The Ladies of Lime Rock Park by Mary O’Neill of MainStreetMag.com

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Reprinted with permission from Main Street Magazine at Mainstreetmag.com
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Below: Kim Estep in her Porsche at Lime Rock.
Photo courtesy of Rick Roso.
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By Mary B. O’Neill
info@mainstreetmag.com

Lime Rock Park is a tradition in this area. Its rich history, place in the racing world, and passionate founders and owners have shaped and defined it as a venue for guys and their race cars. Hey wait a minute, it’s 2013, where are the girls and their cars? It turns out they are there too. Skip Barber and Lime Rock Park have created a place where women can enjoy motorsports from spectator to professional driver and every pit stop along the way.

    According to Lime Rock Park’s Rick Roso motor sports are a gender equalizer. He can think of no other sport where men and women can compete as equally in the same competition. Once the helmet is strapped on being male or female does not matter, because at that point it is a test of patience, endurance, reflexes and control – not one of absolute strength or power. What unites drivers at Lime Rock, from amateur to professional, is a pure passion for driving. The atmosphere at all levels is competitive but it’s not unusual to see one driver lending an engine to another in the morning and then going wheel to wheel in the afternoon. As Roso remarked, “That’s the gestalt of the place.”

    The presence of women in motorsports and at Lime Rock is slowly growing both as professionals and amateurs. At the Park there is no special attempt to attract women and yet they are finding their way to the starting line and feeling like they have a place there. CEO Georgia Blades also observes that several senior leadership roles at Lime Rock are populated by women. This is due to an organizational culture cultivated and supported by Barber. In addition, many “right handers” or park volunteers are also women.

1st Lap: Spectators

Lime Rock Park is unique to other race tracks because it is just that, a park. This is obvious from its tree-lined entrance to grassy spectator areas surrounding the course. You could call it Tanglewood with a track. What’s missing is also obvious – a grandstand. According to Roso, this started out as a decision owing to the topography of the land on which the track was built, which resembles a natural amphitheater. It has now become a decision that reflects the type of spectator atmosphere that Lime Rock wants to cultivate – casual, relaxed, family friendly and one that promotes movement in the park, not just on the track. As a woman, this is definitely appealing. Perched on metal bleachers in the baking sun sandwiched between two die-hard fans is somehow not as attractive as setting up my own blanket or chaise longue beneath yon shady tree.

    My first time to Lime Rock was the July 6th American Le Mans Series (ALMS) event. The ambience was relaxed, yet every event was precisely timed to the minute and a tribute to logistical orchestration. Race cars and drivers were on display and accessible to fans. The Park was buzzing with all kinds of people camped out for the day. It was an awesome sight bordering on sensory overload. You could move around and find your favorite viewing position and take peeks through fences at the pit area, which I found particularly fascinating due to the focus and speed of the crews. You certainly do not need to be a racing fanatic to enjoy a day at Lime Rock.

2nd Lap: The Racing School

The Skip Barber Racing School, started by Barber in 1975 and sold in 1999, still retains his name. Now it rents space at Lime Rock as its east coast base to conduct classes. This is a common place where women have their first encounter driving at Lime Rock Park and yet interestingly women are not specifically marketed to by the school.

    Two types of driving courses are offered: racing and driving. While their goals are different the techniques taught are markedly similar. The driving school transforms you into a better driver by simulating situations you would encounter in your everyday driving life. This makes a perfect gift for women and particularly for mothers who do most of the local family driving. The racing school is where you go to improve as a driver on the track and perhaps pursue amateur or professional racing.

    Liza Pinder Steinmetz received a course at the driving school from her racing husband – not exactly Tiffany’s but a gift is a gift. For Steinmetz, the present was precipitated by a not-so-graceful slide off the road which landed her and her young son in a frozen ditch and the local police blotter. Her husband John thought the course would give her the skill to handle these conditions more successfully in the future. Reluctantly, Steinmetz enrolled. Exuberantly, she graduated the three-day course empowered with an understanding of how to make 3,000 pounds of metal bend to her will and encounter any road situation with more confidence and calm. Most of all she says she enjoys driving more than she ever has – from go-carting to carting a load of Boy Scouts to earn their next badge.

