Pulling into the hotel parking lot about a 10-minute drive from Michelin Raceway Road Atlanta last month, I couldn’t help but notice the woman with a roll of blue painter’s tape, crouched beside her Mercedes, carefully crafting the number “96” to stick on the front doors on either side of her four-door sedan.
I was in the right place.
Her car was already gone from the lot by the time I checked out of the hotel early the next morning and headed to the track for the Accelerating Change Women’s Track Day, powered by Michelin and Porsche. It was raining hard as I made the quick trip to the famed circuit in rural Georgia. But this was going to be a rain-or-shine activity – and to this day I appreciate the unanticipated driving lessons for wet conditions.
Sure enough, that “No. 96 Mercedes” was in the parking lot when I arrived and a full room of eager women had already checked in for the event. Standing near the floor-to-ceiling windows inside the Michelin Tower’s Podium Club overlooking the frontstretch, I noticed a woman in a driver’s suit with racing shoes and a helmet to match. The rest of us were in jeans and tennis shoes, grateful to borrow plain white helmets.
It was obvious that Christelle Van Steenkiste was the “veteran” among us. Not only did she have all the professional attire, she brought her own race car – a Mini Cooper built to racing standards.
“I have more seat time than most people here, let’s put it that way,’’ Van Steenkiste said with a wide, welcoming smile, explaining why she was so glad to be at track.
“Just to be here and surrounded by women, particularly since I’m in a male-dominated (professional) industry. I’ve been doing this (amateur racing) for five years and I’ve been welcomed in the paddock by everybody. I’m usually the only girl, or maybe two. So being here today with all these women feels so different.’’
Van Steenkiste acknowledged that because her Mini had slicks – tires used in dry conditions – she did not expect many laps in the weather that day. But, she anticipated, there was still a lot to gain from the experience.
“What I will get most out of it is to see a smile on every woman’s face because, for most of the folks here, this will be their first time,’’ Van Steenkiste said of the Accelerating Change experience – taking place on the same professional race course that will host the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship’s Motul Petit Le Mans season finale on Nov. 13.
“The first time (on track) can be overwhelming,’’ she said. “You could dread it because there is a lot to remember and it’s tiring. I remember my first time, it was kind of like, ‘Holy crap!’ By the end of the day, I learned so much. So, if they can just smile after all this, they will have a good day.”
There certainly was no shortage of high-wattage smiles. The women participating in the event showed up curious, eager and open. For most, this was a new adventure of sorts. There were women of all ages, from different backgrounds. Some conceded they weren’t auto racing fans, necessarily, but wanted to attend to improve their driving skills. Others received the Accelerating Change experience as a gift.
For me, a longtime racing reporter, the chance to turn legitimate laps on this racing iconic circuit seemed like a win-win-win. It would be fun. It should make me more familiar with the circuit’s nuances, and therefore better at my job.
‘We want to be a part of changing this’
Our “drivers’ meeting” was led by Accelerating Change co-founder and racer Christina Nielsen, whose career I have covered as a motorsports writer.
Nielsen co-drove a Ferrari 488 GT3 to three IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship GT Daytona class victories between 2016-17, including the famed Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring Presented by Advance Auto Parts in 2016 – making history as the first woman to win a series title and, in fact, earning it both seasons with Ferrari. She won a fourth GTD race in 2018 driving a Porsche 911 GT3R.
Nielsen and business partner Mariana Small started the well-received Accelerating Change program in 2019, only to have to put it on hold during the COVID-19 shutdown last year. It has returned to popular form with track days across the country – closing its 2021 schedule Nov. 19 at California’s WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca.
“The first (event), I remember,’’ Nielsen explained. “I remember the first one to sign up and I said, ‘Well, OK we’re not alone, someone actually wants to do this.’
“Normally when you do a track day, there’s 60 guys and maybe one or two women,” she continued. “Our gender is very under-represented, and so we want to be a part of changing this. I hope women that come to a track day want to join the other clubs and other track days and be a part of what I love to be a part of, which is, once you are behind the wheel, the car can’t tell the difference. The car is the car and you are the driver.
“The thing is, when I’m coaching or instructing there is a stigma or perception this is what the guys do, not what the women do. They aren’t under the perception this is something they can do. So, I think the key is we are actually marketing this toward the women. We do work with men and have plenty of male instructors — our chief driving instructor is male, so we do have diversity and mix.’’
The program’s chief driving instructor was Tyler Hoffman, a Marietta, Georgia, resident and longtime driver coach. He and Nielsen spent a half hour that morning going over what each of the colored flags meant and what to do when they are displayed at the start/finish line, or what it means if a yellow flag appears at various points around the 2.54-mile, 12-turn course.
Should you see the black flag, “it means you’re in trouble,’’ Hoffman said, with a smile.
With the steady downpour visible through the windows behind Nielsen and Hoffman, there was extended safety talk about driving in the wet. Each participant drives their own car with an instructor in the passenger seat.
“The general rule of thumb,’’ Hoffman said, “if it looks shiny on a part of the track, avoid it.’’
They offered several general suggestions. Hands should be positioned at 3 o’clock and 9 o’clock on the steering wheel, not 10 and 2 as many learned as teenagers in driver’s education classes. And don’t go looking for trouble.
