Ashley Freiberg makes a habit of firsts. True, she rarely dips below fifth place in any race, but the type of first she does best is being the first woman to accomplish something great behind the wheel. She kicked off 2014 with one such win, and aims to repeat that performance in a few months.
On January 24, Freiberg won overall in the IMSA Continental Tire SportsCar Challenge in the BMW Performance 200 at Daytona International Speedway, and she’s the first woman ever to do so.
“Looking back at what happened last year with my ride in GT3 Cup falling apart while leading the championship, and the many days I have spent working hard to get behind the wheel again since then, it all makes this win that much sweeter,” she told reporters the day of the race.
At a mere 22 years of age, she has already broken new ground for women in motorsport. Freiberg’s firsts are many, accumulating since she won her first WKA National Title in 2006. Three years later, she was the first woman to win a BFGoodrich Skip Barber National Series race at New Jersey Motorsports Park, and the following year she was the first woman to win an overall Skip Barber Championship and MX-5 Cup race, and last year became the first female overall North American GT3 Cup Challenge Winner.
Saying that Freiberg’s entrance into the racing world was fast and furious would be somewhat true, even if it is a cliché, but the reality is that when she started karting as a young girl, she didn’t expect to take it as seriously as she does now.
One pivotal moment changed her perspective.
“I was on the track one day and I remember being called over to a television,” Freiberg says. “Danica Patrick was racing, leading the Indy 500. I had just gotten into go-karts at the time and wasn’t taking it too seriously, but as I was watching the TV she opened my eyes to the possibility of going farther with it. When she was leading the race, I thought that could have been me. She was my initial inspiration to approach racing differently.”
As it turns out, Freiberg came to be the only woman to have a particular thing in common with Patrick – recognition from the Team USA Scholarship, which nominates up and coming Formula car drivers to go to Europe and race for the Walter Hayes Trophy. While Freiberg was not nominated to go to the race, she was one of the candidates in consideration.
Freiberg cites one other influence on her on-track mindset, French former rally driver Michèle Mouton, who is still the sole woman to compete in top-level rallying.
“What I really admire about Michèle is that she never thinks of herself as a woman,” says Freiberg. “What I mean by that is, it’s as though the thought never crosses her mind. She thinks of herself as a driver above anything else. I admire that mentality and aim to emulate it in my career as well.”
So far, she’s done well by it. In 2012 TRUECar invited Freiberg to take part in its Women Empowered Initiative, a group of six women driver who compete in various racing formats ranging from open wheel to sports cars. The company’s sponsorship was an essential stepping stone in her career, helping her continue to go big instead of staying home. Later, in 2013, she joined EFFORT Racing for the IMSA GT3 Cup Challenge, where she nabbed two top-five finishes. There just aren’t many tracks that Freiberg can’t beat.
On the other hand, given the opportunity to design her own track, she does have a few specific ideas for how it would run. Her secret ingredient? Elevation.
“I love tracks with a lot of elevation, so first and foremost I would put the track in a place that was hilly or mountainous,” she explains. “I love high speed corners, so there would be plenty of those, plus ample passing zones… but elevation would absolutely be the biggest thing.” You would never guess from the way she talks about highs, lows, and her love of the pitch that at one point she was terrified of heights.
“When you’re behind the wheel of a race car, you’re always fighting yourself mentally, fighting internal barriers, fighting to push your own limits,” she says. She took to rock climbing as a form of mental training for herself. Learning to push through sequences and keep emotions out of the process helped her both on rock faces and on the track. “All sports have a sense of danger to them, but you can’t ever let that interfere with the fact that the whole reason you’re there is to get the job done.” Wise words, indeed!
Freiberg is still in the midst of determining her racing schedule for 2014, but be sure to keep an eye on her at her next race, the Continental Tire SportsCar Challenge, debuting at Sebring International Raceway on Friday, March 14.