An Indy 500 veteran brings the Auburn Tigers to the future of racing
“You’ve never been to a race, have you?”
It’s a question posed with humor by Lee Anne Patterson ’85, but she’s quick to forgive. Despite a career in professional racing spanning three decades, encompassing almost every position at a whole range of levels, there was a time when she was the new girl—or, on many occasions, the only girl—at the racetrack.
But after rising through racing’s ranks to run her own racing team, Patterson is helping to take a crew of Auburn student engineers to the promised land—Indianapolis Motor Speedway—to compete in the Indy Autonomous Challenge.
It’s a fast industry, and though it’s a labor of love, it takes time bringing everyone up to speed.
“We have very, very, very hard deadlines,” said Patterson from her home in Auburn. “You can’t show up on Sunday at four o’clock and say ‘I’m ready to race’—the green flag drops at noon. It doesn’t matter if you didn’t get back from the last race until midnight. Your stuff has to be ready and on that truck.”
Patterson got involved with motorsports the old fashioned way—through rock n’ roll radio. As the “Continuity chick” for Atlanta’s 96 Rock, she wrote commercials and did voiceover work—a side job she still does—but found her real calling in promotions and sponsorship.
“I fell in love with promotions, because promotions is the art of making somebody’s day. You give them tickets, they win money, you can pull people together to build a Vietnam veteran memorial for Georgia, which we did at 96 Rock, so you can do really great things with it.”
Wanting to work as a Promotions Director, she got her chance at the Sears Point Raceway (now Sonoma Raceway) in California. “It could have been pet poodle farming and I would have gone, because it was California,” she said. “My very first job was to introduce NASCAR’s Winston Cup to the San Francisco Bay area, and I had never seen a race.”
She had help from Bob Weeks, an associate of NASCAR founder “Big” Bill France Sr., who geared her up to give her first pit tours. What she lacked in experience she made up for in enthusiasm, while her “exotic” southern accent thrilled out-of-town guests. Patterson had a gift for making friends, too—on her media day, she ran into someone who looked lost.
“I said, ‘Can I help you?’ He goes, ‘I’m Michael Waltrip…I’m a driver.’ I had no clue. Then when I’m giving the tour, guess who comes out of the hauler? I go, ‘ladies and gentlemen, this is driver Michael Waltrip!’ He looks at me like ‘you’re so full of it,’ but he comes over and gives me this big bear hug, and instant credibility.”
Patterson spent two years at Sears Point, promoting 48 events a year that included not only NASCAR events but other motorsports competitions, giving her a world-class education on racing events and promotions. She was then asked by Carroll Shelby, godfather of the Cobra and Ford Mustang, to be his series director for the Dodge Shelby Pro Series for a season.
Along the way, Patterson got married and went to Indianapolis to build a race team. Her then-husband was in charge of the vehicle’s performance and the crew, while she took over as team manager and handled everything else. For the next 20 years, she guided their team through a variety of open-wheel competitions—INDYCAR, Indy Lights, endurance races, Formula Atlantics and more.
“We built race programs sometimes running under our own name, and other times taking on the persona of others, like driver Sam Schmidt. After he was injured and became a quadriplegic, we helped him launch Sam Schmidt Motorsports and the Sam Schmidt Paralysis Foundation, which is now the Arrow McLaren SP team and Conquer Paralysis today. After twenty years of team management, I started just managing the drivers, and some of those drivers are still on the circuit today. It’s been a great ride.”
After twenty years of team management, I started just managing the drivers, and some of those drivers are still on the circuit today. It’s been a great ride.”
Patterson’s rise in the sport coincided with a pivotal era in racing, where increased visibility contributed to a surge in popularity and a literal wealth of opportunities—if you knew where to look.
While many in the industry viewed the word ‘sponsorship’ as stickers on cars, Patterson understood its potential in crafting a narrative as much as a good photo op. Thinking holistically, she drew a through-line from a product on a shelf to factory workers, investors, fans, drivers, pit crews and, eventually, the winner’s circle. She went into sponsor meetings asking what their goals were, and explained how her team could deliver the all-important return on investment.
A race car is the ultimate promotion vehicle, she says. It’s not just a sticker on a car, it’s about how much press you get, how many distributors increase their sales, or making employees feel better about their company.
Patterson’s loved sponsorship strategy so much, she would toss ideas to others. Once, she talked a sponsor for Hemelgarn racing, Tae Bo out of abandoning the team by suggesting they activate the program, host a demonstration at stores and have their driver, Buddy Lazier make an appearance for the fans.
“You could hear the lightbulb go off in his head. They had never done anything to leverage the decal on the car. Two weeks later, they announced they had moved from associate position to the title sponsor for two years.”
Over the years, she’s used race cars to promote Boston Scientific’s life-saving spinal cord stimulator, which relieved phantom-limb pain and helped amputees get off painkillers. She took a “lipstick camera” being promoted by Sony and used it to shoot behind-the-scenes footage of Filipino-American driver Michele Bumgarner. It later was edited into a “sizzle reel” that aired in every theater in the Philippines.
But her favorite day of racing—ever—was one in which she didn’t win a thing.
It was the Pikes Peak race in Colorado Springs, 1999. Patterson organized an adoption party for ‘special needs’ kids—those who were older and, thus, less likely to be matched with forever parents.
