DAYTONA, Fla. — There is a team at the 24 Hours of Daytona that's just like any other team, with experienced drivers who rightly earned their spot in the top endurance racing series in America. They are prepared to run a full season in a competitive car, and they even set the fastest time in their class at the pre-season Roar Before the 24 test. The only difference between this team and any other is that its drivers happen to be women. We went to Daytona to talk to them about their journey to the race.
The No. 57 Heinricher Racing with Meyer Shank Racing Acura NSX GT3 Evo team features a roster of talented, experienced drivers: Katherine Legge, Simona de Silvestro, Bia Figueiredo and Christina Nielsen. While there have been four other all-women lineups at Daytona before, the No. 57 team is the first to be considered truly competitive.
Team founder Jackie Heinricher, a biotech CEO who has raced in Ferrari Challenge, Global Rallycross Lites and Lamborghini Super Trofeo, was coached by Legge. Two years ago, she had the idea to run a car full of women – and not just a token effort, but rather a car full of drivers who could win.
"The car does not know your gender, and I feel as if this sort of professional effort legitimizes that in a way that's particularly important and inspirational outside of racing," Heinricher told Autoblog.
Heinricher had seen Legge struggle to get the right funding for rides before, so she didn't want to limit this team to whoever could pay. So, she first lined up the funding, thanks largely to support from primary sponsor Caterpillar. It took awhile, though, as many companies simply told her that they were out of racing sponsorships entirely.
"I think perseverance might be the most underrated human quality," Heinricher said. "I just didn't give up."
After funding was in place, she found a competitive partner in the Meyer Shank Racing crew, whose owner Michael Shank has run a pair of factory-backed Acura NSX GT3s in IMSA's GTD class since 2017. The GT3 shares an engine and turbo with the road-going NSX but ditches the hybrid system, making it about 670 pounds lighter. The No. 57 car is an EVO variant, which Legge helped develop, and it features improved aerodynamics to better suit it to the mix of pro and amateur drivers who take shifts racing in the GTD class.
Legge had been on Shank's NSX team for the past two years as well, so Heinricher reached out to her for help assembling women who truly had the ability to win.
Legge had raced with both Figueiredo (who also goes by the name Ana Beatriz) and De Silvestro in IndyCar in 2013, but their careers diverged from there. Before joining Shank's NSX team, Legge left IndyCar to race the DeltaWing in IMSA, which was a unique arrow-shaped prototype car that never quite panned out into a competitive ride. Legge was set to run the Indianapolis 500 again with the all-female Grace Autosport team in 2016, but didn't get to after the team was unable to find a car.
De Silvestro was infamously teased along by Sauber for a Formula One testing role that didn't pan out when the team wanted her to bring in more cash. She then became the first woman to race full-time in Australian Supercars.
Figueiredo had been a promising Indy Lights driver who finished third in the 2008 championship, but was never able to translate that into a stable ride in IndyCar's top series, and moved to racing in the Stock Car Brazil series in recent years instead.
When a back injury kept Heinricher from participating on her own team at Daytona, Christina Nielsen was the perfect choice to fill in. Nielsen became the first woman full-season IMSA champion by winning the GTD class with Scuderia Corsa in 2016, then again in 2017. However, Wright Motorsports wanted her to contribute more financially to continue there after her 2018 season with them — which left the ground-breaking two-time GTD champ strangely without a full-time IMSA seat this year.
"[Meyer Shank] is known around the paddock for really being a good team that delivers strong results, and I think last year especially reflected that, when they finished second in the championship in a very close fight with the number one," Nielsen said.
Every driver on the No. 57 team could have been in more competitive rides in previous years. So Heinricher put her money into making that happen.
It's healthy to be skeptical whenever someone announces an "all-female" anything, especially in male-dominated spaces like auto racing. All too often these teams are a stunt, a token effort without a competitive edge, and don't do much to legitimize the efforts of other women there. It's easy for others to point at uncompetitive all-female efforts and make broader generalizations.
The issues facing female racers are systemic. When I asked Heinricher and the No. 57 drivers why it's still relatively rare to see competitive women in racing, nearly everyone pointed to an issue that plagues every driver: funding. Rides that are willing to pay for top talent are few and far between, and scraping together funding to get exposure elsewhere doesn't always result in a spot in a competitive car, or enough to run at all.
"If I look at my career, when I raced IndyCar, for example, I've never been in the best car," De Silvestro told Autoblog. "I think this effort is good because we are in a good car. Hopefully it goes well and we can show that getting the right opportunity makes a big difference."
They're not the first women to admit that funding can make or break a promising driver's career, either. Racing drivers Pippa Mann and Janet Guthrie told the Indianapolis Star that it can be hard to convince some sponsors to back female talent, because they want a more macho brand representative. Or they don't want to be seen as making a potentially controversial statement. (The idea that some companies think merely backing a woman could be seen as contentious is extra infuriating.) This lack of cash results in fewer opportunities for women to land competitive rides.
"I mean, yes, we definitely have the focus on the part that we're all females, but what I really like about it is that we're all females who want to be known as drivers first," Nielsen said. "I think all of us can stand by that saying, because we have results that back up this attitude.
"What we try to do is show the women out there that yes, we can be here. We can compete."
To say that the No. 57 Acura team's attitude toward female drivers was a refreshing change would be a massive understatement. For one, no one would think twice about an all-male lineup with the same background as these four women. The 24 Hours of Daytona was particularly brutal this year, but the new entry was near the top of the GT Daytona class field for most of the race.
No. 57 only dropped in the standings after heavy rainfall devolved the race into chaos. There were only 38 minutes of green-flag racing in the final nine hours of the race due to the standing water on the track, which caused many cars — including the Acura — to hydroplane and crash. After losing time to repair front-end damage, the team still finished 13th in the 23-car GTD class. That's not bad for a first-time outing as a new team, especially one that's rumored to have Le Mans aspirations as well.
"I like that we're competing against the men, and that we're out there competing on equal terms," Nielsen said. "What I like is that we're not missing out on a reality check. Once the flag drops, we're still competing against the guys."
Watching women flounder in under-supported roles can make the job look impossible, even when it isn't. And segregating women into their own series only exacerbates the gender inequity. The more we see women succeed in motorsports, the easier it becomes for women to get involved. The same funding opportunities should exist for talented female drivers that exist for talented men.
"I'm really proud of this team," Heinricher said, "the accomplishment of the partnership and the amazing camaraderie — and the inspiration that's spreading way beyond pit lane."