The fast and the feminine
Feeling the need for speed, women are taking driving ambitions to the track
Typically delivered in a less-than-complimentary tone, the phrase soon may take on a favorable meaning.
A burgeoning national interest in motor sports, coupled with an unabashed need for speed, has brought an increasing number of women to the racetrack, eager to test their mettle on what's traditionally been a man's turf.
Racing instructors say women have a natural affinity for the sport, showing an ease behind the wheel that men often struggle to achieve.
'What am I doing here?'
Lake Oswego resident Carolyn Kreitz didn't plan on taking the three-day racing class at Portland International Raceway.
'I wanted to get an interesting gift for my husband, Jon, who's one of those people that have everything,' she explains. 'But we always do everything together, so he suggested that I sign up, too.'
The mother of two teenage girls, Kreitz says her first reaction to the class was, 'What am I doing here?' Savvy instructors and her own gung-ho attitude soon had her going in the right direction.
'The instructors are fantastic,' she says. 'They tune in quickly and see what you're feeling Ñ in my case, panic Ñ and walk you through it step by step.'
Kreitz says it didn't take long for the speed-fueled rush to kick in.
'I felt it the first day,' she recalls, proudly showing the gradually diminishing lap times jotted down by her instructors. 'You step on the gas and go as fast as you want.'
Kreitz thinks the class will pay off for years to come Ñ on and off the road.
And while she can impress others, including her brothers, with her knowledge of the sport, the person who's most impressed is Kreitz herself.
'I'm laughing as I go to sleep Ñ 'I can't believe I'm doing this!' '
A little finesse
Todd Harris is the owner of Pitarresi Pro Drive, the official driving school of PIR and the school that the Kreitzes attended. He gives a quick overview of the cars used in the Pro Drive classes.
'These Ford cars are called spec racers,' he says, 'which means that they're all the same.'
Low, lean and light, the cars have no extraneous parts to slow them down. Even the windshield has been eliminated; the driver's helmet is all that separates her from the elements, which rush by at up to 120 mph.
Harris says women typically make up 20 percent of the Pro
Drive class rosters.
'Racing doesn't have to be a male-dominated sport,' he says. 'It's not about strength, so there's no reason a woman can't come out here and be just as fast as a man.'
Cindi Lux, a Portland-based professional race car driver, agrees that strength isn't a factor behind the wheel. When asked if testosterone makes for a faster lap, Lux responds as if the green flag has been dropped.
'The car doesn't know any different! Finesse and the mental side of it are more important than the physical aspects,' she says. 'In motor sports, it's just you, the car and the track.'
At 40, Lux is an accomplished driver, having won eight championship titles in 13 years of racing Ñ against men.
It's the competition that keeps her coming back for more. Lux cites the adrenaline rush that comes when several cars are abreast and vying for position.
'It's not just about speed Ñ it's the competition that brings out the best in you,' she says.
Her years in the sport afford Lux a valuable perspective on women in racing. 'I see more and more women getting involved all the time,' she says, adding that it's never too late to start up. 'I just taught an 80-year-old woman in a class in Atlanta.'
One characteristic, in particular, may give women the pole position on the track, according to Harris.
'Well, they are better at listening to instructions,' he notes.
Professional racetracks aren't the only places to sample speed.
Kevin O'Connell manages Malibu Grand Prix in Beaverton, where customers zip around a half-mile track in racers resembling scaled-down Formula One cars. Lately, O'Connell has noticed a change in his customer base.
'Our typical demographic is 18- to 40-year-old men,' he says. 'But over the last 10 years we've seen a steady increase in the number of women coming out to drive.'
Adding fuel to the fire that's been burning since the first Model T rolled off the assembly line, O'Connell says: 'I can personally say that the women out here are typically better drivers than the men. Guys try to 'muscle' the car, and as any professional driver can tell you, it's more about finesse than muscle. Women have that finesse Ñ they think it through a little more.'
Neither does the fairer sex fold when the pressure's on.
'I see the women being much more competitive than the men,' he says. 'It's fun to watch the woman's expression when she beats him.'
Like mother, like daughter
Sara Norlin took Pro Drive's three-day course in March. The 26-year-old full-time nanny admits to feeling pre-race jitters and the pressure to succeed.
'I work for a local race car driver, and my parents were both racers,' Norlin says. 'So I was excited to take the class, but I was also scared that I wouldn't do well.'
Although Norlin says she's now hooked on speed ('I think I was up to about 110 mph'), she's not yet ready to pursue her club racing license. 'I do plan on getting back in the car for more instruction,' she says.
Norlin is pleasantly surprised by the reaction she receives upon telling friends of her new interest.
'Most people think it's really cool Ñ especially women,' she says. 'But every once in a while you run across a person who thinks that a woman has no business going really fast around a race track.'
Her mother, Patty Norlin, 50, is certainly not one of them. When she was in her early 20s, the Damascus resident followed her soon-to-be husband to PIR, where she worked on the communication crew as he raced. It wasn't long before she herself was racing, an interest she maintained even as a young mother.
But Sara didn't always share her enthusiasm, Patty Norlin says: 'When she was little, she didn't want me to race. One time she sat in the truck, crying, while I drove. I think she was 7.'
Patty isn't surprised at Sara's 180-degree turn when it comes to the subject of speed.
'I don't know if it's nature or nurture,' she says. 'But both our girls have been at the track since they were infants. I didn't stay home with them; I just took them with me.'
While competing demands have put the brakes on her driving, Patty plans to get behind the wheel again after her husband's retirement next year.
'We're restoring the Spitfire that we took our first driving lessons in,' she says proudly.
Good, legal fun
The PIR course has other benefits.
'You also learn lot of things that can be applied to everyday driving,' says Jennifer Vonfeldt, who recently took a course from pro driver Lux. 'I learned how to control my car in a skid or in the rain, and how to take corners.'
Nonetheless, there's something to be said for the pure thrill that speed provides. Vonfeldt admits that her day on the track was a long time in coming and is something she plans on repeating as soon as possible.
'I've always enjoyed driving fast,' says the 28-year-old desktop support analyst. 'In fact, as soon as I had my driver's license I started racking up tickets. I needed to get someplace where it was legal!'
Contact Jill Spitznass at