In a sport not exactly known for its diversity, Angela Ashmore is trailblazing her way to victory lane, where she and her team recently took a lap as this year’s Indy 500 champs
Angela Ashmore’s path to becoming an engineer on an Indianapolis 500 championship-winning racing team wasn’t only uncertain, but during the nascent stages of her career, it was essentially nonexistent. In 2015, though, Ashmore was provided an opportunity seemingly out of nowhere to join the team at Roush Fenway Racing (now RFK Racing). From there, she’s enjoyed a rapid ascension through the ranks of the motorsports world, including a transition from NASCAR to IndyCar in 2020, and culminating in a victory-lane trip at the conclusion of the 2022 Indy 500 — the most prestigious single-race prize in the IndyCar Series, and one of the most monumental achievements in all of motorsports.
As a result of her accomplishments, Ashmore has emerged as a trailblazer in a space where women have often only been an ornamental presence. I recently caught up with Ashmore to talk about how bumpy the road has been for her in a sport that’s not always been lauded for establishing an atmosphere of inclusion as well as what drew her to racing in the first place and whether or not it’s truly sunk in that she now has an Indy 500 championship on her resume.
What positions did you hold as you made your climb through motorsports to get to where you are today?
I had my first full-fledged experience in motorsports with the NASCAR team of Roush Fenway Racing, where I came in basically as an assistant to the assistant. I was in a mega support role where I was just doing tire reports and compiling information for the race engineers prior to whatever race they were going to that weekend. So I didn’t really get a lot of input with respect to what was going into the race cars, but I did a lot of studying.
After a year of that, I managed that same group the following year, then I got moved up to a race-engineering position with the Xfinity, which is like NASCAR’s minor league circuit. After a year with the Xfinity team, I got moved up to a race-engineering position on a NASCAR Cup Series team, and into a primary race-engineering role. Then I did another year in Cup and got my opportunity to come back to Indiana — where I went to school at Purdue University — to work for Chip Ganassi Racing in the IndyCar Series. This is now my third season in IndyCar, and I just won the Indy 500, which is pretty freakin’ cool.
Did you have an objective in mind when you first got into racing? Were you just hoping to be involved with motorsports in any way possible, or was there always a concrete goal that you wanted to accomplish?
I think my end goal was really to be a NASCAR crew chief. That’s what I really wanted when I got into this. The other part is that I didn’t just want to participate; I wanted to win races and be successful. I wanted to be dominant, as we all do.
The thing with racing is you need to have that competitive mindset because the second you have your foot in the door, the clock is ticking. There are statistics kept for every race that you’ve ever done. If you get put into a crew-chief position and you’re not ready to be in that position, there are still stats kept for that entire period of time when you were unprepared. That stuff doesn’t go away. You want to move up, but you also want to make sure before you move up that you’re prepared to be successful. Otherwise, those mistakes will always hurt your record.
In a sport where there’s such meticulous recordkeeping, is it easier for women to have their contributions fairly assessed? If you’re a frequent contributor to winning race teams, people can clearly see that, right?
I think so. I think the sport is mostly results-based. I think where the gender part plays a role is in getting your foot in the door to get opportunities to begin with. That’s the major hurdle. Once you get in and you prove that you can do the work, and that you’re good at what you do, it becomes a total non-issue.
How difficult was it to get your foot in the door?
I don’t have a great barometer for how difficult it was for me personally in comparison to other people. Racing is such a specialized field, and I don’t necessarily know what everyone else’s experiences have been like. I can tell you that in general, it’s difficult to find a spot to break into racing unless you know somebody. That was the tricky part for me. I didn’t have some family tie into racing. I didn’t really know anyone in professional racing, and there are 1,000 college students sending their resumes out every year who are saying, “Race cars are cool, and I want to do this as a job.” It’s hard to stand out in that crowd.
Out of college, I wanted to do motorsports first thing, and I couldn’t find an opportunity to do that. I’m glad that I didn’t in retrospect, because my first job at Chrysler turned out to be a great experience for me and served me really well. I also met my husband Craig there, I got a master’s degree from Purdue while I was there and I also got to work on some pretty awesome cars. I don’t regret that at all. It just wasn’t a path that I expected I was going to take.
It just happened that four-and-a-half years after I started at Chrysler, a friend of Craig’s — Brace Bade — had gotten into Roush Fenway and knew of another spot that was opening up, and he knew that I was interested in it. So really, I just got lucky. It’s funny how things fall into place. Obviously you have to be qualified and good at what you do, but it’s often hard to simply get the opportunity.
