Fancy sports cars, and particularly those found at race tracks, have typically been the play things of men, usually wealthy men. Motorsport is an old boys club, but two-time IMSA champion Christina Nielsen is on a mission to prove that many women are into cars, and potentially racing, as well. With a relatively new program called the Accelerating Change Women’s Track Day — and support provided by Porsche and Michelin, as well as motorsport sanctioning body IMSA — Nielsen has started running events for women to gain experience with track time at some of the most iconic race tracks around the country.
With an opportunity to learn better track-focused driving surrounded by other similarly interested women, some with more experience than others, they gathered from all walks of life to get some on-track experience. The most recent installation of this countrywide tour took place at Road Atlanta in Georgia, the iconic home of the Petit Le Mans endurance race going down this November.
Participant Christelle Van Steenkiste brought her own Mini track car to the event, and had this to say about the experience: “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. 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.”
“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.”
According to reports from the event, there were women of all ages and backgrounds eager to take on a new adventure. Some said they were not motorsport aficionados, but were looking to improve their on-road driving skills. Others still said they had received the experience as a gift from other people in their lives. I’ve logged quite a few laps at Road Atlanta, and it’s an intimidating place to have your first track experience. It seems like with the proper instruction, and a slow ramping up of skill building, the event went off without a hitch, despite lots of rain.
Nielsen herself won the 2016 and 2017 IMSA GTD class championships in a Ferrari 488 GT3, and joined the Porsche squad in 2018 where she found further victory, but fell short of the championship that year. Since then she and business partner Mariana Small have started the Accelerating Change program. Obviously the programs shut down in 2020 for safety during the COVID-19 pandemic, but have now returned to form in 2021. The final event of this year will take place on Nov. 19 at Laguna Seca in Monterey, California.
“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. 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.’
“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.’’
The day consists of both time in the classroom and time on the course, giving women an opportunity to learn from experienced track rats. The sport is well short on fast women, and considering that half of the world is female, it’s well past time to get them involved. Programs like this should be encouraged and hastened along.