Finally, yesterday, IndyCar fans had confirmed what had long been speculated or quietly known: that Pippa Mann, pairing with Dale Coyne Racing, was returning for another attempt at the Indianapolis 500.
Obviously, IndyCar fans online are pretty overwhelmingly happy with the news; Pippa has long made it a point to be one of the most accessible and engaged IndyCar drivers at both community events and social media. That sort of give-and-take and interaction is going to give a driver well-wishers, and that’s certainly the case with Pippa.
Let’s throw all considerations about how she and the other drivers will fare at Indy this year off to the side for a moment, because really, that’s for a future discussion (and what a discussion we’ll have!). What Pippa’s continual communication about her efforts has yielded over the past few years has been a fan investment in the entire process. We’ve seen just snippets of what Mann has done to stay in the conversation, and just a hint of how hard and frustrating the disappointments have been along the way. In a sense, in social media communities, there’s a feeling this time that one of our own has made it.
When you’re young, you put drivers up on a pedestal. To a point, we still do, regardless of age. Talk to an old-timer about Eddie Sachs, Jim Hurtubise, or yes, AJ Foyt, and there’s still that reverence, as if they aren’t exactly real or human, as if they’re part of an Olympian pantheon, demigods instead of mortals. I still turn into a babbling idiot around Rick Mears. Of course, we know these drivers are all too human, that as Jonnie Parsons said, they “are not wild and woolly characters who do not care if they live or die, nor are they clowns or speed-happy maniacs”.
Obviously today’s drivers, living in an era of micro-coverage, Twitter, and Facebook, are not precisely distant, remote figures among the clouds. And we know they have foibles and faults. But drivers who bring the warmth and outreach such as Mann does provide a sense of humanity and community. This person, whom you chat with online, whom you met at a party or event, seems more real to you. They aren’t some remote 2-D image. People follow and pull for a person for simply that reason. And when you’ve seen a driver describe their battles, their ups, their downs, you know a bit more of just what signing that deal and getting to race means. You’ve seen the battling and clawing and scrapping to get this chance. In a sense, the girl next door in the virtual neighborhood gets to strap in and go 225+ mph in the course of getting a crack at the Greatest Spectacle in Racing.
That’s when you really begin to get some sense of just what these drivers go through to do this. They’re already willing to physically put it all on the line to scream through Turn 1 at Indianapolis, but leading up to that moment is months, years of mental anguish, start-and-stop false leads, disappearing promised funding, hours on the phone trying to make something, anything happen. It’s something that weighs on the mind and soul continually, the effort to keep the dimmest hopes alive on nights in October and November, or crushingly bright days in May on the sidelines when it probably seems like you’ll never race again. All of that effort, all of that emotion, all of that disappointment and euphoria and sleepless nights—that’s all bundled into that moment, when it turns out, yes, I get to race. For every driver that gets to experience that payoff, there are countless others who do not, who never get the phone call. That makes the times it does work out all the more worthy of appreciation.
We’re spectators, in a way, whether it’s in the stands or following drivers on Twitter. Just as we don’t see what’s going in under the engine cowling while a car scorches past at Indy, we don’t know the ins and outs and every intimate moment of a driver’s life. But what we do get are these glimmers of understanding, these moments of illumination, that we’re looking at something that’s the sum of a Herculean effort.
My kids are 8, 5, and 4 years old, respectively. They don’t understand racing politics, and they don’t have to wade into the endless arguments over sponsorship, who should be in what car, or really what TV ratings are. They do, however, follow Pippa Mann—having met her numerous times at events both at and away from the track—and their common question is often, “Is Pippa racing?”
Usually, the response to that is “well, she’s working really hard so she can!”, but today, I can tell them she does have a ride. Maybe they get a little bit of a lesson of how persistence pays off, that hard work can lead to amazing things. Perhaps it’s not something they fully realize today or even this year. But as a parent, I have someone I can point to, and tell my girls (and my son) “you can be these things. You can be kind and dedicated. You can be focused and fun. This person, whom you’ve met, is doing this incredible thing that your Dad and so many others would give up a right arm to do, because she worked hard, did her best, and did not quit”. They can understand that, I think.
Soon, we’ll see just what the field looks like for the Indy 500, and where Pippa Mann’s place is in all that. With the deal signed, for the fans, the next step will be endless hours of speculation, debate, prognostication, and yes, drawing names out of hats. But for today, we can appreciate hard work paying off, and the story of someone from IndyCar’s online community making good.