“Wherever you are looking is where you will end up, so look where you want to go,” Hoffman said. “Often, you will find the grip by first finding where the grip is not.’’
Before the personal driving coaches broke off to meet their eager new students, Nielsen offered encouragement specific for the day, “Honestly, racing in the rain is super cool. It’s a way of pressing your comfort zone.’’
In the next few hours, some of us pressed. Some did not. But it was all good.
Writing a soggy new chapter in driving a performance car
Seyhan Kilincci, 50, was smiling and friendly as he approached after the general meeting and introduced himself as my instructor. At 6-foot-4, he towered over the two students he was assigned, each of us 5-3.
I was scheduled on track first, so we went outside to survey the 2021 Mercedes-AMG GLA 45 I was fortunate to drive that day. It looked fast – with paddle shifters and a shiny new set of Michelin tires.
I had done a racing school before – driving Formula Fords with the Skip Barber Racing at Sebring International Raceway in the early 1990s. And after another couple decades trackside reporting on the sport, I thought I possessed a pretty good general idea of apexes, how to approach corners and when to lift and when to GO.
But I quickly discovered this was a much-needed refresher course. And the rain offered a whole new chapter.
Still, how often are you put in a brand new, high-performance car and told to drive as fast as you possibly can? It was absolutely fantastic. I loved the challenge. And I could genuinely feel the adrenalin as I focused on finding the right line. I began to better understand the “zone” racers must be in to compete.
The 12-turn course has some definite challenges and concludes with a big downhill elevation change coming to the long right-hander that puts you on the front straightaway. It was mental and physical work negotiating the vastly different speeds of the various cars on track with me, the increasingly heavy rain, plus learning the steering and braking nuances on a track I had never driven before.
Exceeding 100mph – even in the steady downpour – seemed to be the threshold of whether you were legitimately “pushing yourself.” That became my goal with each lap, and I met it consistently in the final two of the four sessions; passing cars – literally – left and right as they signaled me by.
I confess to using a few “unladylike” words as I learned the circuit. At one point as I was trying to increase my speed, I went off course negotiating Turns 3 and 4 – a tight left- and right-hander. Such an excursion automatically earns an upcoming penalty to “pit and discuss” in this program. Kilincci was not upset with the flub, though, and admitted being proud of me because I returned to the track quickly and no one passed me even with the gaffe.
He shook his head, however, wondering how I was getting all the tough high-speed portions of the course correct, only to slip up on a more straightforward series of turns.
“First of all, that was a street car,’’ Kilincci said of the day. “The rain didn’t help you learn the car’s limits, however you did get the advantage of learning how to drive in rain.”
He has been an instructor for two years and said there tends to be a notable difference between teaching men and teaching women during these track days.
“Men tend to be more into cars and like to just drive and go fast and, generally speaking, they seem to have formed bad habits more than the women seem to,” he said. “Women come to the track and see it as a blank sheet of paper, whereas the men, you first have to lose their bad habits so you can make them better.
“Some come thinking they know more than you already. It takes more time for them to understand there may be a better way of doing things, whereas the women come and typically are more open to suggestions from the get-go.
“You were doing very well, especially at the end, and I was very proud of the times from start compared to the end. I was actually pleasantly surprised.’’
Driving under the right influence accelerates the change
After the four driving sessions finished, the larger group gathered again to cap off the day and talk about their experiences. It may have been gloomy outside, but the mood inside was decidedly bright and upbeat.
“We see that at every track day and that’s what makes it worth it,’’ Nielsen said. “Planning these things takes a lot of effort and takes a lot of time but how the women look at the end of the day, even a day like this when it’s wet and raining.
“Of course, it can be a little more nerve-wracking going out in the rain, but these women are throwing themselves out there and just giving it a try and enjoying themselves. We get such positive feedback. And the instructors are enjoying themselves as well.
“For us, it’s the beginning of the day to the end of the day where we see a change and we see our action. Our event had an influence on somebody in a positive matter and that’s the best thing we can take away from it.’’
As the students and instructors shared stories, I saw the woman who had been putting tape on her Mercedes at the hotel the day before. She was happy and grateful for the experience.
“I just figured it was another day on I-85, except I’m out there with a few more curves,’’ laughed 62-year-old MaryBeth Ibbenthal, of Dunwoody, Georgia, whose Accelerating Change experience was a gift from her niece and nephews.
“I’m just out here to have a good time and to learn some things, maybe just different mindsets.
“It’s something I’ve never done. I don’t care if I’m Mr. Magoo or not, I’m having fun.’’
As I was leaving, I came across two male instructors in the parking lot. One stopped and asked if I had been in the Mercedes GLA 45. I told him yes, and they both put an arm on my shoulder and congratulated me. They said I had been impressively fast, especially in the rain.
“Great job!’’ they said. It was as if they’d delivered my own personal checkered flag.
Are you interested in checking it out for yourself? The final Accelerating Change Women’s Track Day is scheduled for Nov. 19, 2021 at WeatherTech Raceway Laguna Seca. Visit accelerating-change.com to sign up or find out more.