Have you ever at any point both in racing or with respect to fan interaction felt like you were being discriminated against or ridiculed?
Of course that answer is going to be, yes. I very specifically remember I was in college working with a late-model team at a short-track event. I was carrying a tire back to the trailer, and some middle-aged guy said, “Awww, honey, they shouldn’t be making you carry tires. You’re too pretty to do that.” I was thinking, “Dude… you don’t even know.” It was so condescending that I couldn’t believe it.
There was even something that came up this past week at the Indy 500. The main Firestone engineer Cara Krstolic — who’s awesome, one of the nicest people you’ll ever meet and who’s a mentor to all of the women in the sport — will gather together all of the female mechanics and engineers involved in the Indy 500 to take a photo by the pylon at the starting grid. This year, Cara took the photo and posted it on Facebook saying how proud she was of all the ladies, and she hoped that at least one of us would find our way to victory lane. It was very nice.
Obviously, my team won, and the second- and third-place finishers also had women on their teams. That’s when Cara posted a follow-up tweet to say how happy she was for her friends, and how it wasn’t a coincidence that the top teams all had women on them. Well, she got lit up on Twitter for that comment, with all of these terrible people calling her awful names and spouting off disgusting things to her. Someone even told her that she’s what’s wrong with America.
It was weird to think that some people out there were so bothered by Cara being proud of her female friends. You try to convince yourself that things aren’t that way anymore, and that people are reasonable and respectful, but that’s not necessarily the case.
Do you consider sexism like that to be a major problem in motorsports?
A major problem? Not really. In general, I see most people as decent people who don’t have any problem with women being involved in the sport. As with most things in life, there’s always the exception to the rule, and there’s that 1 percent of people who are intent on making life miserable for everyone else.
Has anyone ever seen you wearing your uniform at a racing event and assumed that you were just some female fan who happened to get her hands on a race team’s uniform?
Not exactly, but I’ve had people on the NASCAR side of things who naturally assumed I was involved in public relations, or that I was one of the girls who does media for the drivers and who tells them where to go and where they need to be for interviews and photos and those types of things. Or people would find out that my husband Craig and I both work in racing, and they’d assume that Craig was the one who was a racing engineer — which he is — but that I was simply tagging along in a support role and there for the fun.
Once they find out that I’m actually an engineer, the typical response is, “Oh, wow! Really?! There aren’t many female engineers, are there?” And of course the answer is, “No, there aren’t.” It’s normally a polite shock. People don’t mean to be offensive about that, and I also don’t want to make it sound like I’d be offended to be a media person in motorsports, or that there’s anything wrong with that. It’s just that when you’re a woman in motorsports, people are far less likely to assume that you’re there in a technical role.
What is the actual number of female engineers and mechanics involved in IndyCar racing?
If I had to guess altogether, I’d say there are 15 to 20 total female engineers and mechanics involved in IndyCar out of 250 such roles, so it’s still well under 10 percent. In NASCAR, it was much easier to count, because there were 40 teams and only two engineers per team, and out of the 80 engineers only two of us were women.
I’m assuming winning the Indy 500 would be the crowning achievement of most people’s motorsports careers. Is that a fair statement?
Oh yeah. Easily. If there’s one race you want to win in your entire career, that’s the one you want to win. As far as the best days of my life are concerned, that one ranks number two, right behind my wedding.
On race day, I’m presuming you go in thinking you have as good a chance to win as anyone. When did it become clear that your team might actually pull it off?
Going into the race I felt like we had a better chance than most knowing our speed from the last two weeks at Indy. You practice so much there, and you kind of know the speed you have in qualifying compared to the rest of the teams. Being fast is one thing, but there’s also a luck component. Last year, we got caught out by a yellow caution flag at the absolute wrong time, and there’s not really anything we could have done about it.
This year I thought we were going to finish seventh or eighth just given the way we were running and where we were in the pack. I would have been okay with that. Then a few of the other cars had issues, and coming into the last pit stop, I was like, “Oh my God, we’re gonna cycle to the lead here. Holy cow!”
Even then, I still didn’t believe we were actually going to win it. I just thought we were going to have a chance to win. I still didn’t believe it was going to happen when we were in the lead with only two laps to go. My thought was, “What’s going to happen that’s going to screw us here?” Because it’s such a big race that I couldn’t fathom winning it, there was just no way. It wasn’t until halfway around the track after the checker flew that I turned to the engineer next to me and asked, “Did we just win?! I think we just won the Indy 500!”