For some women, racing is a release, a way to relieve stress and tension. For others, it is an occupation or just an adrenaline boost. But all of them must race, because without racing, they would feel incomplete.
There is a book that speaks to the growth and confidence in women through racing. “Girls Go Racing: Driving To Esteems,” by Dani Ben-Ari and Susan Frissell, is an excellent example of why racing is not just a man’s sport, but something that’s also alluring and beneficial to women. In adolescence, young women often have trouble with self-esteem and, “not unlike other intense sports, racing provides some drivers with ‘quiet time,’ time to think and be alone. ‘I can come alive when I’m at the track,’ says one driver. ‘I beam.’”
This notion leads us to women who compete professionally in motorsports and how a lifetime of racing has given them the confidence to succeed. Women such as Sarah Fisher, who in 2000, became the youngest woman to compete in the Indianapolis 500 at age 19, and now owns an IndyCar team. Or Danica Patrick, the first woman to lead the Indianapolis 500 and the only woman driver with an IndyCar victory. Then, of course, there is Lyn St. James, who has won several major titles including 24 Hours of LeMans, the 12 Hours of Sebring and more.
The following 12 women have accomplished many great things in their own racing careers in NASA. Representing a small percentage of the female participants in NASA, these 12 women love the sport and enjoy sharing their passion with others.
Hometown: Harriman, Tenn.
Racing Class: TTB
Sponsors: Vette Nuts, Discovery Parks, NASA, Hoosier, Pfadt Racing
Day Job: Nuclear power plant engineering group supervisor
Years in NASA: 6
Jayne McNutt started in NASA where most people do, in HPDE1. And by the time she got to HPDE3, she was instructing others. Eventually she made it to HPDE4, but 2012 was the first year she ran Time Trials. Her husband and friends helped her build a TTB car from a salvaged 1999 Corvette. At her first event, on test and tune day, the transmission failed and had to be rebuilt. The next event the engine blew and was replaced. However, it all paid off in the end. McNutt took first place last season in NASA Southeast TTB class.
McNutt became interested in racing through her husband. As she put it, “He was going through a midlife crisis,” and wanted a convertible. So they searched for one he could fit in. Because he is 6-feet tall, they chose a 1997 Ford Cobra. After that, they took the car to a couple of car shows, but someone at the show told them they should join their club and do some track events. Well, Jayne and her husband thought that was a great idea, and after the first event, they were hooked to the point that Jayne wanted her own car.
That’s how her first Corvette came about, a new silver 2004 Z06 for her silver wedding anniversary. After seeing her new car, she said it was too nice to take to the track, but she took it to Carolina Motorsports Park six weeks later. Now her husband drives the 2004 Vette, while Jayne drives the 1999 Corvette. Her other toy is a 2004 BMW E46 convertible with a manual transmission.
Hometown: San Juan, Puerto Rico
Racing Class: E2
Day Job: Racing
Years in NASA: 3
Glory Fernandez’s life has been about speed and extreme sports. In 2004, a friend had her participate in a time trial race as a passenger, and from then on she was hooked. From there, she started autocrossing and even achieved some podium finishes in her first year. Two years later, in 2006, she entered the professional motorsports scene and in her first year won the National Championship in FIA in the T-2 class in Puerto Rico. In 2010, Fernandez also participated in the Dominican Road Racers Club, also excelling there.
Her racecars include a 2012 Honda Civic CLX and a 1998 Honda Civic. She is also currently building another 2012 Honda Civic.
Fernandez loves flying to California to participate in NASA WERC events. In 2008 she formed part of Divaspeed (an all-girl team started in 2008, but that was the only year it was exclusively all girls) and finished second in the WERC series. She has participated in the 25 Hours of Thunderhill three times and will continue to do so every chance she gets.
“In seven short years, Glory Fernandez has grown to become the most recognized female racecar driver in Puerto Rico and the Caribbean, and is a well-known personality in the racing industry,” said Fernandez’s assistant Ebed Carrasquillo. “The only successful Puerto Rican female in motorsports, Glory enjoys doing social work, especially with children and high school kids, encouraging them to stay in school and achieve their goals.”