“Most adoption parties are usually clowns and face painting and balloons, and a 2-year-old looks fantastic. An 11-year-old sits on the side and says ‘this sucks,’ because he knows he can’t compete with a two year old and a clown, right?”
Working with The Adoption Exchange in Colorado Springs, the team threw a party just for the 9-16 age group on the fabled mountain racetrack. Twelve drivers showed up to hand out autographs and hugs. Sponsors contributed a whole hospitality suite of swag. Once they got to the track, the kids “came alive.”
“Our first priority was to treat them like kings and queens for a day,” recalls Patterson. “The second was that we had a system where no child had a ‘sale tag’ for a name badge. Only those hoping to adopt knew the system to see who was available and who wasn’t. They usually make one match a year in that category; at the end of the day, we made eight.”
In the racing world, most people work for a team, for the sanctioning body or for the track—very few experience “the trifecta,” as Patterson has. All three groups must work in concert for the sport to happen, each with their own unique challenges.
“Out of all the jobs I’ve done, owning and managing teams was by far the hardest, but it was also the greatest, because you got to compete,” said Patterson. “Everybody that’s on the team is a part of that, even somebody who isn’t turning wrenches like me.”
Never a big team with ample resources like Andretti or Penske, Patterson’s responsibilities included everything from FIA paperwork to managing sponsorships, designing the team’s uniforms, handling their paychecks and booking travel, in addition to directing all public relations and good-cause marketing events.
“I took care of pretty much everything except performance of the car—from the media center, to the hospitality suite to the pit box where I monitored raced control. I also dealt with paying for all the parts. I once spent $85 on a single bolt. I assumed it had to be a fantastic bolt, so I went out to the shop just to see it. It was a hand-fabricated, custom-built bolt.”
The Andretti Autosport team had a more cars and a full-time staff of six handling the same responsibilities as her, but looking back, being so involved was part of the fun. Whether it was figuring out if the “talent” (the driver) was gifted or just a cruise and collect or taking care of corporate sponsors, she never shied from doing what needed to be done.
That ran counter to the norms of the time, where women weren’t allowed inside the pits or the garage, let alone managing their own team. Once, during a stop in Las Vegas, Patterson and the crew were sitting in a diner when the waitress, eyeing their uniforms, asked who they were. They first teased that they were a bowling team. After a laugh, she turned to Patterson.
“She looks at me and goes, ‘Oh, you must be the secretary,’ and the guys busted out laughing. Our tire man John said, ‘ma’am, she’s the boss lady.”
Some scoffed at a woman leading a race team, but for others, she was an inspiration. She still recalls the grandmother who sought her out after enjoying garage tour at the Phoenix race to tell her how proud she was of Patterson, to see a woman give a tour and be in that position. For many years there women weren’t allowed in the garages; she never had the opportunity to even peek inside.
“She had tears in her eyes.”
But Patterson is quick to give credit where it’s due. The women pioneers of racing before her, like Janet Guthrie, Anita Millican, Vicki O’Connor, Alexa Leras and more are the shoulders she stands on. Now, thirty years later, the Auburn Indy Lights race team has a higher percentage of women on its roster than anyone else in the competition.
For Patterson, the return to competition, especially at the fabled Indianapolis Motor Speedway (IMS), ‘the World Capital of Racing,’ is like coming home. “I can’t believe I moved to Auburn and Auburn is running a race at Indy. You can’t make this up.” No one on the team has ever raced, much less at the Speedway. Having Patterson’s knowledge and resources will be a help to the team as they venture into the unknown.
The Indy Lights Autonomous Challenge is a competition where teams race a self-driving Dallara Indy Lights car head-to-head around the Indianapolis Motor Speedway’s 2.5-mile oval at top speed nearing 200mph for 20 laps—well short of 500 miles, but a daunting stretch for current autonomous technology.
“Autonomous technology is stuck at 35 miles an hour, and it can’t take a left in front of oncoming traffic,” Patterson said. “This is going to push the boundaries. It’s not about creating a driverless race series, this is about advancing autonomous technology and building consumer confidence.”
The first competition rounds included white papers, passenger vehicle performance and race simulations against other teams, with the focus on software—each Indy Lights car is built to spec and specially equipped with the latest vehicle sensors, computer vision cameras and radar.
The Auburn Autonomous Tiger Racing team, after three rounds of competition, is in the Top 3. Because of visa restrictions on international teams, Auburn was asked to handle the initial testing for all the teams during the first on-track run in early June.
The second official test is scheduled at the Speedway late August—early September, and final qualification runs will be hosted October 19–22 with the official race on October 23, 2021 at the IMS track.
Auburn may even get some unexpected assistance from new head Football Coach Bryan Harsin, an avid racer who personally has his own Alcohol Funny Car competition license.
On the dragstrip, he has reached speeds in excess of 220mph. Harsin’s racing knowledge will benefit the team, Patterson said.
This challenge will be great to showcase the talents of the students as they seek careers, for establishing Auburn University as a leader in autonomous technology, and even for the autonomous driving industry.
“Anytime you get to race a car at Indy it’s special–with or without a driver,” said Patterson. “It’s a thrill for me to introduce my Auburn family to a sport that has been so good to me. Zoom, Zoom…and War Eagle!”