It all started with a phone call. Former race car driver, and current driving coach and mentor, Lyn St. James called up Victoria Thomas, co-owner of KellyMoss Road and Race, to ask her what program would be best for an up-and-coming woman driver. In the last 10 years there has been a noticeable increase in young women yearning to race in the bigger series, but finding it difficult to get there. Thomas, one of the few female team owners in the Porsche Carrera Cup North America paddock — or in racing in general — looked around and asked herself, “where are all the women?”
That phone call, and that question, kicked off an undertaking that would result in the first-ever all-female shootout for a full-season sponsored ride in the Carrera Cup series with KellyMoss.
Thomas began looking into the statistics around women in motorsport from every angle – in the paddock, behind the wheel, sponsorships, drive time. The numbers revealed only three percent of people working in the paddock were women. And only one percent of sponsorship money in motorsports was going to women. “In exploring the why, I came to the conclusion that it’s just absolute awareness,” says Thomas. Simply, the industry sees a few women in cars and in the paddock, and considers it a sign of progress. But when you break down the numbers, that progress is minimal.
Finding statistics on women in the paddock as a whole is difficult. A video provided by ABB underlines that fact, explaining that only 1.5 percent of licensed racing drivers are women. Another article focusing on women working on Formula 1 teams illustrates that, while some teams may have up to 20 percent women on staff, only four or five women regularly work in the F1 paddock. The same can be seen walking through the paddocks and garages of many top-tier racing series. There have been all-female teams, and IndyCar’s Paretta Autosport had driver Simona de Silvestro backed by women engineers running the show. But they are still the exception.
There’s no doubt the path to professional racing professionally is well defined today. Start young in karting and hope it takes you all the way to the European formula series, and eventually, F1. In the world of sports cars, Porsche has its motorsport pyramid that provides drivers young and old a path to a factory-backed seat. Those paths work, but historically they’ve favored male drivers. Women like St. James, De Silvestro and Katherine Legge have had to forge their own difficult paths to make notable headway in motorsports. Eventually, the W Series was launched in 2019 to bring more attention to women drivers and provide a potential stepping stone to the male-dominated elite tiers of racing. While the series has had a multi-time champion, Jamie Chadwick, who just landed a full-time ride in the Indy NXT series for 2023, the W Series ended its 2022 season early due to lack of funding. With the future of the W Series in question, there are few good paths for women competitors to prove themselves, let alone compete with their male peers at the top.
Thomas had a plan to fix that. “Step one was doing a good job and having us [build] a company that is reputable and successful and winning,” she told Jalopnik in November. “Step two was taking this moment and recognizing that there’s this inequity. Step three is combining the fact that there’s not a lot of teams in the world that have a lot of experience with the Porsche 911 GT3 Cup type 992. To be able to take that pedigree and apply it to a woman and really give her a fighting chance – I’m in a situation where I don’t know that anybody else has better leverage than what I have at the moment.”
A team with over 30 years of success, combined with unbeatable experience with the 911 GT3 Cup car. The solution was clear: KellyMoss could find a promising prospect and help her launch a racing career in a series where the team was experienced and well known.
“I’m a female co-owner of this company, and we have the tools necessary to give a female driver a fighting chance,” Thomas told Jalopnik.
Thomas reached out to potential sponsors, highlighting the fact that less than one percent of sponsorship dollars in motorsports goes to women. She explained it like this: Sponsor a man in the paddock, and unless he’s a winner, your sponsorship will probably be overlooked. But put your money behind a female driver in a male-dominated series, and you’re guaranteed to reach more eyes. Backing a woman competitor could also benefit a company looking to grow its involvement in inclusiveness and diversity – untapped potential for both the driver and the companies backing her. Thomas made the pitch simple: “There’s a whole lot going on here that we can work with that just doesn’t exist at other places.”
With unique sponsors interested in helping foster this opportunity, the plan was laid out. Thomas and St. James put together a panel to select the best up-and-coming women racers in the business. Part of the criteria included assessing a driver’s ability to understand and work with the Porsche 911. Other key indicators were how they compared to their competitors in their home series, who they were racing against, and their competition stats as a whole.
They narrowed it down to 12 women drivers, and invited all of them to compete for a chance at a spot with KellyMoss. The hope was that not everyone would respond. However, 12 invitations went out, and 12 women responded yes. Now Thomas and her team were forced into Part II of the selection adventure.