“Racing is like invading (men’s) environment, and you have to perform well to prove you belong,” Fernandez said. “Until they know you can race, you have to earn their respect.”
You can find Glory on Facebook at: GloryFernandezRacing or Twitter at: GloryRacing
Hometown: Mount Prospect, Ill.
Racing Class: Spec Miata, PTF
Day Job: Business manager, Abbott Diagnostics
Years in NASA: 6
When NASA was first starting the Midwest region, Chris Portele took part in a couple of HPDE events, but she craved more and moved to Time Trials, and racing with NASA because that’s where she wanted to be. In 2008 Portele participated in her first TT event and reset the Autobahn TTF full-track record, which still stands today. But that wasn’t enough for her, so she quickly got her competition license. In 2010, Portele finished third overall in her Spec Miata for the Midwest region, in a group filled with men, which was a big accomplishment for her. Portele managed to reset another track record for the 2012 season in PTF at her home track, Autobahn South. The main reason she is heavily into racing is because of her husband, who is also a mechanic — and that can be very handy.
“He is able to fix everything I break, and I’m good at breaking things,” Portele explained.
She got her race license first, then her husband. Portele is also very supportive of her husband, who was the 2011 NASA national TTF champion and 2012 PTF NASA national champion. Starting this past season, Portele also began instructing for NASA.
Portele’s racecars include a 1995 Spec Miata, a 1995 PTF Infiniti G20, 1990 Mustang for track days, and they are building a 1994 Nissan Sentra SER for PTF or PTE. Before 2006, Portele also used to track her 993 Porsche, but that has since been retired from track duty and is now a “garage queen.”
Between April and October, racing consumes the most time for Portele and her husband, but besides that, travel is their only other hobby.
Hometown: Parsippany, N.J.
Racing Class: Honda Challenge 2
Sponsors: Baby Boot Camp
Day Job: Stay at home mom, and running her franchise Baby Boot Camp
Years in NASA: 7
Stephanie Chang started autocrossing in late 2004, then quickly jumped to HPDE, eventually becoming an instructor with NASA, Skip Barber Racing School, Monticello Motor Club, and for NASA teen driving clinics.
She got her competition license shortly after her first child was born — and she was hooked! Chang’s husband Chris also is interested in racing cars, and they went to their first autocross together. Now, they continue the tradition by racing each other on the track. Chang’s current racecar is a 1994 Acura Integra, and her husband has a 1994 Honda Civic. Her other fun car is an E36 BMW M3.
Being in a male-dominated sport does not intimidate Chang. Rather, she says, “It is out of my comfort zone, but that’s a good thing.” She says that the best thing about being a woman in a male-dominated sport is being able to instruct other females in a way that they are more comfortable, and in doing so, attracting more women to performance driving. There are a few times she has had to instruct a man who thought himself better because of his gender, but Chang says, “They soon learn that being a male doesn’t necessarily make you a good driver!”
In addition to racing, Chang finished her first marathon this past October, and enjoys ballet, music, her kids, reading and writing.
Chang’s father is the main reason she is interested in racing. He took her and her husband to their first couple of driving schools. He was thrilled that she was interested because she is one of four girls. Chang was never allowed to drive anything but a stick shift from day one. Now Chang is able to instruct her dad. But she also says racing, as a woman, requires much more support from family members who are willing to watch the kids.
Hometown: Doylestown, Ohio
Racing Class: PTF, TTF
Sponsors: Graphic Detail
Day Job: Marketing management
Years in NASA: 6
Melissa Davis is the product of the NASA HPDE program. She began her road racing journey in 2007 driving anything she could get her hands on, including her 1998 Neon R/T and even a rented Hertz Mustang with a V6 and an automatic transmission. Davis’ interest in cars began early in her life.
“I have always been fascinated with cars and automobiles,” she said. “While other little girls were playing with dolls, I liked my brother’s Hot Wheels cars best.”
