Open wheel's other woman
Katherine Legge may be lesser known than IRL's Danica Patrick but the Brit's not lacking on the track.
By BRANT JAMES
Published March 4, 2006
Katherine Legge's fingertips drummed a nervous - or was that persistent? - beat against the armrest of the reception room chair.
How long was he going to be in there?
She could wait. She'd waited this long, after all. Not the hour or so, counting the short drive to Northampton, England. Six years. If her youthful passion was going to become her career, allow her to channel that persistence through her fingertips to the steering wheel of a race car, this was going to be her best and perhaps last shot.
Like a writer stalking a producer outside a Hollywood restaurant, bracing to thrust a manuscript into their unsuspecting hand, Legge had planned her move carefully this December day in 2004. Kevin Kalkhoven, the Australian businessman, multimillionaire new co-owner of the flagging Champ Car series, was in England to negotiate the purchase of the Cosworth engine-building company. Legge and her boyfriend, professional sports car racer Rob Barff, lived a few miles away from the corporate headquarters. Opportunity was all but begging her to try.
"I told her," Barff said, "I've always been one to go see them. Look them in the eye."
At 24, she had proved a talented prospect racing carts and European formula series since she discovered the sport while on family vacation in Spain at age 9.
She'd recently tested a car in the Indy Racing League's development series with promising results. But her family could no longer finance a career that had progressed to a level that would cost as much as $700,000 a year. Too much for her father, a property developer and her mother, Vivienne, a real estate agent.
She had to be persistent. Or maybe it was something else.
"I think she was just desperate," Barff recalls.
The door opened.
Kalkhoven, a forthright man himself, was taken aback when Legge stepped in front of him with her pitch. Immediately impressed with her pluck, however, he directed Legge to his daughter, Kirtsy, who worked for him in Champ Car's developmental series. Legge soon won her over.
"My daughter said, "You have to talk to this girl,' because she said there is something just different about her," Kalkhoven remembered.
Just more than a year later, Kalkhoven has put Legge in a position to make history as Champ Car's first full-time female driver when the season opens April 9 in the Grand Prix of Long Beach. She has yet to stop demonstrating the kind of determination that won over Kalkhoven.
Signed to a six-race personal services contract with Kalkhoven and his PKV team, Legge was farmed out to Jim Griffith's family-run Polestar team in Champ Car's developmental circuit in 2005 and immediately showed she belonged. Legge won her first race in the Atlantics series at Long Beach, becoming the first woman to win a major North American open wheel race. Then she validated herself with two more victories.
"We had someone here who was really potentially very good and nobody at that time, including me, really recognized how good she was, but it was certainly worthy of giving her a race or two to see how she'd do," Kalkhoven said. "To my enormous surprise, she wins her very first race. And everyone of course said that was a fluke, but then she had two more flukes after that."
Though she is a year ahead of the normal driver progression to Champ Car, Kalkhoven said, Legge forced a decision for 2006 by being among the fastest in an offseason test at Sebring. She had also faired well in a Formula One test, the first by a female since 1992. Team co-owner and driver Jimmy Vasser, 40, is also mulling retirement.
"I've been working so hard and trying so hard and really fighting it for the last five or six years and it all kind of happened at once," Legge said. "For most people it happens gradually over the five years. For me it's been 12 months, which is kind of crazy."
Both Kalkhoven and Legge want her to be treated as just another rookie, but both know that will be impossible because of her gender. Great care will be taken, he said, to view her career as a progression. First there will be a charge for "rookie of the year award," he said, then top-5 finishes in 2007. Kalkhoven expects her to compete for wins in 2008.
"In motorsports, winning is the only thing that counts and we've seen lady drivers come and go and very few of them - in fact none of them - turn out to be winners," Kalkhoven said. "The odds are always against them. And my goal is to put her into a position where she can win and win consistently; otherwise she's just another woman who failed. I want her to be the one that made it."
Legge has so far shown the mental and physical toughness to do just that, a feat made harder considering she was trying to develop her skills in the Atlantic series as Danica Patrick became a national media sensation in the IRL last summer.
Legge called comparisons to Patrick, who finished fourth, best ever by a woman, last year in the Indianapolis 500 "slightly annoying, but obviously inevitable."
It would be understandable for Kalkhoven to push Legge to the forefront of his marketing efforts considering Champ Car and open wheel racing in general could use the publicity.
Although Patrick undoubtedly increased awareness of the IRL, both Legge and Kalkhoven are disinterested in trying to copy Patrick's celebrity - "They're not going to wheel me out as some kind of publicity tool," she said. The subject of gentlemen's magazine photo spreads and increasingly racy track and IRL promotions last year, the 23-year-old Patrick has come to symbolize, for some, style over substance although she was the IRL rookie of the year.
"Obviously, (Legge) will attract interest just because she is a lady driver," Kalkhoven said.
"Unlike the promotion that the other side did with Danica, only to see her not succeed by setting false expectations, I'm trying to be very realistic when I say it's a development program. It's a heavy investment of time, of money, to bring up to speed what we think would be a remarkable race driver."
Derek Legge has no doubt his determined daughter will be remarkable at whatever she does.
"Maybe one day she'll settle down and have babies," he grinned as his daughter's race car shrieked past. "But I don't see that for quite a long time. I think she has a few things she wants to try first."