“Growing up, my father captivated me with stories of his racing days, full of muscle cars, car clubs, and good old-fashioned bravado. He taught me how to shift a manual transmission before my feet could even reach the pedals; it was in moments like those that my dreams of becoming an IndyCar driver were born,” explains Monica Hope Shoneff.
“Fast-forward to 18 years of age, and my need for independence outweighed my desire to pursue my dreams, so I joined the military.”
Shoneff earned the rank of Sergeant during her years in the United States Army and Army Reserve. But it was her love of driving that led her to choose a field in the Army with the Transportation Corps.
“I deployed 15 months in Southeastern Baghdad at Camp Rustamiyah with a transportation company of the 2nd Brigade Support Battalion for 2nd Infantry Division, where I delivered supplies to surrounding forward operating bases,” she says.
Once back in civilian life, however, Shoneff struggled with the thing she’d once loved. “Driving turned into a professional responsibility for me [in the Army] – it became serious, people’s lives were in my hands. During deployment, on convoy, I had to constantly be aware and on the lookout. Then when I came home it was very hard to turn that hypervigilance off. I hated to be stuck in traffic; I had a lot of anxiety driving and I just didn’t love it anymore.”
Then earlier this year, Shoneff was invited to participate in a Sports Car Club of America (SCCA) autocross event courtesy of VETMotorsports. The concept of the program is to assist veterans during their transition back to civilian life by embedding them in genuine motorsports events.
“I saw programs in the U.K. that were using motorsports as a way to transition injured veterans into motorsports, so using that as an inspiration, I created the basic concept of this program in 2012,” says Peter Cline, executive director and founder of VETMotorsports.org. “I wanted the experience to be very hands on and immersive and not a parade of veterans just getting thanked for their service.
“I knew that the first event we held would really effect the [motorsports] team,” Cline recalls of the program’s beginnings. “But how the event positively affected the veteran participants was overwhelming. From that point, I knew we had a concept that had the potential to really transform the lives of those attending our events.”
The weekend Shoneff found herself in as part of the VETMotorsports program was an SCCA ProSolo autocross in Crows Landing, Calif., this past April. SCCA has been working with VETMotorsports for a few years now, and the SCCA considers its involvement an honor.
“Across the rich 75-year history of the SCCA, we have been fortunate to have many veteran enthusiasts among our ranks, and today we have them in every SCCA community across the country,” SCCA president and CEO Michael Cobb notes. “The opportunity for us to give something back to the men and women who have given so much in service to our country is both humbling and a honor.”
For Shoneff’s weekend, “Zach Collett, another veteran, greeted us and said, ‘Hey I’m here on behalf of VETMotorsports, come on, I’m going to take you down to the practice course,’” Shoneff recalls. “At that point I didn’t know what was going on. I just showed up with my driver’s license and water bottle, and they said here’s the Camaro you’ll be driving, it’s a six-speed, can you drive a stick?”
Shoneff quickly found herself in the hands of civilians giving her a lesson in autocross, prepping her for the weekend to come. “[SCCA Regional Development Manager] Velma Boreen said OK, do you want to try the track first or do you want me to run through it – I’m like, hallelujah, you do it first because I want to see it visually before I try it,” Shoneff explains of her first few hours during the two-day SCCA event.
“So we got our helmets, she rolled through [the course] and gave me a few tips, like don’t be late on the slaloms, and push yourself just past where you feel comfortable. Then just as quickly as we started, Velma said, ‘OK, you’re up!’
“I took my time and went through the course once [with Boreen in the passenger seat] – and then to my surprise she got out [of the car],” Shoneff continues. “My next run was incredible! I felt anxious yet more peaceful without her in the car. I was really able to push myself and the car; I didn’t realize I had been holding back to protect Velma. The way I drove initially reflected my military training – Velma was precious cargo and I needed to keep her safe. But throughout the weekend, I tried to let go and just drive.”
It didn’t take long for Shoneff to realize the event’s impact on her; during the drive home she even found herself practicing some of the things she’d just learned. And now, post event, she sees even more of the impact the VETMotorsports weekend has had on her life.
“Doing this event really changed the way I experience driving now,” she shares. “The ProSolo helped me face my fears and hypervigilance; it helped me be present and regain confidence behind the wheel, and it opened the doors to reconnect with more people and my love of driving.”
The military, Shoneff points out, builds service members up through years of training to be soldiers, airmen, and Marines. “Then when it’s time to leave the military they give you a few days of PowerPoint classes with presentations from community providers, and hope we figure out how to navigate the transition back to civilian life,” she says.
“Ten years post-active duty, I can attest civilian readjustment can be a daunting task. Despite the military’s best effort through transition assistance programs, I’ve found that the folks who are best at teaching us how to be civilians again are civilians themselves. So I loved that this was a VETMotorsports event imbedded in a traditional ProSolo event. The SCCA staff and community welcomed us, taught us, and we are better people and drivers because of it.”
VETMotorsports is an all-volunteer, 501c3 charitable organization that depends entirely on donations to fund its motorsports-driven veteran outreach. If you’d like to learn more or make a donation, visit www.vetmotorsports.org/donate.