To start, she tried drag racing, but quickly became bored and wanted something more exciting, so she went to autocross. But more exposure brought her to another kind of racing: road courses. In 2010 she got her Time Trial license and shortly thereafter in 2011 she got her instructor’s license, but she didn’t stop there. In 2012 she got her competition license.
In 2012 Davis earned the titles “Great Lakes Instructor Of The Year,” and “Great Lakes PTF Champion.” She also holds multiple track records in TTF and PTF including Grattan, Mid-Ohio and what is now called Pittsburgh International Race Complex. As for being interested in a male-dominated sport, Melissa doesn’t see it that way.
“Although deemed as such by many, the ability to learn car control and agility are the same between sexes,” she said. “Aside from the persistent Danica Patrick comparisons and joking in race meetings, racing rewards effort and ability regardless of gender. Although seeing over the dashboard and finding a suit that fits a girl properly can sometimes be a task!”
Not only does she love the sport, but she can hardly wait for the new season to start. Davis currently has a 1995 Dodge Neon ACR as her racecar, and plans to add a CMC Mustang and a PTE Neon in 2013. She also plans to continue to expand her team, Start2Finish Motorsports, and assist others in reaching their racing goals.
You can find Melissa on her website: www.start2finishmotorsports.com
Hometown: Atlanta, Ga.
Racing Class: SpecE30
Sponsors: Turbo Diesel Register, Geno’s Garage
Day Job: Medical practice manager
Years in NASA: 10
Although one of the youngest women interviewed, Laura Patton-Parkhurst has been in NASA longer than most. Starting on her 16th birthday in HPDE1, she has been with NASA ever since. After going through all HPDE classes, Parkhurst was able to complete a NASA Southeast certified instructor course and began instructing. But instructing only lasted a couple of months before Parkhurst wanted to start racing, and in 2006 she signed up for comp school at Road Atlanta. She has been racing ever since in her police themed SpecE30, a 1987 BMW 325is. Not only does she race at every NASA Southeast event, but she is also co-chief instructor for the Southeast region, alongside her dad.
As a young girl, Parkhurst was always interested in cars, but the whole racing scene never stuck until she participated in her first teen defensive driving school at age 15. The fun didn’t stop there for Parkhurst, though, because on her 16th birthday, her dad took her to Carolina Motorsports Park in Kershaw, S.C., to really get the feel for high-performance driving and, “I never looked back,” Laura explained.
Being a young girl in the racing community does have its disadvantages though, as Laura explains: “I did have one instance with a student who wasn’t listening. We spun four times in our first session. I asked someone else to ride with the student because it was obvious that I wasn’t communicating effectively. When my student began working with the other instructor, they had a fantastic session. Afterward the student told his new instructor that he wasn’t sure I knew what I was talking about. Little did the student know that I was the chief instructor!”
Hometown: Palm Harbor, Fla.
Racing Class: Spec E30
Sponsors: Sunburn Racing, Crosswinds Design
Day Job: Graphic designer
Years in NASA: 5
Joining NASA in 2007, Natalie Black became a member solely to go racing in the Spec E30 series. Attending her first driving event in 1999, she eventually moved to instructing, then participated in a BMW CCA race school and that’s where Black “caught the bug,” as she puts it.
That’s when the BMW 325i from Ebay at a whopping $995 came about. It was not a perfect car, but it was a perfect candidate for building their (her and her husband’s) own Spec E30 racecar. Unfortunately someone stole the car, in January 2007, when it was 95 percent done, only missing the fire system and cut off switch. Not only was the car stolen, but also the trailer and all of their gear and spares.
To their surprise, they received a phone call one day from the police saying their car was recovered. Although it was stripped bare, they looked at it as a chance to fix what they didn’t like about the first build. The car was completed and back on track by January 2008 for Black’s rookie Spec E30 race at Sebring in June 2008.
Not only does Black own her racecar, but she also has a 1957 BMW Isetta, that has been, “the subject of an excruciatingly long restoration project.” She looks forward to the day she finally gets an opportunity to drive the completed car. Black feels strongly about getting word out to other women and gives this message.
