By Adam Carabine
Being the daughter of driver and IndyCar owner John Della Penna, Michelle Della Penna might have grown up with some big shoes to fill. But being the ‘next generation’ of her family name and forging her own path was important to her.
In 2021, Michelle started the Della Penna Motorsports Next-Gen Foundation, a not-for-profit organization aimed at creating opportunities for young women in motorsports. In a conversation with Racing Refresh at Sonoma Raceway last weekend, she said “Our whole goal is just to expose young women to motorsports initiatives, and to be that liaison between exposing, cultivating talent and passion, and then helping bridge them with the people in organizations that can create the opportunities.”
The roots of the Next-Gen Foundation started from a simple observation. “I have three boys, and my middle son go-karts. I was at the track with him and out of a grid of 20 kids, there were two girls. I thought, why aren’t there more girls in motorsports? And I realized that there were just not enough women across the board.”
Her first idea was to just create a scholarship for girls that would cover the costs for a season of karting – something that can be upwards of $50,000 per season. However, the idea blossomed even further. “As I started digging deeper and talking to friends and colleagues, it sort of bloomed into this foundation. And so we are the Della Penna Foundation, in honour of my father.”
The foundation is in its infancy, having only started in late 2021. The current goal is to have the scholarship and fellowship programs roll out in 2023. For the rest of 2022, the focus is mainly on fundraising, though the foundation is still active in other ways as well.
Before giving Racing Refresh her time, Michelle Della Penna was busy touring the NASCAR garage at Sonoma Raceway with a group of young women. She said, “This is our second VIP Invitational. We had one in September  at [Weathertech Raceway] Laguna Seca, which is our pilot event. We brought a group of troops from Oakland, and we gave them a day at the races. We had hospitality, we had food, we had garage tours, meet and greets with drivers, and they got to watch the practice and qualifying. It’s really for them to be up front and see what happens here.”
“We partnered with Sonoma for a karting day about a month ago, where we brought this same group of girls out and they got to go to the karting school here and have a day of go-karting. As we continued our discussions with Sonoma, they said ‘Hey, we’re having this NASCAR race and we’d love to do an invitational!’ So we invited the same group of girls out.”
Other than a garage tour, these young women were able to speak with some female racing professionals, as well as watching qualifying. As Michelle puts it, “Once you experience motorsports up front, it’s hard not to be a fan. It’s just really fun to be in the thick of it. Once you’re at the track it’s incredibly infectious.”
So, are you a young female motorsports fan? Or do you know one? Or maybe someone with an interest in engineering, STEM, or robotics? Maybe you’re just interested in supporting a worthy cause. Make sure to check out the foundation’s website, www.nextgenfoundation.org. There you’ll be able to donate (no minimum donation required), sign up for email notifications, and keep up-to-date with the foundation’s latest initiatives.
Michelle believes that the best way to initiate change is at the grassroots level. “As you grow up and you start to pick things that you’re interested in, that’s sort of when the seed is planted. If we can get girls interested at 5, 6, 7 years old, and have them start moving in that direction, I think the next generation will be peppered with a little more diversity and equality, […] it’s going to be more women, more people of colour that are going to be occupying these spaces and representing how the world actually looks.”