Female Race Car Drivers On The Thrill of the Chase
Story by: Natalie Campisi
Amid cattle ranches, cypress swamps, hardwood hammocks and lakes, is the unlikely home of the country’s oldest permanent racing track and arguably one of the best in existence today: Sebring International Raceway. Just 90 miles south of Tampa, the quiet, slow-paced city of Sebring is an ironic spot for an internationally famous road-racing circuit where on any given weekend cars are flying around the 3.7 mile track at more than 100 mph.
I got to catch up with a couple of the drivers on the track – all women and all members of the Suncoast Region Porsche Club, the largest region in the PCA (Porsche Club of America). With just a handful of female drivers in the club – including a driver in her 60s – and a total of 3 female instructors across 2 of the largest PCA regions in the US, they enlightened me on what it means to race, both as women and as regular people who happen to love heart-pumping, white-knucle speed.
Christal Smithyman, an instructor for the Suncoast Region Porsche Club, grew up around race cars from a young age as part of her father’s, Dan Smithyman, pit crew. Dan was a Porsche enthusiast and driver himself. She caught the bug early and quickly outgrew the “ride-alongs” with drivers before races, i.e. a chance to sit in the passenger seat while the driver does a lap around the track.
“The first time my dad and I came for the 48 Hours at Sebring I went through two rolls of film. I couldn’t stop taking pictures,” Christal says.
With almost a decade of driving under her belt, she got her start driving a low horsepower, normally aspirated Porsche 944. Basically a bare-bones car that forced her to learn how to actually drive and use the principles of physics to her advantage without relying on torque and horsepower to make her faster. She says being in a race car is like wearing it rather than just sitting in it.
“Once you know your car and you know what it can do it’s great. The corners are where I have fun. When you drive solo you test the corners in different ways to get that perfect formula…you might brake a little earlier or a little later. But when you get it just right it feels good and the car is happy…there’s nothing better,” she says.
Her latest car, which she shares with her boyfriend and fellow driver, Josh Breckeen, is a turbo-charged 944, stripped of as much excess weight as possible to ensure peak performance. Christal even sacrificed power steering in favor of that extra bit of speed and handling – a tough choice to make, but in the end she preferred to add strength-training to her regimen than a couple seconds to the clock.
Physical strength is but one of a few differences between male and female drivers. Another difference, perhaps even more substantial, is the way women approach driving says Christal: tentatively.
“Because women are more detail-oriented they tend to be pretty good drivers. Women are a little less aggressive. My boyfriend is clearly faster. I don’t know the car yet, so I’m more cautious. He’ll toss it around the track. But he’ll also push me to go faster,” Christal says.
Amy Gustafson, a driving instructor with the Suncoast Region PCA, admits that she was apprehensive before her first lesson four years ago, but it didn’t take her long to let go of her fears and embrace the excitement of the track.
“I was very nervous when I signed up. I was intimidated by a bunch of guys on the track. But after I started, it just got in my blood. It’s an adrenaline rush. Now, I’m constantly in competition with myself. I wasn’t sure I could get to the level I’m at now but I had a good coach and now I’m faster than the majority of the instructors,” Amy says.
Unlike Christal who is a little more methodical in increasing her speed, Amy is what drivers call an “8/10th driver” a term used for someone who is driving at 8/10ths their limit – basically intense, foot-on-the-gas-at-all- times driving.
While she loves pushing the limits on the track she also prides herself on being a polite driver as well as a knowledgeable one. She says she took her time and stayed a student forever, learning on a 2001 Porsche 911. She now drives a 2007 Porsche GT3 RS.
“I think typically men are very competitive…but so are women. I love the thrill of the chase. If I see another instructor that’s faster, I want to pass them,” Amy says.
Despite the novelty of female race car drivers (Christal points out that she draws a crowd of male drivers when she changes a tire), both women agree that there’s respect between the men and the women, which may be part of the overall spirit of the Suncoast Region Porsche Club, Christal observes.
“There are a lot of the clubs in the PCA and they’re all different, but Suncoast is very careful with who they promote as instructors. We really preach respect and predictability on the track,” Christal says.
To learn more about the Suncoast Region Porsche Club visit www.suncoastpca.org