“If you’re a woman and you’re reading NASA Speed News, chances are good I’m preaching to the choir and you’ve already been bitten by the bug,” she said. “Instead this is a great opportunity to encourage all the guys out there to bring their wives, daughters, their girlfriends and sisters to the track. Get them in a car with one of the ladies in your region and we’ll do the rest.”
Hometown: Los Gatos, Calif.
Racing Class: Spec Miata
Day Job: Community director at Nebula Inc.
Years in NASA: 5
Starting with NASA on the East Coast, Maier joined to participate in autocross events. But when a move to California came, Maier was ready to graduate to track driving from “cone killing” as she puts it.
Maier had always been interested in motorsports, but the true excitement really hit her when she purchased a Spec Miata. The feeling didn’t sink in until she shook hands with the previous owner, cementing the deal.
“I patted the car on the fender. I knew it was mine,” she said. “This is when I knew that I was going to become a racer. Not many things get me to tear up, but in that moment I was so overcome with emotion. I had just realized that my entire life I had wanted to race. It just took me until I was 33 to realize it.”
In April 2011, Maier completed her comp license exam, which was 11 months from her first track day. Her racecar is a Spec Miata and her everyday car, which she tracks from time to time, is a 2006 BMW M roadster. As far as Maier is concerned, being a woman in motorsports should not be a big deal.
“What makes racing so inherently male?,” she asked. “Ever since the invention of power steering and brakes, there is nothing speaking against women doing as well as men in the sport. The fact remains, that too few women find it appealing ,and out of a smaller pool, there is a lower chance of developing top-notch talent.”
Maier sets a good example for all females in the sport, to look past the stigma and look toward developing their own talent as a racecar driver, not a male or female.
Hometown: Castle Rock, Colo.
Racing Class: GTS4
Day Job: Mechanical engineer, entrepreneur
Years in NASA: 3
Alexandra is quite an accomplished racer. Joining NASA in 2009, Alexandra was the NASA GTS4 Champion in 2010, and has had podium finishes in every race in 2011 and 2012 with the Porsche Club of America, NASA, Rocky Mountain Vintage Racing and Sportscar Vintage Racing Association Clubs. But her successes do not stop there. She is also the track record holder in PCA GT4R at High Plains Raceway.
When Alexandra was younger, she was a skier and a dancer, and skiing, she says, ties into racing as a “blending of speed, balance, control and line.
“My father taught me to drive by doing speed runs in his Porsche 911 up Loveland Pass in Colorado, a twisty road up to 12,000-feet,” she said.
Being mechanically inclined, it was just a matter of time before Alexandra used her skills on something like automobiles. The way Alexandra views racing really goes back to her dancing roots.
“Driving is, for me, a dance, moving between leading and following with my partner, the car,” said Sabados, who survives the off-season by playing tennis. “Everything slows down. You don’t push a partner around. You glide, listen, feel, lead and respond.”
This a truly unique view, but one every racer should consider. Alexandra’s racecar is a 1975 Porsche 911 with a 3.0-liter engine, a “painstakingly accurate replica.” This “truly amazing” car, as Alexandra puts it, is easy to drive and very fast, but “wonderfully noisy.”
Hometown: Johnstown, Colo.
Racing Class: 944 Spec
Sponsors: Toyo Tires, Hanksville Hotrods, 944 MotorWerks
Day Job: Part-time school bus driver, full-time mom
Years in NASA: 7
Michelle started with NASA in 2006 in HPDE1. She was understandably nervous, but found herself in HPDE2 by the end of the weekend. That’s all it took for Michelle and she was hooked. Not long after her first go in HPDE, Michelle got her provisional license at comp school in 2008. Having a husband who had already been racing was a plus, because when Michelle told him she wanted a 944-Spec for herself, he built her one. And the 944-Spec group treats her like family.
“I really feel like I am one of the guys, and they treat me like any other competitor on the track,” she said. “That is fine with me, because I am a fierce competitor, and I don’t expect anything less from them.”
Michelle fondly remembers a particular race she won.
“After the race, we all went to the center of the track and got out of our cars,” she recalled. “When I got out, everyone in the stands was on their feet, and the women were screaming their heads off for me! It was awesome.”
