Interview with Michelle Della Penna, founder of the Della Penna Foundation
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Michelle Della Penna, founder of Della Penna Foundation
Podium Life caught up with Michelle to talk about legacy, women in motorsports and the mission of her foundation.
Can you tell us a little bit about yourself and how you got into motorsports?
Hi, sure! I grew up in motorsports. My father, John Della Penna, was a race car driver and IndyCar team owner. I spent a lot of my youth at Sonoma Raceway running around my dad’s pit area (rules were a lot more loose those days – haha). I grew up at the shop and traveling with the team all over the country. It was a lot of fun. I am an entrepreneur and mom of three boys. Life is very busy but it’s good.
My dad passed away after a brief battle with cancer at the end of 2019. I’d been struggling with the grief and how to honor my dad’s legacy. The following February I was at the track with my middle son for his go-kart race and realized that out of a grid of 20 kids there were only 2 girls. It got me thinking why there aren’t girls in go-karting. It’s costly, exclusive, inconvenient-it’s not a sport that is easily accessible. So I initially thought of creating a scholarship in honor of my dad to cover the cost of a season of karting for a young girl. As I started to dive into how that would work, I realized there still aren’t a lot of women in racing overall. I started looking at team rosters and series drivers and honestly, I was underwhelmed with the lack of representation. I then pivoted from just a scholarship to an entire foundation dedicated to exposing young women to all facets of motorsports. I called and emailed every contact I could dig up in my dad’s phone and told them what I was doing. Overwhelmingly the responses were “Yes, this is amazing, go for it, tell us how we can help”. It was incredible. Beth Paretta and Lyn St.James were two of the first champions and have been so incredibly helpful. Instead of providing one scholarship for one girl, I thought let’s provide a variety of experiences in motorsports that will bring girls up close and personal with the sport itself and then provide access to career opportunities.
What are your main areas of focus with your organization?
We focus on girls between the ages of 5-17 and expose them to everything from the variety of STEM aspects of motorsports to actual go-kart driving development. Our first pilot event was at Laguna Seca raceway in September of 2021 and we invited a group of girls scouts from Oakland California. We gave them an entire day at the track. We had hospitality, catering, my dad’s old IndyCar, gave them tours of the paddock and garages. They got to meet Cara Adams from Firestone and got to meet race car drivers (no women unfortunately) and learn about this industry that most of them didn’t know existed. This past May, partnered with IUPUI and brought a group of 18 high school students out to Speedway for a 3-day event where they got shop tours, Indianapolis Motor Speedway paddock tours, Q&A with females in the industry, a chance to watch Indy 500 practice and a tour of the IUPUI campus, the only motorsports engineering program in the country. We also just hosted our first fellowship with the George4 foundation/Steinbrenner racing where a young woman from the Indy area was chosen to shadow Julia Steinbrenner, Liz Herta and Marissa Andretti for a week and learn about all things racing! It was incredible. We also just partnered with NXG racing and are providing a scholarship for a young woman to complete their driver development course. We have a lot more rolling out for 2024 so stay tuned!
What are the obstacles and opportunities you see for women in motorsports?
Haha, how long do you have? I mean, first of all, racing is a good ole’ boys club. It’s exclusive, expensive and if you don’t have a wealthy benefactor, you will eventually hit a ceiling; I’m generalizing here obviously. But it’s more common than not. Also, there just isn’t much representation. Obviously, women have been racing and working on cars for centuries but usually they aren’t brought to the forefront. You must do a little digging to really find the female heroes of the sport. Obviously, Lyn St. James really moved the needle and then Danica Patrick, of course. But since Danica? Who has really had a steady ride for numerous seasons? And in the garages, there are still more male mechanics, engineers, and pit crew. It is starting to change, thankfully, but it’s not enough. Everyone at the top says, “oh yeah, more women and more women of color-that’s a great idea”-but who is putting the money into developing the talent pipeline? You really need to foster interest in young girls both for the driving opportunities but also for the STEM opps. If you wait until the end of high school to introduce those ideas, it’s too late.
What is the best advice you’ve ever received?
My dad always said, “do what you love and the money will come”. I always used that as a guiding principle for my life. I have been lucky in my life with the chance to do so many different things. And I feel so fortunate that I have been able to start this foundation from scratch and slowly keep building it one block at a time.
Do you have a favorite book that has helped shape your leadership style?
Do my dad’s verbal life lessons count?? Haha!
What is the future of motorsports?
The people at the top know that motorsports needs to look more representative of the world it’s a part of. So, who is going to continue to step up and spend the money on initiatives like ours to make it happen? Slowly but surely change is inevitable. It’s the only way to keep our beloved sport alive. Become current and relevant or become obsolete and risk extinction. There are so many great organizations and programs out there working diligently to elicit change, now we just need the powers that be to step up and help realize it.
How will you view success for your foundation?
If we can have one young girl’s future changed by one of our programs, that’s a success. Getting girls excited about motorsports who initially wouldn’t have had any idea that this world existed is amazing. Moving forward to 2024 we’re aiming to have at least 2 karting scholarships running with 6 fellowships and karting initiatives alongside. As well as a major corporate sponsor who can help support all these amazing programs.
How can our readers help support your mission?
DONATE! Haha, none of this is free! Spread the word. Follow us and get involved. This only works if we have buy-in from the communities that we serve.