Note: INDYCAR.com is celebrating Women’s History Month with a series of content throughout March.
Two photographs of Team Penske’s successful sports car program are displayed in Lauren Sullivan’s office at the team’s headquarters in North Carolina. What she needs is an image from participation in Paretta Autosport’s Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge program last year.
Sullivan is the daughter of a Super Late Model team owner and is a former Boeing engineer. She has worked for Roger Penske’s NASCAR and NTT INDYCAR SERIES programs since 2015, experiencing success at the highest level of motorsports. But what she experienced last year with Beth Paretta’s female-powered “500” team at Indianapolis Motor Speedway stands as the most impactful moment of her career.
“I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to grasp what I was a part of because the movement continues to grow,” she said. “We’re still seeing the fruits of last May.”
Sullivan has always connected with and been heartened by a women’s movement in sports, but she didn’t feel like an active member of it until Team Penske President Tim Cindric invited her to join the Paretta effort. Sullivan served as a performance engineer on Simona De Silvestro’s car, which earned the 33rd starting position for the 105th Running.
While the No. 16 Chevrolet received a significant amount of mainstream attention, the crew members were surprised by the social media support, particularly centered on the side braid hairstyle many of them were utilizing.
“It caught on online right away, and before we knew it, we were getting tweets and tags about people’s daughters doing it, as well,” she said. “I think we all thought that might happen after three or four years; we never thought it would catch on in the first week.”
Last month, when the NTT INDYCAR SERIES opened its season in St. Petersburg, Florida, Sullivan attended the race’s official fan gathering at a downtown park. There, she made eye contact with an initially shy seventh-grade girl, which led to a lengthy conversation about the sport.
“She was only 13 and certainly nervous at first, but she asked a lot of great questions about performance (of race cars) as well as about the path of my career,” Sullivan said. “I got an email this week from her with more questions. That reminded me of the good that comes out of this sport.
“I’m telling you, it was the highlight of my day.”
Sullivan has used her experiences to become a vocal advocate for the women’s movement in motorsports, and she supports anyone in any position with any team in any sanctioning body in any discipline because she’s been where so many women are in their pursuit.
Sullivan was raised in the Los Angeles suburb of Walnut, in a family of motorsports fans. Her father’s team raced at Irwindale Speedway, and she joined him in the pits from the moment she was old enough to enter them. And yet, as she pursued a degree in aerospace engineering at Saint Louis University and participated in the school’s Formula SAE program, she never imagined a path to connect her profession with her passion.
“You would have thought me, with a racing background, would have seen that, but the career fairs I went to never had anything about racing,” lifelong NASCAR fan Sullivan said. “For aerospace engineering, it was always about Boeing and Lockheed (Martin).”
It took five years working with aircraft at Boeing’s St. Louis facility for her to realize there might be a way to work with cars. Repeated encouragement from the man who would become her husband – Sean Sullivan, an engineer who once worked in the INDYCAR SERIES with Bryan Herta Autosport and Andretti Autosport – to inquire about wind tunnel jobs in Charlotte, where so many NASCAR teams are based. That led to sending out resumes.
Two companies responded, coincidently both owned by Roger Penske. She rose to leading Team Penske’s NASCAR wind tunnel effort.
Surprisingly, Sullivan’s run with Paretta Autosport was her first introduction to the NTT INDYCAR SERIES, and she found the huge amount of data generated in the sport “incredibly fascinating.” After last May, she requested reassignment from stock cars to Indy cars, which was approved.
It seems Sullivan is positioned where she feels most led -- a chance to work in race car engineering and lead other women to the sport she loves. She is a shining example for Women’s History Month.
“It was two huge momentums coming together,” she said of working with Paretta Autosport. “I would have been such a fan of what Beth was doing and supporting that team if I was never a part of it, but to become one of the voices she was projecting is something I can’t describe. It has lit an intentional fire within me.
“It has become my personal mission within my job to bring more women into the sport, whether it’s with Paretta or Penske or wherever, and it’s very humbling to see a passion of mine on display and to remember that I’m part of it. It’s unreal, and I take the leadership of it very seriously.”
As for the photograph that captures Sullivan’s heart, she took it last year at IMS. Several of the women on the Paretta Autosport crew were gathered in the team’s Gasoline Alley garage reading a story in The Indianapolis Star. Sullivan was standing behind them when she shot it.
“They were reading about themselves being in the Indianapolis 500,” she said. “It was perfect.”
Sullivan serves as the engineering and team logistics coordinator for Team Penske’s NTT INDYCAR SERIES program which fields cars for Will Power, Josef Newgarden and Scott McLaughlin. She will be at Texas Motor Speedway for this weekend’s XPEL 375, the second race of the season.