Engineering and education: The Gracie Project

Image by Samuel Masinter/Grace College

Engineering and education: The Gracie Project

SCCA / SportsCar Magazine

Engineering and education: The Gracie Project


Success in motorsports is never a guarantee, but Grace Hackenberg is not your average enthusiast, and hers is no average story

If it takes a village to raise a child, what does it take to build a racing team? For Grace Hackenberg the unlikely answer was a congregation – or two. And then some. You see, Grace, a 20-something from Portland, Ore., has a penchant for forging her own path and conquering obstacles, so when she decided racing was her future, it was hard work – and quite a few friends – that pulled her through.

Image by Megan Haley

Smith College, one of the prestigious Seven Sisters, graduated its first class of ambitious women in 1879, but it’s not the first place that comes to mind when the curriculum is engineering. In fact, Smith only began offering its engineering degree program in the early 2000s. But despite it being a relatively new offering, the program is eye catching.

“Smith has a really unique engineering program where you can design your own discipline,” Grace explains. “I thought I was going to be an aerospace engineer, or some other type of engineer. The summer before my senior year in high school, I saved up and took a racing school, and I knew this was it – it’s got to be racecars for the rest of my life. I was able to tailor all of my course work and projects and build a racecar. It was an opportunity to have hands-on working experience.”

The idea was there from her start at Smith, but how to turn the dream into reality? Enter a Smith alum, Joni Gang. At that time, her husband, Dean Case, was the Director of Public Relations for Mazda Motorsports. Therefore, the obvious answer was a Miata.

Grace set her sights on a multi-discipline event called the Grassroots Motorsports $2017 Challenge. The event incorporated racing against the clock on both the dragstrip and an autocross course, with the added element of preparing the car within a strict budget – two thousand and seventeen dollars – matching the year. Starting with a scrapped 1999 Mazda Miata, she worked under the tutelage of Hale Motorsports and her engineering advisor at Smith, Sue Froehlich.


Image courtesy Grace Hackenberg

There were fundamental challenges. While Grace recruited fellow students for a variety of roles from fundraising to logistics, the bulk of the car preparation labor fell on Grace herself. There was also no indoor workshop, so she improvised with a covered loading dock. It became a pioneering experience for Smith College on a variety of levels.

The team eventually made the long trek to Florida and acquitted itself with distinction, earning a seventh-place finish in the competition, catching the attention of national media outlets including Autoweek and the Wall Street Journal.

That exposure led Hackenberg to Donovan Motor Cars, a renowned Jaguar specialist in Lenox, Mass., and a favorable impression from company founder Brian Donovan. “This was the first time we had an engineering student as an intern,” Brian explains. “Right from the beginning, you could see the drive, the willingness to want to get into this field and work. For Grace, this was not just going to be a job but something that was really a passion for her.”

Working diligently on the shop floor, Grace parlayed her work ethic and graduation – class of 2018 – into a full-time paid appointment as a service technician.

While her daily work routine involved all aspects of customer car care, it was the after-hours attraction of Donovan’s motorsports program that spoke to her soul. The Donovan squad campaigns a trio of front-running Jaguar XK-Es in high-profile events like the Lime Rock Historics. Whenever it came to the racecars, Grace was on board. “You just had to whisper the word and she was there,” Brian smiles. “As an example of her enthusiasm, I would have to make her put in a time sheet for it, otherwise she wouldn’t even be asking to get paid.”

Dave Hathaway, who’s been with the Donovan racing program since its beginning as a one-car effort, became her mentor.

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