“We did the data grind,” Thomas said. “Then, we actually got the 12 women down to the top six, and I had to have a conversation.” To narrow those six down to the final three competitors, Thomas had to consider what KellyMoss would need from a driver. The team would provide, for free, all of the support they offer to arrive-and-drive racing customers: preparing the car, transporting it to races, and setting up a pit crew. KellyMoss would also pitch in free testing time for the selected driver to get used to the 911 GT3 Cup car. The driver would be responsible for repairs to the car and her own insurance, as well as her talent and hard work.
Sabre Cook, Loni Unser, and Sarah Montgomery were the three finalists brought to Putnam Park in Indianapolis for a three-way driver shoot-out. Cook had just returned to racing after a crash in 2021 at the Red Bull Ring in Austria that resulted in multiple injuries to her hip and spine. She had been out of the car for nearly a year, undergoing surgery, recovery and physical therapy. For many racers, that would feel like a career death sentence. Determined to get back into the car, Cook spent her recovery period building up her strength, and returned to the track not only more practiced (thanks to simulator work), but tougher and stronger. Unser, a fourth-generation member of the legendary racing family, had just completed the Pikes Peak International Hill Climb, and was working as a driving instructor. Montgomery, another professional instructor, had split her time running a BMW M4 GT4 in the WRL series.
Three talented women, up against each other for a full-year ride with a top-tier team in a competitive series. But to watch them in testing, you might have thought they were a team. “My absolute biggest takeaway was, man, those women supported each other,” Thomas said. “The whole time they were walking over to the track yelling, ‘You got this! You’re a beast! You’re crushing it!’”
Of course, this is still racing. Thomas wouldn’t let the competitors see their lap times. “But they’re smarter than that,” she said — every time one driver would go out, the others would pull out their phones to clock a lap time. “They were still fierce competitors. But the fact that you could be a competitor and still be supportive, and don’t have to knock somebody down in order to elevate yourself, was really fun to see.”
The decision came down to the data. Thomas said it was like comparing apples to oranges — Cook, Montgomery and Unser all are at different points in their careers and have experience in different series. “It was challenging, but everybody came back and had their checklist of how they had to rate everybody,” she said. “That made it better, as opposed to just relying on a visceral feeling.”
The data pointed to Cook, who was announced as the winner of the 2023 scholarship. One of the qualities that made her stand out was the fact that she’s also a race team engineer, with the ability to articulate what’s going on with the car and understand how to adjust it.
“I was really excited to see her in a car,” Thomas said. “Even she couldn’t know how she would respond, after being gone for a year and having to go through rehabilitation. What she did differently was focus on becoming an absolute beast, physically…. She used that fuel to really make herself incredibly strong.”
Cook shared every part of her journey from accident to recovery on her Instagram, and it was certainly a tough one. But she fought through it and came out stronger — and landed a seat with a top-tier racing team in the process.
In an email with Jalopnik, Cook said she was incredibly excited about the opportunity. “I’m eager to have the chance to run a funded season with a top team for the first time in my career. KellyMoss has a great group of people and I’m confident they can provide me with the tools to be successful. I cannot thank Victoria [Thomas], Andy [Kilcoyne] and the team enough for believing in me and creating such an amazing opportunity. I look forward to our future success together and breaking down barriers!”
The next goal is taking on the entire 2023 Carrera Cup season with Cook behind the wheel and Thomas at the helm. But Thomas doesn’t want to stop there. She’s looking to set up a second entry as well for the 2023 Sprint Challenge season — all she needs is a few more sponsors. “I want to have girls see this and say, ‘I never knew that this was something I could do.’ I’ll be doing a rally cry to get as many women to support what we’re doing as I possibly can, so that we can do this year after year as opposed to just once.”
And while victory right out of the gate would be a great outcome, Thomas is looking at this with a long-term perspective. “I’m not walking into this saying success is winning the championship. If and when we do a good job with this, it will be year-over-year instead of a one-off.” Even now, KellyMoss has already made history: As Thomas tells it, there has never been a Pro-class team owned by a woman with a Pro-class woman driving.
“I’ve never won a championship,” Thomas said. “It’s on the bucket list. It’s not my expectation for the first year. But mostly I want to tell an honest story and give visibility to what we’re doing.”