When the men in Gasoline Alley call Tona Edington a wrench, she doesn't mind. That's auto racing lingo for a mechanic, and Edington is the only female crew member this year at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
Fittingly, she works on a 1991 Lola-Cosworth driven by Lyn St. James, the only female driver in the Indianapolis 500.
"She's a really neat lady. She's real enthusiastic, she's just like one of the guys," Edington said of St. James. "She makes my little road easier."
It's been a road fraught with discrimination, in the military and more recently in racing. Edington, 25, has spent the last 5 1/2 years as a member of the Indiana Air National Guard unit in Terre Haute.
One weekend per month, she's a crew chief responsible for servicing, inspecting and maintaining F-14 fighter jets.
"When I joined the Guard, I had a desk job and I hated it," she said. "I'd hear the jets take off every day and I thought, 'This is stupid. What am I doing sitting here?' I had to be where the action was at, so I ended up on the flightline."
She turned down a full-time military job to pursue her interest in racing. Last year, she worked for a team that eventually folded when sponsorship ran out.
Edington approached car owner Dick Simon last month about a job with his crew. At the time, she didn't know St. James had a deal with Simon Racing.
She didn't have any problems with Simon, but Edington remembers the so-called job interviews she endured with other teams.
"They would come up with some of the stupidest things. Instead of asking my experience and qualifications, the only thing one guy asked me was what would we do when we're out on the road and there's no other girls, we'd have to get you your own hotel room," she said. "Like that's a main worry."
Edington says her biggest problem is not being taken seriously.
"I do get a little disappointed when you talk to some of the older guys that don't like you being around. I've had some of the other guys on the teams come up and say, 'Oh, nobody wants a lady wrench,' " she said.
"Sometimes you listen to it and then you got to really sit down and forget what they said. It's kind of hard when you hear something like that."
Edington is one of four mechanics working on St. James' car. She said she can keep up with her male counterparts, but would like to build up her strength.
"There's a lot of bolts on the back part of the car that have to be extremely tight, and I'll tell the guys, 'Double check that before it goes out,' " she said. "I always watch them to see how much more they get on it. It's great if they don't get anymore. They compliment me on that."
Qualifications end this weekend and if St. James becomes the second woman to drive in the Indy 500, Edington will break a barrier, too. She'll be the first female to jump the pit wall on race day. Previously, female crew members have worked in the pits but never crossed the concrete wall to work on pit road during a pit stop.
"I'm a little nervous about race day because I'm supposed to go across the wall. We've practiced a little bit," said Edington, who would change the car's left front tire during the race.
She's been coming to the Indy 500 "since before I knew what I was coming here for."
"This is the race I grew up on," she said. "I catch myself sometimes walking into work and you see the stands and Gasoline Alley, it's like, 'Whoa, realize where you're at. You're at Indianapolis.'
"I've tried to imagine what it's going to be like on race day. I have no clue. Right now, I'm worried about the traffic. How am I going to get in here?"
Edington isn't assured of a job with Simon Racing after the Indy 500, but she hopes the grease will always be under her fingernails.
"I just have that comfortable feeling. This is where I'm supposed to be. That feeling makes me pursue it even harder," she said.