TAMPA BAY, Florida – Filipino-American Michele Bumgarner is on her way to becoming the first Filipino auto racer to make it to the Indianopolis 500 – the largest single-day sporting event in the world, held annually in Indiana.
“I’m in the Mazda Road to Indycar Pro series, and the IndyLights, and then IndyCar, so mga three, four years nasa IndyCar na ako,” said Bumgarner.
Bumgarner made her mark last year at the grand prix of the Houston IndyCar series, where she made it to the top 10 and brought home two awards.
That allowed her to qualify for last week’s IndyCar Streets of St. Petersburg opening weekend – where Bumgarner kicked off a new season of competition in the Pro-Mazda Championships.
Although Bumgarner finished 12th place in race 1 and 13th place in race 2, her number 16 Philippine Pro Mazda came home without a scratch.
“This weekend, it turned out really well,” said Bumgarner. “I came into the weekend to focus on two things – to gain and improve every time I went out on track, and of course, to not crash or to bring the car home in one piece.”
“That’s what I did naman, so my team was happy,” she added.
Bumgarner said this is the second step towards her goal of one day racing in the Indy 500.
“I definitely want to be the first Pinay in the Indy 500. I want to qualify. We haven’t had a Pinoy in IndyCar since Jovie Marcelo, who passed away driving at the speedway in the early 90s,” she said.
The road to Indy 500 is not easy, but Bumgarner has been dreaming of it for as long as she can remember.
Born in 1989 to a Filipina mother and a kart racing American father, Bumgarner started kart racing at the age of nine at a family-owned go-kart track in Subic, Olangapo.
“Every weekend, we were always there driving. That’s where we learned how to drive,” said Bumgarner.
“At first, ayaw ng Daddy ko, kasi he thought, ‘Oh, it’s only for boys. Girls don’t need to be driving.’ He thought that. But with a lot of begging and pleading, he eventually got me a go-kart,” she said.
At the age of 10, Bumgarner made her debut in the National Karting Series in the Philippines in 1999. She then made her car racing debut in the Asian Formula 3 championships, finishing third in the series’ promotion class in 2006 – the first female winner in the Asian Formula 3 series as well as the youngest female racer.
“I was the first Filipina, the first Asian woman to do so, so obviously it was very exciting,” said Bumgarner. “No one’s ever done it – breaking records and stuff. So I was very blessed.”
In September 2008, Bumgarner became the first female champion of the world’s largest street karting race – the Rock Island Grand Prix in Illinois – making her the seventh foreign-born racer to win in its history. She went on to successfully defend her title in 2009.
“Racing being a man’s sport, I hope na they see what I’m doing is in itself kind of empowering women,” said Bumgarner. “I hope to be a good role model to Filipinos, not just Filipinos but to everyone also.”
“I love it so much that I can’t see myself doing anything else,” she said of racing. “As long as you set your mind and your heart to it, kayang-kaya naman.”
Her next step is to race at the Barber Motorsports Park on April 25 in Birmingham, Alabama.