Michelle Della Penna grew up on the racetrack alongside her father, IndyCar team owner John Della Penna. The L.A. mom of three boys, she recently launched The Della Penna Motorsports Next Gen Foundation with the mission to empower young women and girls to get involved in motorsports through mentorship and scholarships. The foundation works to educate girls (ages 5-16) on the necessary skills to participate and thrive in the typically male-dominated sport – as drivers and also as engineers, designers and pit crew members.
We recently chatted with Penna on her unique childhood experiences, motherhood and the goals of her foundation.
Tell us a little about why you decided to start the Next Gen Foundation.
I was raised at the track. From what my parents told me, I would fall asleep in my stroller as the cars raced by. The track was kind of a home away from home, and I absolutely fell in love with motorsports. About two years ago, my father suddenly passed away and following his death, I was looking for a way to honor his legacy. Back in February, I was at the go-kart track with one of my boys and noticed that out of a grid of 20 kids, there were only two girls. And that got me thinking about why there aren’t more female drivers, or more women in motorsports for that reason. I realized that the barrier to entry to go-karting is really high. It’s not a sport you learn at school or at your local YMCA. So where would you learn about it? On top of that, it can also be really expensive and, honestly, even if you wanted to get into it, where would you look to start? So, I launched the foundation with the idea of starting a karting scholarship for young girls interested in racing. From there, it quickly evolved into a full-fledged initiative to introduce young girls to all facets of motorsports and support them throughout their journey — not just as drivers, but also as engineers, team principals, developers and designers. We want to help them dream it so they can do it.
Tell us a little about your childhood growing up in the world of motorsports.
My father moved to the U.S. from Argentina when he was 20 years old. All he wanted to do was race. He started funding his own team, where he raced Formula Atlantics and Formula Fords. He was really good and won quite a few races and championships, but it proved taxing as sponsorship was hard to come by. He eventually pivoted to team ownership where he helped launch the careers of Jimmy Vasser and Richie Hearn, among others. I spent my weekends at the track and summers in INDY, traveling from race to race with him and the team. I’d watch F1 with my dad on Sundays and was easily the coolest kid in my physics class.
Share a fun childhood memory with our readers.
My dad taught me to drive when I was only 11 years old! Now, I have a 12 year old and let me tell you, that prospect of putting him behind the wheel at this age is horrifying! But not for my dad. He pulled into my school parking lot, parked his 325i BMW stick shift, got out and declared, “Michelle, today you’re learning to drive!” After choking the clutch several times, I finally got the hang of it. So, by the time I was 12, I was basically my dad’s personal chauffeur, driving him anywhere he needed to go. He was a great instructor — never nervous. He taught me how to drive strategically and defensively. And when merging onto the freeway, he would always shout, “Punch it, Margaret!” I’ll be honest, I still have no idea what it means, but I still hear it every time I get onto the freeway.
Motorsports has typically been male-dominated; how was it for you as a woman growing up in this world?
Growing up, there weren’t a lot of female drivers. Lyn St. James, who is a friend and mentor, was really the only female racing professionally and competitively during the same time as my father. I thought she was such a bad ass! Milka Duno also competed during some of the seasons, but females were usually involved in PR, assistant or hospitality roles. It wasn’t until Danica that females in motorsports became more prevalent.
As a mom yourself, what do you want to tell young girls who are interested in motorsports?
You can do it! Don’t worry if you don’t see a lot of people who look like you because you are the future of the sport: drivers, engineers, pit crew, designers — you are going to redefine the sport, and we are here to help you.
Do you have a personal motto?
My dad always told me, “If you’re going to do something, do it right. Don’t half-ass it.” It’s something I carry with me always.
Best advice you received from your dad.
“Do what you love and the money will come.” My father was a shining example of that. Making money was never his primary goal. He was a consummate professional, he was passionate, he treated people well and always carried himself with dignity and integrity. That’s why he was successful.
How has parenthood changed you?
Ha! How much time do you have? Yes, of course I have morphed and grown in my experience as a mother. I have let go of a lot of preconceptions I had early in motherhood about who I am supposed to be as a woman and a parent and what being a “good mom” should look like. Obviously, I have struggled with guilt at times as a working mom. But ultimately, I want to model that a woman and mother who is passionate about what she does and uses her platform for good is the best gift she can give to her family. I don’t think that losing myself as a woman would do my children any favors. And so, I try to prioritize my well-being first so that I can be good and whole for them.
Best advice you received as a parent?
My mom always told me, “Don’t wish away any stage. Every age is temporary.” Whatever you might be wishing away at 2 will be replaced with something equally difficult at 5 and so on. I try to always enjoy the stage my kids are at, knowing that it will all change in a matter of moments.
How long have you been living in Los Angeles? And what are some of your favorite things to do as a family in and around L.A.?
I moved to L.A. after college to pursue acting and singing. During that time, I also worked as a teacher and absolutely loved working with kids. I have been here for about 17 years now and have lived all over L.A. My boys are 12, 9 and almost 5. We live on the Westside and love going to the beach, hiking, skate-boarding and biking. We spend most weekends on the soccer pitch or the go-kart track. We also love eating our way through L.A.
For more information on The Next Gen Foundation visit nextgenfoundation.org