Before she earned the title of International Motor Sports Association (IMSA) lead race engineer with Chip Ganassi Racing, Danielle Shepherd found herself at a crossroads more than a decade ago.
While attending Wooster College in Ohio, Shepherd was leaning toward Spanish International Relations as her major, a field she enjoyed, but one that left little room for her true interests: math and science. Two degrees later, one each in math and physics, her first lap into motorsports was all but sealed after an internship with a professor who specialized in math research relating to NASCAR. The subsequent motorsports connections she earned from her hard work gave her even more industry exposure.
That was the springboard she needed to land the career she dreamed of growing up in Cleveland, attending a variety of races across the region with her family.
This groundbreaking engineer has since achieved a multitude of milestones and firsts in the sport. Now, the seven-year veteran is one of the faces representing Women in Motorsports Powered by PNC Bank with Chip Ganassi Racing, a push to drive awareness and support for gender equality and economic inclusion for women in the industry. Included in the initiative is the inaugural Women in Motorsports internship program, designed to help aspiring motorsports professionals accumulate valuable industry experience.
Women in Motorsports is part of a larger program at PNC, Project 257SM, an enterprise-wide initiative to accelerate women’s financial equality. The project’s name comes from the World Economic Forum’s 2020 Global Gender Gap Report, which found that at the current pace of progress, it would take another 257 years for women to catch up to men economically. Introducing women to underrepresented industries like motorsports and spotlighting STEM career leaders like Shepherd is one way PNC is helping to close the 257-year economic gender gap.
Sharing her success stories and challenges as a professional in a male-dominated field, Shepherd is committed to helping women in all industries break through obstacles and trust their decisions.
You recently became just the second woman in at least two decades to lead an IMSA sports car team to victory. What are some of the other big accomplishments you’ve achieved over the course of your career?
In 2018, I was one of two women engineers on Scott Dixon’s team, and we were the first to ever win an INDYCAR championship as female engineers. In 2021, as part of the pit stop crew, I was the first woman to go over the wall1 with a team that won a race.
Pit stops are extremely chaotic, at least from what is shown on TV. Is it like that when you’re in the thick of it all?
(Laughs) The pit stop is pretty choreographed. People think, “How in the world do they do that in 10 seconds?” But there’s a lot of practice and timing that goes into it. It’s organized chaos!
You’ve seen and accomplished a lot – all in a male-dominated industry. Did you find that to be intimidating when you first ventured into motorsports?
I honestly didn’t even realize how male-dominated it was until I arrived, looked around and thought, ‘Oh, look, it’s just me.’ In the past few years, it’s gotten a lot better. We’ve seen more female engineers and mechanics in the paddock, quite a few more than even seven years ago when I started. We’re getting more women involved and interested in the sport.
What kind of obstacles have you had to face over the course of your career?
No obstacles from the people who I work with. I’m here because I’m the right person for the job. Everyone on my team sees that, and we’re like family because we’re around each other all the time. There have been times where I felt discriminated against on race day, when you can hear dismissive remarks from some fans. You mostly ignore it, maintain your composure, be professional and keep going.
What does it mean to you to be one of the faces of the Women in Motorsports program and how can your voice help women in motorsports and in the workforce achieve their ultimate goals?
It’s great that my experience can be used to inspire women to pursue whatever career they want to pursue. My advice to women interested in underrepresented industries is to, by all means, go for it. Don’t stop yourself and don’t let something that looks like it’s difficult to venture into - or grow into – to deter you from following your path. The interns who are part of the Women in Motorsports program have already started on that path. They haven’t let anything stop them. My advice to them is to keep pushing, keep learning, keep going.
You said the scene has changed for the better in terms of gender equality in motorsports. What still needs to change to keep that trend going in other fields?
It needs to start with girls at a young age. How do you want them to see themselves? Do you tell your daughter she’s beautiful or smart? Girls shouldn’t be deterred from studying math and science when they’re young, so that when they get to high school or college, and if engineering is something they want to do, they have the belief in themselves to do it, and they’ve been on the path since their earlier years. We need to encourage women to pursue their interests and strengths.