The Finish Line: My Racecar Days In Kalamazoo

FlipImage4My first car was a stick-shift. I learned to drive that thing within the first hour of getting it. I loved blasting my Wu-Tang Forever CD and pretending I was a racecar driver through the desolate streets of Kalamazoo, Michigan. There’s nothing more frightening than a 16-year-old with a new driver’s license and love of rap music. While I had zero interest in NASCAR, I would watch rally racing on my 8-inch TV and play Gran Turismo. Maybe it was the road rage I built up while playing hours of Mario Kart, but my competitive side was in full-force during my alterna-teen years.

My slow and shitty Toyota Tercel wasn’t cutting it, so I scoured the newspaper ads for something better. The guys I worked with at my pizza-making job gave me advice about what I should buy, and I ended up with a red 1991 VW GTI. The seats were plaid and the sunroof was operated by a hand-crank. It looked just like a sweet-ass European rally car. I was the coolest 17-year-old girl in Kalamazoo.

Shortly after I bought my dream car, I met my first boyfriend, Mike. He was five years older than me, and loved cars too. He introduced me to autocrossing—a race where each car competes individually for times on a course marked with cones. At one of the races, he let me sit in the passenger seat wearing a helmet and racing harness. It was so exhilarating; I needed to do this myself.

I spent the next few months picking up shifts and working far too much for still being in high school. I saved up enough money to buy new suspension, brakes, tires, and an intake for my VW. I learned how to install everything by watching Mike and his friends work on their cars. Also, I felt really cool getting covered in oil and car grease. I swear I have more testosterone than the average woman.

What I’m trying to say is, yes, I did see the first Fast and Furious movie in a theater.

My first race was in a lot on the Western Michigan University campus. My car wasn’t heavily modified, so I was put into the E-Stock ladies class. There was one other girl in my class. She was 21, cute, and had a 1989 Volkswagen Rabbit. I was 17, covered in acne, and didn’t really know what I was doing.

After about fifty cars raced, my category was called. I was beyond nervous. I borrowed a helmet from Mike and pretended I was a pro. The other girl, Stacy, went first. She was really good. Her dad was a professional racecar driver, of course. She did her two laps and had a best time of 29 seconds. I wanted to beat her so badly.

I pulled up to the starting line. I had my car in first gear with my foot lightly on the gas. The light turned green and I was off. I switched back and forth from first to second gear, sliding and screeching around the cones like I was avoiding the bananas Donkey Kong had dropped on Rainbow Road. I had been practicing my heel-toe technique (putting your right foot on the break and gas at the same time while shifting to transition into a lower gear smoothly). I studied the track earlier and thought I had it memorized, but as I was coming around the last turn I hit a cone. Fuck! Missed cones are a two second penalty. I finished the race with a time of 34 seconds. I needed to step up my game for the second attempt.

I didn’t hit any cones the second time around, but I only improved my time by three seconds. I came in second place. Actually, it was last place, but since there were only two people in my category I still got to take home a plaque. Either way, I was so pumped and excited. I needed to do more of this.

I spent the next year going to autocross competitions around Michigan, determined to win every race I entered. I was far too hard on myself for only being 18. I would get angry if I didn’t win. I wouldn’t say I was a sore loser, but yeah, I didn’t take losing lightly. I saw it as motivation to become the best.

This wasn’t just for autocrossing; it was for everything.

Starting in kindergarten, the thrill of finishing my work first or getting the best grade was addicting. It seemed pointless to not be the best and smartest. During my 10-year softball little league career I would get angry if I didn’t pitch a perfect game, even if we won. The lack of attention I got growing up could be the main culprit. I don’t want to use that as an excuse for my aggression, but I rarely heard, “good job!” or “we’re proud of you!” On the bright side, it gave me insane drive and desire, but on the darker side, I never felt good enough.

This seems like the mindset that could’ve led someone to becoming president or a psychopath. I’m not president, but the latter is still an option.

I like being noticed and acknowledged for accomplishments, probably more than the average person. The things that make me happy are those that involve winning of some kind—being praised for something I wrote, booking a job, or having a guy I really like fall in love with me. Autocrossing was just one of the many outlets I saw as a way of winning and becoming the best.

For me, it’s clearly NOT the journey, and more the destination.

**

After that first year of autocrossing, I entered a road-race at Gingerman Raceway in South Haven, Michigan. Road-races are Formula One style tracks, and this particular one was 1.88 miles with 11 turns. My mortal enemy Stacy was not there, so I was the only girl there out of 70 dudes. I had been around the track a handful of times in my boyfriend’s car. This was much more intense than autocrossing. Some cars would get up to 100 mph on the straightaways. Also, I saw a man crash his BMW M3 on turn 7, after he lied to his wife about where he was going that day.

Before the actual race, we were taken around the track to familiarize ourselves with the turns. I had my helmet, gloves, and Sparco Pumas (racing shoes that made heel-toeing easier, and of course made me look cooler) ready to go.

Since I was the only girl there, I was bumped up to a class full of dudes. I was not intimidated at all. I walked around the waiting area, checking out the cars and admiring their engines. I wasn’t exactly sure what I was looking at, but they looked pretty cool.

My class was called to line up. My boyfriend Mike rode in my passenger seat for my first race to give me tips. I was fifth in line in a group of 6 cars. I started out slow and let the guy behind me pass. I screeched around the turns and felt instantly confident. Coming around the last turn I got up to 80 mph and was high on adrenaline. I overshot the turn and begun to spin out. Luckily there were tires lining the course and grass to stop me. Dust filled my car and I couldn’t see where the hell I was. I thought I was going to die for about 2 seconds, but then started laughing because it was the most fun I had ever had.

My boyfriend shook his head and said, “You’re a maniac.”

A few hours later my class was up again. I was passing the shit out of cars and not giving a fuck. Although my car was my everyday driver, I treated it like a racing machine. Brake pads were cheap, so I wasn’t concerned about grinding them down. I wanted to win.

My times were decent, but still not as good as the veteran racers. A lot of people congratulated me on doing really well for my first time. I felt cool as shit. At the end of the day trophies were awarded. My boyfriend won his class; he always won. I knew there was zero chance I would win, but I was really happy for Mike.

The last trophy they gave out was called the “Smooth Driver Award.” This was for the person who navigated the course well but didn’t necessarily get great times.

My name was called. I was so shocked I didn’t know what to do.

“Holy shit I won something,” I thought to myself walking to the front of room, trying to not show any emotions while all the guys clapped and congratulated me.

That trophy is currently five feet away from me on my bookshelf.

Unfortunately, old VWs are notorious for having problems (those Germans and their backwards engineering), and the Michigan winter was not forgiving for my little German friend. I had to sell that car for a more affordable Honda, but a few years ago I bought another GTI.

I haven’t autocrossed since moving from Michigan, but I still drift around freeway on-ramps like I’m Danica fucking Patrick.

***

{Originally appeared on The Flip Collective)

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