The Untold Track: Katie Hargitt

Photo by Tad 'Hadley' Fruits

Katie Hargitt has been going places fast her whole life. Sure, it’s still a fairly young life. We didn’t discuss age, but by my math, she’s well under 30. But she’s already accomplished a lot, and the future is bright for this race car driver turned race reporter.

She grew up here in Indy at 56th and Georgetown, went to Pike High School, and graduated from Ball State University. A self described “Indy girl through and through,” she’s one that immediately commands the attention of a room with a kind of calm, fearless smile that makes everyone comfortable.

While she’s now working as a pit reporter for NBC Sports Network and has been a member of the public address team at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway for 3 years, her next adventure is the non-profit effort Fuel the Female, whose mission is to to introduce young women to motorsports with a hands-on experience.

Richard McCoy: What was your first recollection of the Indianapolis 500?

Katie Hargitt: Racing is in my blood. So the 500 has been a part of my life for as long as I can remember. I can specifically remember hearing the cars from my home. So there is not a racing memory I don’t have that doesn’t involve the 500.

RM: You started racing when you were 9 years old. What was the ultimate goal with that?

KH: I’ve always dreamed of being a race car driver. Eventually, I was involved in Lyn St. James Driver Development Program. Lyn was the first woman to win the Indy 500 Rookie of the Year Award. When I was in that program, I thought “I’m gonna be the Danica Patrick” and I’m gonna be really successful in IndyCar because open wheel is what I was passionate about. And then I hit college and kinda started realizing that this probably wasn’t going to work out the way I planned. So I needed a backup plan, and my backup plan was journalism. I loved to talk and I loved racing, so why not combine the two?

RM: What was it like in the Lyn St. Jame School?

KH: I was involved in the very first one, back in 2001, and Danica was actually there, Sarah Fisher was there, also Melanie Troxel, a drag racer, Erin Crocker, who is now Erin Evernham, so a lot of really successful women racers were in the school at that time. It was all women.

RM: That had to be very competitive!

KH: Yeah, we were all going for the same seat at the next level, because there aren’t very many available. But, I found with the Driver’s Development Program and Lyn St. James Women in the Winner’s Circle, there was a great sense of community because it’s something that no one else can relate to unless you’re also going through it. I discovered a great sense of community with those women that knew exactly what I was experiencing on and off the track.

RM: Are you still connected with that community?

KH: I talk to Lyn often. She’s connected with Fuel the Female. We’re hoping to develop some programs in Phoenix, where she’s based now. So, she’ll be involved in that way.

photos by Tad ‘Hadley’ Fruits

RM: Why is it important to have females in racing?

KH: I think we bring something that men can’t. We have a side of the brain that’s very emotional, whereas men tend to think just very straight forward. So, I think we have assets that men don’t that can level out a race team in a way that we’ve never seen before.

RM: It’s interesting just walking in the paddock and it’s a dude culture, it’s just so male.

KH: It’s so funny, one of my friends who works in PR for Ed Carpenter Racing just tweeted the other day, “I am so sorry to the men I just walked in on.” Apparently, they’ve changed both bathrooms to “Men” over by the garage in Gasoline Alley. It’s things like that, that people don’t understand that we have to deal with.

I was talking to Jessica Mace, one of my Fuel the Female women who is a mechanic at Andretti Autosport, and she said “it was just recently that I was even offered a woman’s shirt to wear.”

Everyone on the team has to wear a uniform. The pants she was offered are also men’s pants. Well, they’re not gonna fit her. So, she needed pants with lots of pockets. Do you know how hard it is to find women’s pants with lots of pockets?

RM: Well, not really.

KH: Even mine. These are golf pants. So, I just needed Dri-Fit pants that have pockets. Took me years to find them.

RM: In five years, what looks different here at the Speedway?

KH: I think we have several lead engineers that are female, as opposed to just one. I think we have several women mechanics. I don’t think it’s too bold to say that we also have women going over the wall to work on the pit crew. It’s not unprecedented, it’s been done before, but I think we will have women that are very successful at it. Even in race control we’ve got women. In timing and scoring we have women. I think right now we have 11 women on the competition side. I think that number at least doubles in five years.

RM: Why do you think there are so few women in racing?

KH: I think there are multiple reasons. First, it’s a male culture, it’s a locker room culture. So very similar to a locker room in NFL, are the garages here at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, and it can be intimidating. Again, I’ll reference Jessica Mace, who is a mechanic for Andretti Autosport: she was told multiple times “you can’t do this, you shouldn’t be here.” I’ve gotten that many times. When I first worked in USAC and I was a reporter at USAC, and I have no better way to say this, but someone walked up to me and said “there’s no tits in the pits.”

RM: Really?

KH: That was six years ago.

RM: What did you do when that guy said that?

KH: You know, I had to take a deep breath and just count to three before I responded, because even now it makes my blood boil. At that moment, I was 21 and had been in racing for 11 years already.

RM: And probably had a more legitimate reason to be there than that guy.

