Long Live Queen Kat

 

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Image Credit – Michelin

In writing the preview to the Rolex 24 Hours at Daytona for RaceDepartment this past Friday, I remarked that the GT Daytona class would feature the Rolex 24’s leading ladies. Second-generation endurance racer Christina Nielsen, American BMW protege Ashley Freiberg, and Top Gear star/”Queen of the ‘Ring” Sabine Schmitz all featured in competitive entries. In boasting that, I omitted, by an unforgivable case of “just forgetting she was even there because I’m a dumb idiot”, the only woman competing in the premier class of the field – Katherine Legge.

And I sincerely, and profusely, apologize for that. Because from what I saw on Saturday? Katherine Legge should have driven the DeltaWing to one of the all-time great Rolex 24 wins in history. Not just for the best three hour stint of the race by itself, but the best three hours worth of driving in her entire career.

This is to take nothing away from the accomplishments of Extreme Speed Motorsports, who rallied back from a pit lane penalty to take the overall victory thanks to driving from stars like 22-year-old Pipo Derani, who became a breakthrough star. This is to take nothing away from the Corvette Racing team’s sensational 1-2 finish in GTLM – how close was it? This. Freaking. Close. And there was the Magnus Racing team, who made a hilarious Lego Movie-inspired preview of their 2016 season – which even featured Katherine Legge – then showed they meant business by winning the aforementioned GT Daytona class. With Audi ace René Rast on board the winning entry, I’m pretty sure this means everyone in America just won a free copy of Project CARS! Not like it’s selling very many copies right now anyway.

What they all did in victory was amazing and worthy of merit, but I’m sorry to say that they didn’t steal the show the way that Legge did Saturday afternoon.

She took a car and a team that were a perennial underdog, a novelty item, almost a joke entry, over the last several years right to the front of the field by the end of her first time in the car. And in doing so, she validated her place as one of motorsport’s leading women after years of fighting to compete.

While watching the race in a TeamSpeak chat with some of the RD crew of drivers and staff, having just wrapped up commentary for an online league race minutes before, we were in awe that the DeltaWing, for so long a novel concept that just never was able to attain real success in IMSA, was not only showing the pace to win, but put an old-fashioned Florida beatdown on the field in doing so. I do believe I recall saying to my friends that it was the best that I had seen from Legge in a long, long time.

You see, a decade ago, Legge was emerging through the Atlantic Championship as Champ Car’s answer to IndyCar’s new sensation, Danica Patrick. Patrick damn near won the Indy 500 in her first try. She hit the scene as a popular, beautiful, yet driven and hard-nosed competitor and exploded into the sporting mainstream in a way no American open-wheeler had since The Split. She was, and still is, so many things to so many women, as a trailblazer for women in motorsport, a decade after her first Indy 500 and now about to enter her fifth Daytona 500 next month.

But Katherine Legge was already surpassing her achievements by the time she had landed her first Champ Car ride with what is now KV Racing. Patrick never won a race in two seasons in Atlantics. Legge, however, won her very first race in the category at Long Beach, and added two more later in the year while coming just short of a championship. She wasn’t getting Patrick’s level of mainstream appreciation, but the diehard supporters – myself included – were sure that Legge was going to be an even bigger sensation in due time.

That explosion of popularity never came as Legge laboured through a rough rookie year in 2006, and then another rough year at Dale Coyne Racing – Champ Car’s perennial hard-luck minnows – in 2007. Those two seasons yielded no wins, podiums, pole positions, or fastest laps. They saw Legge finish only as high as sixth in a race twice, and rack up more DNFs in 2007 alone (nine) than top-ten finishes in 2006-07 (six).

Chances are, if you ask anyone what they remember most about Legge’s two years in Champ Car, it’s almost unanimously going to be when she wrote off her Lola-Cosworth in this almighty shunt at Road America.

(Also, hi there, super-young Atlantics prospect James Hinchcliffe, doing commentary.)

After unification in 2008, Legge moved back to Europe to compete in the DTM for Audi. She’d get to be in the same stable as legends like Tom Kristensen and Mattias Ekstrom. She’d get to race alongside a future Le Mans winner, Mike Rockenfeller. But three seasons in the extremely tough silhouette touring car series yielded nary a single point or top-ten finish, just one fastest lap in the 2009 Norisring round. And by the end of her tenure in DTM, another leading woman in the Mercedes-Benz stable – that’d be future Williams test driver Susie Wolff – was starting to leapfrog over her as the leading woman in the DTM.

A year away after leaving Audi led to a way back to American open-wheel racing in the 2012 IndyCar Series with Dragon Racing. But the deal soured soon after. By the end of 2012, Dragon scaled down to one car and Legge had to share it with Sebastien Bourdais, taking on all the oval events after Indy – something that wasn’t even her strong suit in the first place as a racer who almost exclusively ran road courses. And by the start of the next season, Dragon regained its second car, but they’d pushed Legge out of the seat for Sebastian Saavedra by then. Two Indy 500 entries saw Legge finish 22nd in 2012, and 26th in 2013.

