Sonoma Valley High School girls take to Sonoma Raceway to close gender gap in motor sports
On Wednesday, Feb. 1, roughly 15 girls skipped class at Sonoma Valley High School and headed over to Sonoma Raceway.
They were brought there by the Della Penna Motorsports NextGen Foundation, a 501c3 organization that empowers young women and girls with knowledge, expertise, skill and mentorship opportunities to supercharge a future in motor sports.
The foundation worked with the school’s career counselor to invite girls who might have an interest in motor sports, whether it be racing, engineering or the mechanics of the sports.
“The goal is simple: Get girls excited about racing!” said Michelle Della Penna, founder of the foundation. “Give them the opportunity to do something they otherwise never would have by pushing themselves, learning something, maybe sparking some interest about an industry that they aren’t familiar with — and, most of all, to have fun. They’ll get to meet a few female racers and get a chance to do a ride along in a drift car. How amazing is that?”
As the daughter of an IndyCar team owner and legend, Della Penna grew up on the racetrack and witnessed years of male dominance in the sport. When her sons began venturing into go-cart racing, it became apparent to her that the gender gap in the sport hadn’t closed at all. So, in 2021, she decided to start a foundation to invest in getting girls interested in the sport at a young age.
During Wednesday’s four-hour program, the girls received firsthand accounts about what it’s like to be a woman in the motor sports industry.
While they got to skip half of a school day, they got a wealth of firsthand knowledge that they probably weren’t going to find in their textbooks.
Stefy Bau — world motocross champion and entrepreneur in esports, with a startup focused on using SIM to encourage STEM among girls — and Tati Ziemer, kart racer and mechanic at Sonoma Raceway, spoke about their careers and industry opportunities in math, science, technology and engineering. Then the girls got to try karting.
Zandara Kennedy, a stunt driver turned drift racer who raced last weekend at Sonoma, took the girls for a ride-along around the raceway’s Turn 7.
The first time the California-based organization took this program to the racetrack was in April 2022, when they had girls come, kart, learn, race and see what motor sports are all about.
“They were really intimidated, but by the end, they were really hauling butt,” Della Penna said. “It was really gratifying to see them do something that they didn’t think they could, and pull it off.”
The foundation works on multiple levels to get girls involved in motor sports; behind the wheel or not. It’s currently working on offering fellowships for one week in the summer when girls can shadow a woman in the industry and peek behind the curtain of her career.
The foundation also trying to set up a trip to Indianapolis in May that will partner with Indiana University — Purdue University Indianapolis, the only university in the country with a motor sports engineering program. Fifteen high school students will be invited to a three-day event of garage tours, meet and greets with female engineers and karting.
“Motorsports is heavily dominated by men, and white men at that,” Della Penna said. “There just isn’t enough representation on the grid, in the garages and in the boardrooms. We would like to extend exposure to this sport to young girls as a way to pique interest in something they may otherwise never be exposed to.”
The foundation is working on arranging three to four track days per year at Sonoma Raceway. Upcoming events and information about the foundation can be found on its website, nextgenfoundation.org.