By Julia Landauer – Imagine you’re in a firesuit and helmet, strapped tightly into the seat of a racecar. You’re going full throttle down the straightaway; the car is vibrating and the engine is roaring. You hit the brakes and the weight shifts to the front of the car as you turn in, using all your core and arm strength to wrench the wheel. The car slides a little, but you correct it and accelerate out of the corner. You careen straight toward the wall and, just before you hit it, you stop turning and straighten out, accelerating full throttle down the straightaway once again.
That exhilarating experience happens to be my day job: I’m lucky enough to be a professional racer. And it all started when I was just 10 years old.
My parents found racing because they were looking for a competitive activity that all their kids could do together — specifically, one that would allow their daughters to compete head-to-head with boys. I fell in love with the sport on my very first day, infatuated by everything from the speed to the teamwork to the human-machine interaction.
But the most common question I get as a racer is not about my skill or the experience of racing itself — it’s about my gender. I am constantly asked, “What’s it like to be a woman racecar driver?” It’s a hard question to answer; I’ve only ever been a woman racecar driver, so being an anomaly in the sport is my normal. But I also find it challenging to explain how my gender affects my experience in this career.
On one hand, racing is a difficult sport for anyone, man or woman. A racer has to operate heavy machinery at ridiculous speeds within inches of other cars, process incoming data instantaneously, make split-second decisions, communicate clearly to the crew chief, and deal with the cockpit being upwards of 130 degrees, all while fighting dozens of other racers who all want to win. One’s gender doesn’t affect one’s ability (or inability) to do these things — the car doesn’t know if the driver is a man or a woman. When I’m out on the track, I’m just another racer.
But what happens off the track is a different story.
For the longest time, I found it hard to be “buddies” with my competitors in the same way the male competitors all seem to be. I always had the sense that many of these guys were on edge around me, ever since the beginning of my career. Back in my go-karting days, I often felt like I had cooties. When I was 12, I dreaded going to the drivers’ meetings — when all the racers at an event gather to hear the rules, schedules, and other announcements from the officials. Racers at these meetings tended to cluster around their friends, and while other racers were called over to join groups, I rarely was. I usually sat by myself, maybe with one or two team members. I always felt like an outcast.
When I’m out on the track, I’m just another racer. But what happens off the track is a different story.
It wasn’t just my competitors who made me feel like an outsider. For many years, I found that every time I signed a contract with a new team (which usually happens every year), my racing ability was questioned — both explicitly and implicitly. Some team members expected me to lose just because of my gender, and they treated me accordingly, giving me curt answers when I asked questions and never bothering to find out how my car was working in team practice debriefs (which is otherwise standard).
Even though I’d bring a winning résumé with me, I regularly had to break down my new teammates’ negative assumptions about my skills. A few years ago, I started off the season strong and won a few races. My team principal, who oversaw all the equipment preparation and helped convey to the mechanics what I wanted done with the car, came up to me after a race and said, “You know, I didn’t really expect you to do so well, but you’re kicking butt!” I know he was trying to give me a compliment, but his comment made it clear that he probably hadn’t been giving 100 percent to help me before I “proved” myself. I also noticed that, after he made that comment, my car started handling better, making it pretty clear that both he and the mechanics had suddenly started working harder for me.
Luckily for me, and for other women in the sport, I’m starting to see these kinds of prejudiced attitudes and preconceived notions about women racers changing. As I climb the ranks and consistently show winning results, I gain more and more respect. By now, my team owners, spotters, crew chiefs, and crew members have 100 percent faith in me. They expect me to win, and I do. I am breaking the mold of what they’re accustomed to, which helps them see me as a competitive racer who happens to be a woman — not as a “woman racer.”
We need to continue to disrupt these gender-based biases. Racing has a long history of being a father-and-son sport: Dads take their sons out to the track because that’s what their fathers did with them. Many parents would never even think about introducing their daughters to driving, because it simply hasn’t been done in a lot of places. Over my career, I’ve always been surprised when little girls come up to me at autograph sessions and exclaim, “I didn’t know girls could race!” Now, as more and more female racers come onto the scene, many of these girls are changing their tune, saying instead, “I love seeing girls out there racing!”
I hope this shift continues and that people start to realize that female racers are simply racers — just like everyone else. As a racer, it’s my responsibility to lead my team to work our hardest, to provide value to my partners who support my racing, and, above all else, to win. I’m doing a pretty great job at those things, and my gender has absolutely no effect on that.
This piece originally appeared on MTV Founders and is republished here with the author’s express permission.
About The Author
Julia Landauer is a 2-time championship-winning racecar driver from New York City, currently racing in the NASCAR K&N Pro Series. She graduated from Stanford University in 2014, and now advocates for STEM education and women’s empowerment.
Editor’s Note: In May 2013, Women You Should Know did an in-depth interview with Julia and had the privilege to tell her inspiring story. You can check that out here.