INDIANAPOLIS – Three years ago, Pippa Mann was poised to make big moves on the track.
The English driver earned the pole for the Indy Lights race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway in 2010, the first woman to start first in a race at the historic track. The next year, she finished 20th in the Indianapolis 500, and her future looked bright.
That season ended with her badly burning her right pinkie finger in the crash that took Dan Wheldon's life. For the first time since that accident, she's back in an IndyCar, preparing for the Indianapolis 500 as a driver for Dale Coyne Racing and one of three women in the race along with Ana Beatriz and Simona De Silvestro.
"It feels fantastic," the 29-year-old driver said. "I'm so thrilled to be behind the wheel of an IndyCar. It's an amazing experience to be back. So far, everything's been going fairly smoothly, and the nice thing about it is I feel like I've jumped right back in where I left off in 2011."
The injured finger was a problem at first. It still has a large scar, and she wears a compression sleeve to limit swelling.
"We borrowed nerves, we harvested a tendon, borrowed skin and blood vessels, and they put it back together again, and it works just fine on the wheel of a racing car," she said.
She didn't race again for a year, when she competed for one weekend at Sonoma last September with Auto GP.
"I showed up, I met my Spanish-speaking team — - I speak some Italian, so we muddled along just fine," she said. "We made a seat. My engineer spoke English, two 30-minute test sessions, then I went to race."
Now, she's back at Indy. Most of the drivers started preparing Saturday and Sunday, but Mann's process started Monday. She doesn't mind — she actually had less time to prepare in 2011, when she started 31st at the Indianapolis 500 and moved up 11 spots by the finish.
She also has to get used to the fact that IndyCar now uses the DW 12 chassis, named for Wheldon.
"Before I got into the car, I felt like a complete rookie again, learning everything from scratch," she said. "I don't have an 'R' next to my name because I have competed here once, but in many, many aspects, I am very much still a rookie out there."
Because of the layoff, she said she'll need to get used to going in and out of pit stalls again and familiarize herself with the hand clutch. She said is catching on quickly, and now that she's back, she wouldn't mind making more history.
"A lot of people ask me what did it feel like to be the first female pole sitter out there, and the honest answer is I'm not really sure, but I know it meant a lot to be a pole sitter out here at IMS," she said. "If I could get the chance to keep coming back here on a regular basis, that's a feat that, one day in an IndyCar, I would love to try and repeat that one day."