The confirmed car count has slowly crept up for this year’s running of the Indianapolis 500, but the world’s biggest race still has room for several drivers trying to make the field. It’s always a scramble to see who ends up getting to make an attempt to qualify for the 500, and this year is no exception. With 34, possibly 35 cars expected for Indianapolis, there remain key seats to be filled ahead of the Greatest Spectacle in Racing.
Fans always have their favorite drivers they anxiously watch to see if they’ll strike a deal, and one of the most prominent these days is Pippa Mann. The British Indy 500 and open wheel veteran is hoping to get another crack at the big race, after originally qualifying for it in her rookie attempt back in 2011.
And what a year 2011 was. The Indianapolis 500 had a very deep field, with several veteran drivers in no less than seven entries failing to make the field on a wild Bump Day. Meanwhile, Mann, working with an underfunded Conquest Racing team that was a clear underdog to make the race, hung in that day to qualify. That gritty effort not only put her on the grid for the biggest stage the sport has, but also made her the first British woman to qualify for the Indianapolis 500. She managed to run the entire race despite a broken hydration system, moving up 12 spots over the course of the day. For Mann, the memories and lessons of that month remain crystal-clear.
"I don't think anyone genuinely expected us to make the field in 2011 except ourselves," Mann admitted. "The biggest thing was the overwhelming sense of relief. If I didn't make it in in despite the odds stacked against me, I didn't think I would probably ever get another shot."
Mann’s attempt at Indy came after two years in Firestone Indy Lights, where she honed her craft, going on a tear in the last half of 2011, racking up 3 poles and a victory on the oval at Kentucky. She won against competition that included current IndyCar drivers James Hinchcliffe, Charlie Kimball, Sebastian Saavedra, and others. She was able to make the jump to the “big cars” after that season, ultimately leading to her being a part of the Centennial Year of the 500-Mile Race.
Mann spent last season working on sponsorship—a common refrain for many drivers—but came close to a deal for Indy, after pounding the pavement at Indianapolis Motor Speedway all May long. Her racing gear was in the back of her car, and it seemed as if a dramatic Bump Day attempt was a possibility. Yet, the deal couldn’t come together, and it was a rough experience for one who fought until the last minute to make it work.
"Last year, having to stand and watch, was agony," Mann confides. "I would probably describe it as a similar feeling to having your heart broken. You invest so much time, so much belief, so much work - and then everything is ripped from underneath you. It's not fun."
For racers and fans alike, it’s hard to express just what the Indy 500 means by even the most expansive vocabularies. Yet Mann, who knows the view from both the starting grid and sidelines, isn’t afraid to try.
"There was never a chance that I was going to stop working after missing out in 2012," emphasizes Mann. "Never a chance. I knew that a year not racing would make it even harder to try and put together the budget in 2013, and that has proved to be the case so far, but giving up was not an option. What does Indy mean to me? I think about it last thing at night before I fall asleep, and first thing every morning before I wake up."
Of course, the racer’s job is never done. Remaining in top athletic condition, working hard on potential sponsorship deals, and staying abreast of changes in racing technology and regulations are always priorities. Still, Mann has gone further, staying extremely involved with the loyal IndyCar fan base on Twitter, giving garage tours to fans on race weekends, and even trying her hand at broadcasting on NBC Sports Network and radio. She also works with Glass Hammer Racing, an organization dedicated to getting young women involved in motorsports. If there’s a way to stay involved and reach out to fans, Mann is on it. Whatever the event in the IndyCar community, Mann is among the most present and visible of the Indy alums, whether it’s near her home in Indianapolis, or further afield on a race weekend. That’s paid off with plenty of well-wishers, and a lot of IndyCar Pippa fans hoping the right sponsor comes along.
So now, a new wrinkle has been added to the age-old tradition of the hopeful driver stalking Gasoline Alley, hoping to be able to prove themselves at the most legendary race course on Earth. It’s the addition of the media-savvy driver, one who is connected with the fans on Twitter and Facebook, who frequents “Tweetups” and works to keep those same fans involved and invested in the driver’s journey.
Will that, plus her tireless groundwork for funding, be enough for sponsors to jump on board? Mann certainly hopes so.
"Trying to put together the budget has been incredibly tough, almost as tough as it was in 2011 when I was coming out of Indy Lights, and no one knew my name," Mann admits. "How close am I to a ride? I'm closer than I was this time last year, and either about the same or closer again than I was in 2011. But things are not done yet, nothing is final. I have been closer to putting things together for other races than I am now, and suddenly had them fall apart at the last minute. Everyone thinks that this scenario is the racing driver's urban myth, but it's not. It's something that has happened multiple times to nearly every one of us."
This should be a banner year for the IZOD IndyCar Series and the Indy 500. The Dreamworks movie Turbo focuses on the 500, and looks certain to be a summer blockbuster. TV ratings have crept up so far this year, and the DW12 car and IndyCar’s field of top all-around racers have meant excellent racing on the young season. This year’s Indianapolis 500 should accordingly be nothing short of explosive in terms of excitement. Mann is hoping she’ll get to add her own fireworks to the display. May is fast approaching, but Pippa Mann won’t stop pushing until she’s back in the car. For her, to take a note from this year’s oft-quoted Indy slogan, it’s “Indy 500 or Bust.”