KH: Yeah, I was a reporter. And I said, “you know sir, thank you but I’m here as a reporter and you may not know, I was also once a driver. So thank you, but I’m gonna go to work and I’ll see you later.”

RM: That’s a polite response. I’m sure you ran through other things to say.

KH: In those three seconds, many four letter words ran through my mind.

RM: What are you looking forward to on race day at the 500?

KH: I just got goosebumps thinking about it. I love race day. Every year I’ve worked here, I have been sure to be here before the cannon goes off.

The Speedway is dark, it’s dead silent, and all of a sudden this boom, and activity picks up immediately. And there’s nothing you can really put your finger on, but it’s the pulse of the Speedway. It literally feels like a heartbeat where everybody is so excited and passionate about the sport, and even if you’re not a full-time race fan, you love the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

I can think of a time specifically, I was doing interviews up on Victory Podium for the 100th running, and I looked out, and every seat was filled, and I could you see the faces of the race fans, and my voice was booming out over 300,000 fans. It was incredible.

RM: Anything else that you like before the race starts?

KH: Often times I am at the front of the starting grid with all the cars just before the call “Ladies and gentlemen, start your engines,” and when I look down the grid, it’s packed and I see along each line of the starting grid a part of the American flag …. And then when the fly over happens – Back Home Again in Indiana – I stand there and just soak in the moment.

RM: It wasn’t until 1971 that the Speedway allowed a female reporter to go where you stand at that start of the race; that woman was the legendary Bettie Cadou. And here we are almost 50 years later and there are a few more women in the sport but not a lot. Looking at it from a journalism perspective, where do you see things going in 20 years?

KH: Not only through Fuel the Female, which I hope will evolve journalists, but also programs like Galvanize that Laura Okmin from Fox Sports started, we will make a difference. Laura brings in college women and they go to bootcamp to earn a position in reporting.

Most of all, I hope we are done with the comments like “you slept your way to the top,” because in reality I’ve worked my butt off to get where I am.

RM: Wait, that happens today?

KH: Yeah. I get that all the time and then have to explain myself. That is the number one thing people will say to me. That’s still a thing right now. That’s totally a thing.

My first year at NBCSN I was 24 years old, and that’s not common.

RM: An objective perspective would see that you’ve had an impressive career in a short time. You ought to feel great.

KH: Right out of college I worked in Terre Haute for about 10 months, then moved to Grand Rapids. I was going to be a sports reporter there and had just signed a three year deal. My second day, NBC calls and says, “we’ve got a gig for you.” I walk into the manager’s office and say “I gotta go.” She’s like, “Not so fast. You just signed a three year deal.”

I was living in a hotel at the time, hadn’t signed on an apartment. So I went back to the hotel. She called me a few hours later and said, “You know what, I can’t be a dream crusher. Can you just stay with us through the holidays?” It was October, I stayed there until January, then moved back home with my parents, and started at NBC.

RM: Have you developed a particular angle that you present?

KH: What I’ve learned working on pit row is, for example, Marty Snyder is really good at the inner workings of a car and he can translate that to the fans really well. What I’m good at, is making the drivers real people, because fans just see the car and a little helmet. They don’t see that Scott Dixon has two beautiful girls and an amazing wife, and as soon as he got out of the car after qualifying he went straight to their dance recitals. They don’t see that Carpenter was also qualifying this week, while his wife was at hockey tryouts with his son. So, they’re people. They’re just like us. They put on their pants the same way we do, and I think that’s my asset because I can bring out that emotional side to them that, again, guys aren’t usually good at.

RM: Is there a tradition that you’re looking forward to this weekend?

KH: For a long time, my parents have had seats up in Turn 3 with twenty of their closest friends and they bring a bus to the track, and then they bus home so everyone’s safe, and they have a big cookout. So, that was my chance to regroup with my family and friends. I mean, it’s Memorial Day Weekend.

RM: Do you get to rest after the race?

KH: Not really. We go right to Detroit. And on Monday, it’s right back to studying; I’ll watch Detroit from last year. Tuesday, I’ll do my notes. Wednesday, I will probably re-watch the 500, you know, it’s nonstop.

May is really tough, we’re working all the time. We call it the “May hangover.” Ironically enough, James Hinchcliffe told me yesterday I was “May drunk” because I was doing an interview and we were joking around and I forgot to give him the mic back during a question … I don’t know what happened. And he’s like, “Don’t worry, you’re May drunk, we all are.” And I went, “Yeah, exactly.”

RM: What’s it going to take to take Fuel the Female to the next level?

KH: Fuel the Female is empowering young women to achieve their dreams through motorsports. If they decide motorsports isn’t their thing, that’s fine. Maybe being a NASA engineer is their thing. That’s fine too. I just want young women to know that they can achieve anything that they can dream. Because for so long, there’s never been a ceiling for men, and there is for women. So, break through it and just do it!

Like Jessica Mace said, “Get in there and get your hands dirty” and that can be literally and figuratively. If you wanna get your hands dirty in math equations, just start practicing.

What we need right now for Fuel the Female is corporate partners. We need support to give young girls scholarships to study motorsports, develop mentorship programs, and different networking opportunities.

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