3rd Lap: The Drivers Club

Lime Rock Drivers Club was founded in 2008 by Skip Barber to meet the needs of car enthusiasts who drive the kinds of vehicles you cannot open up on the highway, well not legally anyway. Admittedly, this is a white glove way for women to access Lime Rock Park. However, if you love driving, have the resources, and want to share your passion with other like-minded people this is a good choice for you. Simon Kirkby, the Club’s director, is the real deal in the racing world with a CV that runs as far as the open road. Members have access to him and his staff of coaches, track days, club events, and a dedicated club house and viewing chalet. You can participate in races or just come to the track and drive – it’s up to you. Jeanette Veitenheimer is the Club’s efficient administrator who organizes Club days and events and keeps things humming along.

    Stephanie Economu, Kim Estep, and Carole Halvorsen are women members of the Drivers Club. All took divergent paths to get there. Economu came through the driving school, Estep through the BMW and Porsche Clubs, and Halvorsen as part of a Father’s Day gift for her husband that she decided to share in. On paper these women may seem strikingly different but what ties them together is the passion for racing and a competitive spirit honed in sports like skiing. All of them were casting about for that nebulous “thing” in their lives. In racing and the Driver’s Club they have found it. For each of them their love for driving is palpable and infectious. When they speak about racing their eyes brighten, they sit up straighter and their hands move a mile a minute as if shifting and steering.

    For Halvorsen, a mother of two grown children, racing has awakened her competitive nature dormant during her child-rearing years. Estep, a mom of two young girls eagerly describes the role racing plays in her family. Her husband drives and her daughters go-cart. She looks forward to the day when they can all be at Lime Rock driving together, but fully accepts that to keep this up she can’t quit her day job. Veteran member Economu is the Club’s best publicist and diplomat. Her motive is pure – she loves racing and wants you to love it too. Being part of the club has been life changing for Economu in many ways. It has given her an outlet to pursue a passion that she believes is now deeply part of her. Founder of Gearhead Girls Racing, a website to support and advocate for women in motorsports, she is eager to help other women “find their line” and connect them with fellow racing sisters.

    The three assert that the Club and Lime Rock are incredibly welcoming to women due to the culture of the Park, the Club coaching staff under Kirkby, and Veitenheimer’s management. They echoed the same observations as Roso – a spirit of cooperative competition that blurs the lane lines of gender. After spending the afternoon in the clubhouse with these ladies it was obvious that this passion-transcends-gender idea was no tale spin. Men and women were sitting together talking cars and trading stories of vehicles surreptitiously purchased and smuggled home without the knowledge of unsuspecting partners and spouses. Club members travel to race destinations together and there is a genuine respect for their fellow drivers, regardless of car preference. In addition, despite the financial depth one would need to join the Club it did not have an air of privilege. Sweaty members hot off the track were having lunch and talking road conditions and tires – not exactly the makings of posh conversations.

    Economu then arranged for me to be “Simonized,” an affectionate term for getting a ride on the track with Kirkby. Aside from my husband he is the only man to make me feel weak in the knees. What a rush! On the third lap I dared to glance at speedometer quivering at 125 M.P.H. on the straightaway before abruptly decelerating to 60 M.P.H. on the turns. A relaxed but focused Kirkby was steering and drifting with cool confidence. Shakily emerging from the car, I felt it was the ride of a lifetime. Yet, with the Club it does not have to be. This kind of experience can be a regular occurrence, except with you behind the wheel. Hmm, maybe the kids don’t need college…

image-1photoIMG_6491-300x199image003      Top left: Carol Halvorsen with her bright Porsche. Top right: Stephanie Economu, Kim Estep, and Carole Halvorsen in the Drivers Club Chalet for ALMS race. Above left: Shea Holbrook at Lime Rock (photo courtesy of www.shearacing.com). Above right: Stephanie Economu. Photos courtesy of Rick Roso of Lime Rock Park and Mary B. O’Neill.

4th Lap: The Professional Racer

Professional racing is another aspect of motorsports where women are making a dent. Women arriving at the pro level will have shown they have the mettle to compete on a crowded track and earn their place on the podium.

    On July 6th two women and their teams competed for the first time at Lime Rock. Katherine Legge raced in the 10th and final American Le Mans Series (ALMS) Northeast Gran Prix and Shea Holbrook competed in the Pirelli World Challenge.

    Katherine Legge is the more seasoned driver of the two. According to her father, Legge started her career go-carting at the ripe old age of nine in her native England. This is considered a late start but she soon caught up by virtue of her grit and passion for the sport. She’s been at it ever since and this year placed 26th in the Indy 500 race.

