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Mendez Brings Deep Well of Family History, Knowledge to Many Racing Roles

The woman behind the microphone for so many Indianapolis Motor Speedway fan tours over the past three decades has much to say and enjoys saying it. But what’s behind the information Mary Mendez offers? More than you know.

As INDYCAR and Indianapolis Motor Speedway celebrate Women’s History Month, lifelong Californian Mendez has been part of the fabric of the Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge without having ever driven a race car or turning a wrench on one. However, Mendez’s father, George Bignotti, won a record seven “500s” as a chief mechanic and twice was a winning car owner.

Through family connections, Mendez has learned much about the sport from her father and Louis Meyer, the first three-time winner of the “500,” and his family. Meyer’s daughter, Kay, was Bignotti’s second wife, and Mendez considers her more of a big sister than a stepmother. Kay has her own place in “500” history, serving as the official starter of Janet Guthrie’s car in her barrier-breaking effort in 1977. Kay also is the sister of legendary engine builder “Sonny” Meyer, and she was Bignotti’s primary caregiver in his later years. Like Mendez’s mother, Carol, he died in 2013. He was 97.

Mendez organized team activities for one “500” winner – Tom Sneva drove for Bignotti in 1983 -- and was the official scorer of another – Arie Luyendyk in 1990. She has provided information to television and radio broadcasters of “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing” and has written news stories and columns about the race for the past 20 years. Her brother, Billy, was a longtime INDYCAR mechanic, and until last year she had attended 41 consecutive “500s.” She also has worked for a supplier of INDYCAR parts, and there’s probably a thing or two else she has done around Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Think Mendez knows something about the sport? You betcha. Just ask her.

Actually, most people on her tours don’t ask her.

“I’ll say to a group, ‘If I don’t get any questions, I’m going to keep talking,’” she said with her infectious, hearty laugh.

Mendez’s place in the sport is interesting given how she came to it. She was Bignotti’s first born, in 1951, but three years after he left his in-law’s San Francisco florist business to go to IMS for the first time. Mendez remembers the impact it had on her.

“What I didn’t like about the ‘500’ is that my mom would leave me in California with my grandparents to go to Indianapolis for the Month of May,” she said. “I guess I emotionally felt that because it seemed I always got sick.

“Mumps, measles, chicken pox … I had it all when she was in Indianapolis.”

Mary Mendez on Arie Luyendyk’s timing stand

Mendez knew of her father’s extraordinary accomplishments -- “500” victories with A.J. Foyt, Al Unser, Graham Hill, Gordon Johncock and Sneva – from afar. In college, she earned a degree in microbiology and spent the first part of her career in clinical work at Harbor-UCLA Medical Center, the Los Angeles hospital where Tiger Woods was taken following his recent car accident. Mendez didn’t fully engage with auto racing until getting a divorce in 1979.

That’s when her father called, suggesting she come to Indianapolis for that year’s race, which was her first.

“I think he thought I was depressed from getting a divorce,” she said. “He had no idea where (my career) would go from there.”

Bignotti suggested she volunteer to help manually score races for teams, which she did. In 1990, team owner Doug Shierson hired her to score for his drivers, and Luyendyk won his first “500” with Mendez sitting on the pit stand.

Mendez didn’t go to victory lane or get a ring as is today’s tradition, but she received a ladies’ pendant and has the memory that she cherishes.

“I never really thought about me being a part of that win,” she said. “It only occurred to me a number of years later, but I want to make it clear: ‘My win’ is not like my dad’s wins.”

Bignotti led the first two “500” wins of Foyt (1961 and ’64) and Unser (1970 and ’71), part of his record 87 INDYCAR wins. Bignotti’s seven “500” wins came with six different teams over a 23-year period, a mark that might stand forever. Rodger Ward, Jackie Stewart and Mario Andretti also drove his cars.

What Bignotti didn’t know was that his daughter turned to racing to be closer to him. Mendez says she spent as much time with her father as his schedule allowed, and they dined together on the road almost nightly. Bignotti was as naturally reserved as Mendez is engaging, so she admits not knowing as many stories about him as she might otherwise.

She would like to write a book about his Hall of Fame career but concedes most of her information wouldn’t be first-hand.

“The problem is, I wasn’t there when so much of (his success) was accomplished,” she said. “I wasn’t involved in his history, just the race (win) in ’83.”

Mendez did much of the coordinating of hospitality that year, including dinner arrangements and assembling a guest list for the post-race gathering of Bignotti-Cotter Racing.

She built her catalogue of information by working in the sport. Once manual scorers were replaced by automation, she concentrated first on hospitality and then writing. In 1997, she approached Ned Wicker, the editor of IndyCar Magazine, about writing a story for the publication. He accepted, and she remembers her first story being about the tires battle of Firestone and Goodyear.

On a whim, Mendez wrote a freelance story on then-young Canadian drivers Patrick Carpentier and Alex Tagliani, submitting it to Inside Track Motorsport News, a leading Canadian publication. That story got published, then another. Her byline has appeared there for nearly 25 years.

It’s worth noting that while Bignotti was reserved, he was a terrific storyteller.

In 1992, Mendez saw a need for the paddock, and that led to the formation of RPM Tours, which gives garage and pit tours to customers of sponsors at all NTT INDYCAR SERIES races. On the busiest of race weekends, Mendez and her crew of INDYCAR insiders give up to 25 tours a weekend, with some tours having as many as 30 people.

Mendez estimates RPM Tours has given more than 4,000 tours over the years, but it’s likely she is being conservative because even simple math would suggest the actual total is considerably higher. Mendez does the largest percentage of them, outfitted with a microphone and a speaker box.

Among Mendez’s favorite stories is from CART’s 2001 season. On the morning of the Long Beach Grand Prix, Mendez and her group came upon second-year Team Penske driver Helio Castroneves. The Brazilian said he had been warned that he’d be fined $5,000 if he climbed another fence – he had scaled three by that point. Mendez remembers encouraging him to ask for forgiveness rather than permission.

Win, he did. Climb, he did.

“There’s always something new to talk about in this sport,” Mendez said, laughing. “I never get tired of doing the tours because people are sponges when it comes to the stories.”

Surprisingly, she seldom talks about how she knows so much, which explains why even those in the sport don’t know her family background.

“I never give a second thought to talk about myself,” she said.

The 105th Indianapolis 500 presented by Gainbridge will be held Sunday, May 30, with NBC and the INDYCAR Radio Network calling the action. Mendez plans to be there, microphone in hand.

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