Female engineer earns 1st victory as lead of Ganassi team

Exhausted after closing out the win in the Twelve Hours of Sebring, Earl Bamber gave the shoutout heard ’round racing when engineer Danielle Shepherd was one of the first he acknowledged.

Shepherd last weekend became just the second woman in at least two decades to lead an IMSA sports car team to victory. Leena Gade, also an engineer, led an Audi win in 2013.

Shepherd earned her victory at the prestigious endurance race at Sebring in just her second time leading her new team. The 28-year-old was promoted during the offseason from Alex Palou’s IndyCar championship-winning team to her dream job of lead engineer.

She is now in charge of the startup No. 02 Cadillac for Chip Ganassi Racing; a year ago she became the first woman to go over the wall on pit stops.

Shepherd was atop the timing stand during an October test at Atlanta as Ganassi was building a crew for Bamber and co-driver Alex Lynn.

“I remember them asking at the time, ‘What do you think?’ And I said, ‘We have to have her,’” Bamber said this week. “For us inside the car, we’re an important part, but I’m a big believer in that if you don’t have the best people behind you, the best engineers, the best team, then you also can’t win the race. You need both to go hand in hand.

“I really believe that we’ve got one of the best in the paddock with Danielle on the timing stand. I was a big believer just from that first day.”

Shepherd, an Ohio native and engineering graduate of Wooster College, began her career at KV Racing working for childhood hero Jimmy Vasser, the driver she screamed for each year from her seats at the keyhole at Mid-Ohio Sports Course. At Sebring, they were side-by-side in the pits.

The full circle moment was not lost on Shepherd after Saturday’s win.

“It’s interesting and weird emotionally because it’s like the thing you achieve for, the thing you’ve worked so hard for, is kind of there,” Shepherd said. “You can always strive for more, but it is exciting.”

She has had a successful career at Ganassi and was part of two IndyCar championships, her first coming in 2018 with Scott Dixon. Shepherd steadily moved through the ranks chasing the IndyCar job equivalent to a NASCAR crew chief. All those jobs are held by men.

The expansion to two IMSA cars this year opened an opportunity that Shepherd went for, even though it was in a different series.

“It’s always been my goal to be the lead engineer, so the opportunity came and I told them I was interested in doing it,” Shepherd said.

She was tested quite a bit at Sebring, on and off the track. Kevin Magnussen was the scheduled third driver but the team had to scramble for a replacement when he was unexpectedly offered his old job in Formula One and took it.

Neel Jani had just about a week’s notice he was racing at Sebring with Bamber and Lynn. And then Bamber really tested the team’s nerves with an overly eventful final stint. He overcame two incidents and a penalty in his final 75-minute drive that could have cost the No. 02 team the victory.

Bamber inherited a lead of more than 30 seconds, but he collided with another car exiting pit lane and was given a drive-through penalty. Seconds after making the pass he needed to reclaim the lead, Bamber spun in yet another collision.

He had to chase down Richard Westbrook for a second time to reclaim the lead, and he at last grabbed control of the race with 45 minutes remaining. Bamber joked about the stress his gaffes created, but Shepherd runs an aggressive program.

“She definitely likes to push the limits and I like that she’s not afraid of making some bold moves,” Bamber said. “That’s what is important in racing is to test the extremes, and she doesn’t leave any stone unturned before going to the race to make sure she gives us the best car, and I think that’s what makes her strong.

“She wants to continuously improve, and that’s what I like about her character on that. And she does keep us on the straight and narrow.”

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