Marshall Pruett: “I’ve been very grateful that this remains as my lifetime’s work and passion.”
Hello, everyone! Today’s article is an interview with the fantastic Marshall Pruett – IndyCar expert and Editor-At-Large at RACER magazine. Marshall’s work is also featured in Road & Track. Enjoy!
When I was speaking to Marshall, one of the topics I wanted to learn more about was the history of women in IndyCar.
The following is what Marshall told me about the subject: “Predating Danica and such, Sarah Fisher is someone I have all the respect in the world for. She was preceded by the great Lyn St. James, but the amazing Janet Guthrie was the pioneer in this space. Janet was tough, strong and skilled. You do not compete in IndyCar or the Indy 500 if you lack immense skill. But she, like so many drivers who don’t come from a white/male background, participated for the first time in a major event knowing they would be the proverbial first competitor over the breach to face whatever negativity and stupidity came upon them.
“Janet receives continual respect today. However, we have to acknowledge that upon her debut and in those early years, there was a lot of male ignorance and hostility that refused to accept her as more than an oddity. They diminished Janet as a human being, her agency as a wickedly intelligent and talented athlete. There were the tropes of women belonging in the kitchen – all things we know are horrible stereotypes. I still hear some of these dismissive things today. It’s just a sad reminder that some forty years later, there are some who still view her through that lens of ‘oh, she’s a woman’ or lesser. I shared that because there’s a reason why, if you look at your chronology of women in IndyCar, the gap from Janet’s last race to Lyn’s first is huge.
“We can say the same thing about Willy T. Ribbs, the first Black driver to compete in the Indy 500. It was years until the next, George Mack, and there have been none since.”
We went on to discuss the accomplishments of incredible women that have raced in IndyCar, both present and past. I learned so much about women such as Sarah Fisher, Lyn St James, and Janet Guthrie, but also Simona De Silvestro and Danica Patrick.
We started to near the end of this topic and Marshall made a point I’d like to highlight: “I don’t want to portray [IndyCar] like it’s all evil men who get up in the morning and think of ways to hate and hold back women. But I’d be lying if I said there isn’t prejudice in some cases. It’s not always a team owner – it could be a mechanic, engineer, a sponsor . . . It could be many things, where someone in a position of importance pushes back on the concept of having a woman in the car. It’s easy to default to stuff that you know – ‘Hey, racing drivers…men! We’ll do it forever!’
“It’s getting better now where seemingly most racing series and team owners are starting to question things for the first time. Questioning whether there should always be the same people for the same jobs. ‘Maybe we should give some thought to this and ask ourselves if a white male is the ultimate person to hire for every single position?’ I think the smallest kernels of that started as we began to see Sarah, Danica, and Simona start to present themselves as formidable talents.”
As our conversation progressed, I was intrigued to know what makes IndyCar so special for Marshall.
“The first Indy 500 that I received was through the radio. I was listening with my grandpa, laying on the floor in his little house in San Mateo, California. I don’t remember the year – if it was ’75 or ’76 – but at least then there was no live coverage on television of the race to watch. And so as a little boy, laying on my belly, listening up close to the speaker, listening to the Indy 500, not really knowing much of what was going on, the sounds were captivating and the energy of the broadcasters calling out whatever action was taking place – it was pure theatre of the mind.
“I’m so thankful for that, because without moving pictures in front of me on a television, it just manifested into this spark of curiosity, I had to make up the images in my own mind, and I don’t remember what they were, but it was somewhat like a fantasy-type experience. And from that, a huge interest developed. I got a chance to start working in racing when I was 15 or 16 – a family friend who lived not too far away was competing in junior open-wheel series, kind of lower-middle round of what we would call the Road To Indy series today.
“They allowed me to start out as a ‘gofer,’ as in, ‘Go for this, go for that, go get this, go get that,’ and do the most menial tasks. I don’t know if I’ve ever been happier in my life, being the most insignificant person on a racing team, who was only entrusted with a bottle of spray cleaner and some paper towels to wipe off the car. But it was magical. And so by chance, by good fortune, I was able to grow up in and around racing. My father was an amateur race car driver, and some of my earliest memories involved motor racing – going to the racetrack, seeing it all, being fascinated by the cars.
“I just feel like someone who has been fortunate to find something that ruled my world at a young age and has been able to stay involved in it, even now, as my hair is falling off my head and my beard is turning gray. I’ve been very grateful that this remains as my lifetime’s work and passion.”
Along with his current position as a writer/reporter, Marshall has also been an engineer and team manager in motorsport. I asked Marshall how those career switches have influenced both his understanding of IndyCar:
“If I was better at any of the various roles that I did while working on the team side of things, I’d still be doing that thing. From 1986 through 2001, I worked basically full time in racing across a variety of series, progressing up the order of things, as you mentioned, mechanic, engineer, team manager. I was good at all of those things. Never great. And there’s a big distinction to be made.
“The world is filled with good. There’s lots of good – not a lot of great, and most of the people who have long, singular careers doing one thing in motor racing or in the same realm; they tend to be exceptional, and I would never, ever think to present myself as being exceptional or great. That’s because I wasn’t. And that’s not false modesty, it’s just knowing who I am and what I was. I would find something fascinating, dive headfirst into it, and commit however many years to that and eventually lose interest. After losing interest, I would want to find something else to keep my interest going.
“So that gave me the opportunity to learn a lot of different things because I was fairly adaptable or had a decent aptitude in picking up new things. But it also kept me – this is my own limitation – from ever having the mental capacity, or the fortitude to stick with one thing and see how far I could take it. I just always enjoyed being the person that did a little bit of everything, instead of being holed into one single thing. I would say that general experience of knowing how to do a lot of things without being an expert in any one of them, that adapted fairly well to the concept of being a writer and reporter.”
Massive thank you to Marshall for his time and advice – I’ve learned so much from you already! I hope our paths cross in the near future! For more content like this, head to my Instagram @otpwblog