    At Lime Rock, Legge drove in the ALMS Prototype 1 (P1) class. She is part of a driving team developing and testing the DeltaWing, which according to car’s website “embodies a new era of eco- friendly technological advancement, with nearly half the weight, aerodynamic drag, horsepower and fuel consumption of its competitors.” All you really need to know is that it resembles a very cool shiny silver bullet with wheels. Legge found the setting of Lime Rock reminiscent of circuits in England. For her the course is distinctive due to its short 1.5 mile length and seven corners. While racing this track she says, “…you are always doing something and the pit wall is very active.”

    As for women in racing Legge observed that there has only ever been a few of them and this is all she has ever known. For Legge, “The car does not know the difference. To it, you are just a driver.” It is not about sheer physical strength, it’s more about endurance. She has found that the small numbers of women in pro racing is a double edged sword. You have to do more to prove yourself because of the male-dominated nature of the sport. However, she is also quick to observe that the novelty of women in professional racing does open some doors in a very insecure business, where you need financial backing and a good team to keep racing and progress in the sport. She is grateful for each day that she has a chance to race and do what she loves doing.

1374249890_NewHomePage2rd42496_a-680x452rd42416-680x452Above: Katherine Legge with the DeltaWing which “embodies a new era of eco-friendly technological advancement, with nearly half the weight, aerodynamic drag, horsepower and fuel consumption of its competitors.” Photos courtesy of Katherine Legge’s website, www.katherinelegge.com.
 

  Holbrook, a competitive water skier in a family of modest means, changed lanes after participating in a Richard Petty Driving Experience in her teens. Although she was sure of her calling as a racer her parents – particularly her dad – needed to be convinced. So at the next Performance Racing Industry Trade Show she peddled her business cards and made contacts. In 2011, after spending time building street cred and graduating college Holbrook won the Gran Prix of Long Beach – her first major race. She is still establishing herself. Last year she and her team were offered a two-year sponsorship by TrueCar, through a contact she made at that trade show years earlier.

    In her race, Holbrook drove a Honda Fit modified to do some things yours can’t – like go really fast. For Holbrook, this is what makes her kind of racing so accessible to fans, because it is in cars they might own and drive. In her estimation, Lime Rock is a tough course to race fast primarily due to the variability of weather conditions in the Northeast, which can change rapidly and dramatically within the space of 20 minutes. Track challenges aside, being at Lime Rock made her feel like she was entering history since it is permeated with racing tradition. The track has a unique energy and makes for a special racing experience because Skip Barber is in residence there and she earned her racing license at the school that bears his name.

The Finish Line

Women in motorsports at any level are still few and far between. While slowly changing due to the efforts of some extraordinary women and men, it remains very much a man’s world. So much so that while there are manufacturers making road-hugging equipment none are making tools of the trade like racing suits or seats to hug a woman’s curves. Members of the Drivers Club are still taking men’s equipment and tailoring it to conform to their needs.

    As with any field dominated by men, women need to work that much harder to prove themselves worthy, particularly at the highest levels of competition. The women who drive at Lime Rock Park are breaking through the glass finish line one lap at a time – they are watching the sport, developing skill, racing for fun and competition, and as professionals garnering the wins and sponsorship they need to progress.

    In our local area, Lime Rock Park, the Lime Rock Drivers Club and the Skip Barber Racing School have created a seamless web of opportunity for women to take a drive on the wild side and pursue motorsports from spectator to professional in a supportive way. If you have the passion and the drive, they can get you where you want to go. Ladies, start your engines.  

For more information:
Lime Rock Park, www.limerock.com
Lime Rock Drivers Club, www.limerockclub.com
Skip Barber Racing School, www.skipbarber.com
Gear Head Girls Racing, www.gearheadgirlsracing.com
 
Literary Intrigue at Lime Rock
For those of you who want to read
about a woman racer at Lime Rock
Park check out Dead Man’s Switch,
the first in the Kate Reilly Racing
Mysteries by Tammy G. Kaehler. Set
at Lime Rock on the weekend of the
July ALMS aspiring race-car driver
Kate Reilly pulls into the parking lot
and bumps into the corpse of a talented
but not well liked racer. She is
not only a suspect in the case but the
woman selected to take the victim’s
seat in that day’s race. The book
visits favorite haunts in the Northwest
Corner as well as familiar spots in the
park.
Dead Man’s Switch is available at
Darren Winston, Bookseller located
at 81 Main Street, Sharon, CT or
www.darrenwinstonbookseller.com

 LRP

 

 

 

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