A starring role in the inaugural FIA Formula E Championship with Team Aguri ended after just two sub-par, luckless races before she was booted to the kerb. Legge’s presence at the start of the season was huge as one of two women in Formula E’s inaugural class of drivers was potentially a huge draw for the series. Yet, both Legge and Michela Cerruti were gone before the series went to North America for the fifth round of the championship. Which was pretty lame.

At a point, less knowledgeable than I am now (and that’s still not very knowledgeable) I had started to question if Legge had lost that spark and all the potential for excellence that brought her to prominence, or if that potential was even there to begin with.

Since 2013, Legge’s primary focus as a racer has been her efforts with DeltaWing Racing. The concept deemed too radical to be the future of IndyCar debuted with the backing of Nissan in the 2012 24 Hours of Le Mans – you’ll likely remember the car’s lone Le Mans outing ending with Japanese racing legend Satoshi Motoyama‘s desperate attempts to mend the car after tangling with Kazuki Nakajima‘s Toyota. It popped up again in the American Le Mans Series, with Legge as one of its lead drivers starting in 2013. Every year since then has been a constant battle to develop the DeltaWing into something that’s not just a crazy concept, but a car that actually contends for wins.

It hasn’t been easy. Going into Daytona, fourth place at the 2014 Petit Le Mans was the only time the DeltaWing made it to the finish line in one of IMSA’s “big four” events – Daytona, Sebring, Watkins Glen, and Road Atlanta – since the DeltaWing “as we know it” first entered in 2013.

It’s nothing like the Daytona Prototypes that have dominated the class, and it’s nothing like the LMP2 cars that will now be set to finally succeed them. It’s an oddball, an anomaly, built to a specification entirely unique to itself. Oddballs don’t succeed in racing today, certainly not long-term. The Nissan GT-R LM NISMO prototype, the Tyrrell P34, the Volvo 850 Estate super tourer – all brilliant examples of outside-the-box design that all failed to leave a lasting impact in a sport where cold, stuffy, boring-as-all-hell convention is king. In spite of all of that, Elan Motorsports still pushes on with the project, making small strides here and there.

With all of that history of hard-luck futility piling up, I admit, I wasn’t really looking to Katherine Legge to be the sensation of Daytona. I mean, not when the Ford GT was coming back to compete with the Corvette, not when this was set to be the year the LMP2s finally took over the race, not when GTD had successfully gone full GT3 for its own long-term benefit.

I finally tuned into IMSA’s live stream sometime after the race start to see Legge doing just that: becoming the story of the race. Running down everyone with merciless velocity. This was the Katherine Legge of old, the Legge I had envisioned I’d see in 2006 and beyond. This was Katherine Legge flashing a star-spangled middle finger with “God Bless America” tattooed above the knuckle to the skeptics of both her team and herself as a driver. And as much as I was eager to see Sean Rayhall get his first stint in, after he emerged from total obscurity to a multi-time race winner in Indy Lights, I wanted to see Legge race more now that she was stamping her authority on the Rolex 24.

Before the night ended, however, the dream of victory for all of them was over.

Andy Meyrick, Legge’s long-time wingman in the DeltaWing, took the blame for clobbering a stationary PC class car in an incident under yellow flags and ending the DeltaWing’s race before midnight. He was already slowed down, but not enough to pick a way past the stalled car and avoid a crash. Everyone was uninjured. Despite the early retirement, the DeltaWing team took away the positives of its most competitive outing so far to boost their morale going into the rest of the IMSA season.

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Image Credit – IMSA

Legge earned the Spirit of the Race award from the cast and listeners of IMSA Radio (a/k/a Radio Le Mans) for her heroics which were rendered too seldomly seen over twenty-four hours. The closest thing to an official “MVP award” in endurance racing. That’s the award Nick Tandy got for his monster stints at Le Mans last year in which he shouted to the mainstream racing press, “Hey, knuckleheads, there are other drivers here besides that Hülkenberg guy to talk about!” in a race they eventually won.

And the best part is that the story that began this weekend might just have a happy ending somewhere down the road. In just under two months, Legge, joined by young Rayhall and Meyrick, will drive the DeltaWing at Sebring knowing that they might have a real chance to finish what they started at Daytona, and if they can’t get it done there, they’ve got eight more chances to get it done some time before 2016. And now, more than ever before, there’s a feeling like they can do it.

In May, Legge will get another chance at a breakthrough at Indianapolis when the all-female Grace Autosport team bids for victory at the landmark 100th running of the Indianapolis 500, as part of a project that could become another important landmark for women in motorsport in the years to come, as more and more women are breaking through into racing not only as drivers and team principals, but engineers and designers.

After years of fighting more than what should be necessary to prove her worth to many including myself, it’s time to party like it’s 2005. Katherine Legge is back on the big stage, and back in a damn big way.

 

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