Pippa Mann cries after qualifying for Indy 500

INDIANAPOLIS – Through a week of practice, Pippa Mann kept a low profile around Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

The popular driver remained visible as usual signing autographs, making appearances and representing the Driven2SaveLives campaign to promote organ donation. But around the NTT IndyCar Series race car, there was a focus and determination that spoke toward her mission this month.

Mann posted practice speeds that, while not generating fanfare, left the No. 39 Clauson-Marshall Driven2SaveLives Racing Chevrolet team confident going into Saturday’s qualifying for the 103rd Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge.

“It’s been a quietly good week,” Mann said, “which, honestly, is what we turned up here to do.”

That’s what made Saturday so satisfying when she qualified for the May 26 race with a speed of 227.244 mph, giving her the 30th and last guaranteed starting spot on the first day of Crown Royal Armed Forces Qualifying Weekend. It eased not only the anxiety of needing to come back Sunday for the treacherous Last Row Shootout for those who didn’t make the top 30, but also the cruel sting of missing the race a year ago.

She was bumped from the field in 2018, a crushing blow to any driver but especially to Mann, who pours her energy and finances for an entire year into the quest to secure support to make the race. There wasn’t a sadder place that day than pit lane as qualifying ended, with Mann being consoled amid tears of devastation.

Pippa Mann huggedThis time, everyone smiled. And tears spilled again, from the joy.

Mann qualified early in the day, then waited nervously – in her car, with helmet on – the final hour as others took their shot at the top 30. Many didn’t make it, but those who did pushed Mann down to the 30th-place bubble before time expired.

It was a nerve-racking time, but afterward she could exhale. She was back in the Indy 500.

“What was I thinking? This cannot be happening again,” she said. “Our car has been good enough all week long, but … the weather changes, the track got so much faster. By the time we realized it, we were too far back in (the qualifying) line and we wouldn’t have got to run. There was a lot of anxiety, a lot of helplessness. I’m incredibly grateful this worked out the way it did. I’ll sleep without waking up in a cold sweat in the middle of the night, and tomorrow I’ll be able to breathe.”

Making the top 30 not only eliminated the stress of taking part in the Last Row Shootout, it became a significant moment for Mann and the entire team. This is a special group drawn together amid adversity and tragedy.

Tim Clauson, co-owner of the Clauson-Marshall Racing open-wheel team along with Richard Marshall, is father of the late Bryan Clauson, a star racer who died after a midget crash in 2016. He drove three times in the Indy 500 and Mann had been his teammate.

After Mann missed the race last year, Tim Clauson saw how well she handled such a crushing moment. Despite the disappointment, she returned to the speedway and entertained sponsors on race day, spent time with fans and showed she wouldn’t let it stop her dream of racing at Indy.

“After she missed the show, she continued to advocate for organ donation and Driven2SaveLives the whole following week, up to race day,” Clauson said, whose son was a registered organ donor. “I know as a racer how hard that is to do. I told Pippa I had no idea we’d be doing this, but if there was any way that I could have a part in helping her get back for an opportunity to take one more shot at it, I’d do everything in my power.”

In February, the Clauson-Marshall team announced it was partnering with Ross Motorsports and the Driven2SaveLives campaign of the Indiana Donor Network to enter a car in this year’s 500.

With Mann as its driver.

In car 39, the number Bryan Clauson ran throughout his amazing midget and sprint car racing career.

“To see it come to fruition today is absolutely incredible,” Tim Clauson said. “Our race was to get into the race. We’re a short-track, midget/sprint car team. We have Pippa to thank for what she’s done to put this whole program together for us.”

Hours before the late-day drama Saturday, Mann and her crew posed for the customary photo at the yard of bricks after her qualifying run, which, at the time, seemed to safely get her into the race. Mann smiled proudly for the photo with the team, but after it was over she waved at a group of people standing near the pit wall to join her at the race car.

There was another photo she badly wanted the photographers to shoot.

Those people were members of the Clauson and Marshall families, not only there to celebrate the moment but also to honor Bryan – his parents Tim and Diana Clauson, sister Taylor McLean, brother-in-law Zach McLean, nephew Carter Bryan McLean and grandmother Jackie Clauson, plus team co-owner Richard Marshall and wife Jennifer.

“This is their race car,” Mann said. “This is a Clauson-Marshall Racing entry at the Indianapolis 500, carrying the Driven2SaveLives logo honoring Bryan – my teammate, my friend, Tim’s son, Taylor’s brother, Di’s son. He’s no longer here with us.

“That was a huge moment for us, and it was very important to make sure that the Clauson family and the Marshalls got to take that picture with us on the yard of bricks.”

By successfully qualifying, Mann guaranteed that a woman will drive in “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing” for the 20th consecutive year. That means every Indianapolis 500 of the 21st century has had at least one female competing. This year’s Indy 500 airs live on NBC and the Advance Auto Parts INDYCAR Radio Network beginning at 11 a.m. ET Sunday, May 26.