With the arrival of female-forward race teams, series, and scholarships, there’s never been a better time to be a woman in motorsport. One thing is still missing, though: A wholesale dedication to introducing young girls to the world of racing. By focusing on girls between the ages of five and 17, the Della Penna Motorsports Next Gen Foundation aims to start investing in a more diverse racing future.
Founded in 2021 by Michelle Della Penna, daughter of late IndyCar team owner John Della Penna, the Next Gen Foundation aims to introduce girls to the racing world in various ways, be it through karting events or hands-on garage tours during IndyCar or NASCAR race weekends. But after a fundraising event at the Dallara factory on May 18, the foundation now aims to provide young girls with karting scholarships and other week-long fellowships to introduce them to career opportunities in the racing world by shadowing prominent women in the field.
For Michelle Della Penna, racing has long been a family affair — but even as a child, she understood the fact that she was one of the few feminine presences in a male-dominated paddock.
“My dad had women on the team in a variety of capacities, but when you looked out on the grid, there were very few women,” she said. “It was Lyn St. James and Milka Duno.” Even as a child, when it came to the lack of women competitors, “I was very aware,” Della Penna said.
Della Penna was strikingly honest when I asked how she feels racing has improved in terms of diversity since she was growing up. “People may not like my answer,” she said. “I don’t think there’s been much of a change. I think there’s an awareness, but I still don’t think there’s anywhere near the diversity of women, and particularly women of color, that we need to have in this sport.”
“What perspective do you think women bring to the racing world that we’re currently lacking?” I asked.
“That women are just as capable as men in this sport,” Della Penna said. “You’re really looking at a sport where there aren’t many differences in terms of gender and abilities. But women are also very collaborative, smart, and capable, and when you have a more diverse landscape, you have a better sport in general. That’s my hope with our entire foundation.”
Becoming a parent gave Della Penna yet more examples of the lack of diversity in racing. The mother of three boys, all of them interested in karting, Della Penna once again saw grids of predominately male drivers.
Initially, she thought she would put together a scholarship to fund one girl’s entire karting career. She soon realized the roots of this problem run much deeper: Many girls are never shown a glimpse of the racing world; fewer still are taught that it’s a career option available to them, whether they want to be a driver, engineer, public relations expert, or something else.
“The only way that motorsport is really going to survive is if we’re drawing on the outliers, people who don’t have family in the business,” Della Penna said. “It’s so exciting when you see a kid out there on the track in a kart and all the things start to click into place for them. Giving girls that lightbulb moment is what this foundation is all about.”
Della Penna is not alone in her aspirations. The Next Gen Foundation has two advisory boards. One, which keeps tabs on the automotive and motorsports industries, is helmed by Lyn St. James and Beth Paretta. The other is composed of drivers, including recent W Series competitor Sabré Cook.
In the last few months, the Next Gen Foundation has introduced girls to karting and hosted them as special guests at IndyCar events, where they got to meet women like tire engineer and IndyCar chief engineer Cara Adams. Next, the foundation is set to host a similar event during the NASCAR weekend at Sonoma Raceway, where girls will meet Truck Series driver Hailie Deegan and other prominent women.
As we closed the interview, I asked one of my favorite questions: “Twenty years from now, when you’re looking back, what do you hope the Della Penna Next Gen Foundation will have accomplished?”
“I see an even field. That’s it,” she said. “If I had any part of that, then that would be a success. I just want to to be the liaison between people who have some talent and passion and the people who can make things happen. If we’re able to do that, then I would say the foundation’s a success.”