Michelle recently sold her “baby,” as she calls it, but will be taking over her husband’s 2010 National Championship winning 944-Spec car. He is moving to Spec Z, which Michelle hopes to move to, eventually. What she also hopes to start soon is getting her son and daughter into karting. Then the whole family can participate in the sport Michelle loves.
“Racing is a very emotional sport, especially when you hate to lose!,” she said. “Sometimes when I don’t perform to my expectations, I get upset. That’s when my husband reminds me that, ‘There is no crying in racing!’ But I don’t always listen.”
Hometown: San Clemente, Calif.
Racing Class: Honda Challenge 2, PTC, WERC E1
Sponsors: Ron Cortez (Aim Tires), Ron Carroll, MLC Motorsports
Day Job: Semi-retired
Years in NASA: 10
Back in 2002, Donna Gilio started in HPDE1 driving a Corvette. Once she had made it through all four levels, she met an instructor named Albert Butterfield. He asked her why she was not already racing, and Gilio said she didn’t know how, so Butterfield showed her how to get her license and navigate the NASA program. In her first race at Buttonwillow on Oct. 18, 2003, Gilio and her ex-husband drove on a team together and won second in their class. That was when Gilio realized how “bitchin’” the sport was and became hooked.
In 2003, Gilio participated in the very first 25 Hours Of Thunderhill. Being able to participate in the inaugural event was great. But events during the race would not prove to be as wonderful. Not only was it pouring rain, but it even started to snow! Donna’s team was leading the E3 class, and at about 8 a.m., with only four hours to go, Donna got back in the car.
While going into Turn 7, “Somebody punted me off the track, really hard and I went spinning out into the infield. But anything off the track is super muddy. So if your car went off track, your car was stuck. So here we are in the lead and I get punted off track, and I remember saying to myself, ‘No way am I going to be the one to lose this race for our team!’ So then I floored it as fast as I could and bounced back on track. But lo and behold there was this Mini Cooper that was right there as I was coming back on track. I T-boned the Mini and took this poor guy out of the race. That guy was Ryan Flaherty!”
Donna’s car suffered minor damage and their team won the E-3 class. She doesn’t know how it happened, but she is sure happy it did.
Donna continues to race today with many great accomplishments including founding Divaspeed, setting more than 40 track records, scoring 150 race wins, two NASA National second-place finishes and three season championships.
Name: Courtney Michaluk
Hometown: Sevierville, Tenn.
Racing Class: GTS2
Day Job: Works for a nonprofit in Washington, D.C., that promotes economic liberty and academic excellence.
Years in NASA: 3
Courtney is a young racer who shares her experiences with her dad. After her first NASA Southeast event in December 2009, Courtney was bumped from HPDE1 to 2 then made it to 3 a couple of events later. She even had her dad ride with her at a VIR track day, and his reaction was, “We need to get you in a caged car.” Courtney thought it was because he felt she was as crazy as he was, but in reality is was because she was so fast. That’s how her BMW E36 came about. But for months after she got it, “I didn’t sleep … I’d go to my parents’ house just to sit in the trailer with it and daydream about having it on track.” Even in her senior year of college, Courtney took her spring break to go to Atlanta for comp school. Her friends couldn’t understand how Atlanta could be more exciting than a classic college spring break in Florida.
Coming from a car-oriented family, Courtney’s attraction to cars wasn’t difficult. But getting up the nerve to ask to go to her first HPDE event was. After watching a weekend of racing, she found that might be the right time.
Being a young girl in racing has been interesting for Courtney, she says. She gets some interesting looks, but “once the helmet is on, no one knows whether you are a female or a male.” After her instructors would compliment her driving, she would even ask, “Do you mean for a girl or in general?”
Her racecar is a GTS2 E36 325i with an “S52 (engine) in it, double adjustable suspension, and the most recent addition — a wing and splitter. Courtney’s dad has a 996 GT3 Cup Car and a GTS4 E30. Living in Washington, D.C., her daily driver is public transit but, “It’s not as enjoyable as the 6-speed Cayman sitting back home.”