful for the support I got, obviously.” Any sexism, she believes, “is more the people who don't understand racing, and the people on the auxiliary, kind of outside looking in, than anything else. You know, when I was a kid, I was more of an outcast, because kids are mean. But as an adult, they kind of tend to keep their opinions to themselves for the most part — unless they can hide behind a private profile on a social media thing, in which case I don't care what they say. It doesn't affect me.”

It's not surprising for a person who is used to traveling at speeds of well over 200 mph — and who was only “a little” afraid of getting back in her race car after breaking both of her legs during a test run in France in 2020, which had her in a wheelchair and getting surgery.

At one point during that recovery, while coaching another woman racer for the Ferrari Challenge Championship, she recalls, “I lifted myself out the wheelchair, into the Ferrari Challenge car, and drove that with two broken legs, just to see whether I could still do it — and whether I wanted to do it, whether I still had the guts to do it,” she recalls. “Mentally, I needed to know, because that was kind of weighing on me. But I was fine, obviously, because here I am now.”

Still, beyond being a badass, Legge is “proud to show her feminine side,” as an Instagram commenter pointed out recently on a “get ready with me" post in which the athlete shared her simple makeup routine as part of her partnership with e.lf. Skin. The comment, though seemingly well-meaning, highlighted yet another pressure, rooted in sexism, for women who are athletes to present a certain ideal balance.

“There's a fine line, right? Everybody wants to be seen as attractive and feminine, and I'm no different,” she says. “But I also want to be seen as being taken seriously and not playing the girl card. I want to look good, but I don't want to not play by the rules either.”

It’s why Legge uses only “very light makeup" (also because you “can't wear makeup in the car that much," she says). Instead, she sticks mainly to tinted sunblock, eyeliner and mascara. But opting for the natural look doesn't mean she doesn't fret about getting older.

"I mean, everybody doesn't like aging, whether you're male or female, right? You wake up in the morning and you see the wrinkles and it's never pleasant," she says, admitting that she doesn't like to think about life post-racing, and how long she'll last before retirement. "I tend to think it's probably when you don't have the passion and the drive for it anymore … I've known really, really good drivers still racing at 60 and some … don't want to race anymore in their mid-30s. It just depends on the individual. So I think I've got a few good years left in me yet. I don't want people to see me as old. I don't want to see myself as old. And I don't yet."

Regarding her sponsorship with the cosmetics brand, “I love that e.l.f stands for literally everything that I stand for, which is basically empowering women, being clean and vegan, and just embracing things that make you feel good,” says Legge, who went vegan nearly a decade ago.

“I remember exactly where I was: in Sonoma testing a Porsche with a [racer] friend of mine, Spencer Pumpelly, who is vegan … and he showed me a video of things that I didn't want to see, like baby chicks getting crushed and ground up ... how [factory farmed] animals are treated and all those things,” she recalls. “And then he took us out for a vegan dinner that night and it was really good.”

It all had a lingering effect, she recalls, because when she went to eat a hamburger the next day, she “couldn’t do it” and stopped eating meat on the spot. She went fully vegan soon thereafter.

“It's is easy to be vegan when you're at home,” she says — and that includes just being in Atlanta, where she lives, and where she regularly hooks up with "a whole contingent" of local fellow vegan racers, including to hit the flagship of Pinky Cole’s cult favorite Slutty Vegan.

It's still not easy to eat vegan on the road, she adds, but “it's getting better,” and she has “never looked back" from her decision.

Of course, the driver may soon face a dilemma right on the raceway, as there’s a time-honored Indy 500 tradition that’s riled up anti-dairy activists ahead of this year’s race: for the winner to drink down a bottle of cold milk — cow’s milk — and to also douse themselves in it.

When asked what to do if faced with the prospect, Legge says, “I will definitely pour the milk over myself.” But when it comes to drinking, she adds, “I will always reach for vegan milk.”

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