Girl racer reaches for the stars and stripes after gatecrashing starting grid

Britain's leading woman driver Katherine Legge tells David Tremayne about her remarkable success in America
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The Independent Online

Last November, Legge, then aged 24, gatecrashed a test session at Texas Motor Speedway which was being held by Kathryn Nunn. As the wife of celebrated the US single-seater team owner and car set-up guru Mo Nunn, whose Ensign team once raced in Formula One, Nunn was racing royalty. Legge had no invitation, just her helmet and overalls, but Nunn was highly impressed that she had the drive and nous to pay her own way out to the States just for the chance of running in a six-woman shoot-out for a possible drive in the Menards Infiniti Pro series. Legge had never seen the Dallara race car or the 1.5-mile banked oval speedway before, but the moment she got her turn in the cockpit she did the business.

"Actually," she admits, "I was a bit miffed I hadn't been chosen in the first place because I reckoned I had some of the best credentials. So I just turned up, said, 'Please give me an opportunity and if I'm not faster than the others in 10 laps, I'll go home to the UK'." She was very quick, and word began to spread.

The second thing she did that month was to ambush businessman Kevin Kalkhoven. In racing circles he is a very big wheel, the co-owner of the Champ Car series, the Cosworth engine company that will next year supply Williams in Formula One, and the PKV Racing Champ Car team that is run by former champion Jimmy Vasser. Never backwards in coming forwards, Legge asked Kalkhoven for assistance in breaking into north American racing. He was impressed by her determination and a tentative agreement was reached whereby he would initially support her for the first half of the season.

"That was pretty scary!" she remembers of their first meeting. "He was over in the UK buying Cosworth in Northampton, so I just went up there and waited in reception until he saw me. I have approached lots of people in the last six or seven years, and I figured that one day that tactic had to come off. Kevin is very switched on. He's made lots of smart decisions but with me he was taking a risk - he didn't know me or how good I might be."

She tested one of Kalkhoven's Polestar Racing Toyota Formula Atlantic cars. These are one step down from Champ Cars and, being a road racer, she figured they would serve her better than the Infinitis, which run only on ovals. She drove at Firebird Raceway in Phoenix and again at the Spring Mountain Advanced Driving Schools' two-mile track in Pahrump, Nevada. The latter is similar in character to Long Beach, where the first race would be held in April this year as a support to the annual Champ Car Toyota Grand Prix.

Legge showed her class with fourth fastest time in first practice and was initially third in qualifying until an uncharacteristic visit to a wall left her in seventh place after a slower driver waved her by, then turned into her. Her race was rather better. She became the first woman to win an open-wheel race in North America by triumphing in the Imperial Capital Bank Challenge. She worked up from seventh on the 19-car grid to snatch the lead from Rocky Moran Jnr, who promptly repassed her in traffic. But when Moran retired with wheel-bearing failure two laps from home she calmly held off her team-mate Antoine Bessette as he pushed her all the way round the 1.97-mile street circuit. They finished just 0.056sec apart.

"It's been a lifelong ambition of mine to be here," Legge said in Victory Circle. "I have worked really hard to find anywhere to race. I'm so happy for my team ... they did an unbelievable job."

Ironically, the last woman to win a major international open-wheel race was the talented South African Desire Wilson, who took a round of the British Aurora Formula One domestic series at Brands Hatch in March 1980, four months before Legge was born on 12 July.

Inevitably, there have been comparisons between Legge and other stand-out women racers, and right now nobody is garnering more press mileage in north America than Danica Patrick, who became the first woman ever to lead the Indianapolis 500 before finishing a strong fourth. At Indianapolis during the ill-starred Grand Prix in July she could not move for photographers and journalists, as 2005 race winner Dan Wheldon and Indy legend and four-time winner Rick Mears went almost unnoticed. Legge is smart enough to know that Patrick's rise can only help her, but you sense that the endless comparisons have become tedious.

"Yes and no," she says cautiously, when asked if Patrick's profile is good for her. "We are completely different people, and she markets herself in a different way. She has got a lot of publicity from Indianapolis and that's good for motor sport in general, but I'm winning races."

Legge began her racing career the traditional way, establishing a strong reputation in karting before moving up to the British Formula Ford Zetec Championship in 2000. There she became the first woman to take a pole position, and scored a best finish of third. In 2002 she did three races in the British Formula Renault championship, taking pole position second time out at Oulton Park. Fortec Motorsport owner Richard Dutton says of her: "She didn't always concentrate too well back then."

At that Oulton race she took off as the starting lights went red, but was allowed to start from pole after reversing into position as she realised her mistake. Subsequently she was running third when the leaders Danny Watts and Ryan Sharp got into an incident which also caught her out.

"Certainly she had the speed," Dutton continues. "She took that pole against drivers of the calibre of Danny and Ryan, and also Jamie Green and Lewis Hamilton, who have gone on to great things. She's a quick girl, and I'm very pleased she's winning in Atlantic. I'm not at all surprised."

One of Legge's distractions then was finance; that season she was replaced at Fortec by American Pat Long after money put up by her enthusiastic parents ran out. The story that faced her father Derek, who played football for Woking, and mother Vivienne is all too familiar to many racing parents the world over. Their finances only stretched so far in a cruelly expensive sport. "This year is the first full season I have ever done," Legge reveals, and it is her moxie and her evident talent behind the wheel rather than a silver spoon upbringing that have helped her to make such dramatic progress this year.

In November she will test one of PKV's Champ Cars, at a venue as yet undecided. It is a major chance for the 25-year-old, who maintains a base near Silverstone. Long-term her sights are firmly set on a Champ Car ride, though she is likely to hone her skills with a second Atlantic season first. If the rival Indy Racing league has Patrick, you can be sure that it won't be long before somebody in Champ Car sees the value of matching Legge directly against her. With Kalkhoven effectively managing her career, you do not need to be a genius to figure out how it could all come about.

"When I was growing up Formula Onewas always my goal," she says, admitting that she would never say no to a chance there if it should ever arise. But the 200mph-plus Champ Cars are her realistic goal, and whenever she gets there she has no intention of playing softball.

"The atmosphere there is phenomenal. It's so much fun and that's where my future lies. I don't want to make the jump and lose my reputation, so I may stay in Atlantic for another season. But when I do go to Champ Car I want to make a splash and start winning races straight away."

Whenever the move comes, it will have its roots in those bold decisions to doorstep Kalkhoven and to strike out for America, to follow her instincts rather than sit about bemoaning her fortune. You can take it as read that successful drivers must possess innate speed; after that the first rules of racing are that you have to make your own luck and you have to win races to convince people. So far, Katherine Legge is doing very nicely on all counts.