[dropcap size=small]I[/dropcap] first met Julia Landauer at the peak of my most awkward phase – in 6th grade. We clicked instantly and our friendship grew with after school hangouts by the ice cream truck and membership in the knitting club (we didn’t just look awkward).
Our friendship shifted gears, however, when she left Fieldston after 8th grade to attend the extremely competitive specialized high school, Stuyvesant, in lower Manhattan.
Although it’s been years since I last saw Julia in the flesh, it’s hard not to keep up with her every move. She has become a badass racecar driver in hot pursuit of a NASCAR career, the youngest contestant on the 26th season of the CBS hit-show Survivor set in the Caramoan Islands, and a science, technology, and society major at Stanford University in California. In short, Julia’s been all over the map, but it’s where she’s headed next that is most intriguing.
How did you get into racecar driving?
My parents, who were not racers, got my two younger siblings and I into go-karts when I was 10 years old. It was originally just a weekend activity that we could all do together, where boys and girls competed together and where we could get a mechanical background. I loved it right away, everything from the speed, to the competition, to the hard work and satisfaction.
And I started winning pretty early on, which was great. By the time I was 12 I told my parents that I had to keep doing this, and from that point on I’ve viewed racing as something that I will eventually do professionally.
If you could do anything other than racing what would it be?
I cannot picture my life without racing. I’ve had the dream of being a professional racecar driver for over 10 years now and it’s hard to fathom a different life. That being said, regardless of whether or not the driving works out, I want to develop a business that fuses racing, community, and technology. I really like bringing people together around a project, helping figure out everyone’s strengths and weaknesses, and working hard to achieve our goal. So business is another avenue I enjoy. But no matter what I’ll be in the racing industry.
Have you encountered any adversity over the years being involved in such a male-dominated sport?
The question I always get is: “what’s it like to be a woman in racing?” Honestly, it’s normal. I’m used to being a minority. That being said, there have been two major patterns that have been difficult to deal with. The first instance was when I was 12, ready to move up to the national level of go-karts, and none of the teams wanted to work with me. In racing, you need a team of mechanics, coaches, owners, etc. to give you the support you need. At the time I didn’t understand why we couldn’t be on one of the big-name teams, and my parents did their best to describe it to me…and it hurt. I had just won a championship at my local track, I was great, and no one wanted to be involved. (However, that led to meeting my coach. Glenn Butler saw my potential and wanted to take a risk on me…and we dominated).
The second bout of adversity is what happens every time I join a new team (every season or two). When I show up at the track to drive for a team, I get a sense that the team doesn’t expect a lot from me. The teams expect guys to be good and girls to be slower. Joining a team that sends subtle hints that you aren’t going to be good not only makes it hard to motivate the team, but it also forces me to deal with another obstacle…instead of just focusing on mastering the car and the track, I need to convince the team that I’m worth it. I do believe it’s a bigger hurdle to overcome than my male counterparts.
Is more demanded of you because you are a woman in this sport?
I think as a woman I have more negative assumptions and stereotypes that I have to prove wrong in order to get respect. I also have to work a little bit harder to be part of the “club” that is racing, not just because I’m a woman but also because I’m from NYC, went to Stanford, you know, not coming from a “normal” racing background. So, off-track, I am demanded to fight through more barriers. But at the end of the day, every racer’s job is to get out there and win, regardless of who you are.
What are you most passionate about?
I am most passionate about the process of preparation, the execution, and the mastery of racing. It’s a lifestyle, constantly thinking about how to advance my career, whether it’s on the physical racing side or the business side. I enjoy the hard work of preparing mentally and physically, of sharing my story to attract sponsors and of pushing myself to the absolute maximum. Then the driving and racing itself is completely consuming. When the visor goes down I’m in the zone, and nothing matters but what I’m doing in the car. I begin to operate on a subconscious level, with the car an extension of me and the track an extension of the car. Everything flows without actively thinking about specific actions that need to be taken. It’s magical and addicting.
How do you see the world of racing evolving or transforming in the future?
Racing is a huge sport, with NASCAR specifically being the second-most watched sport in the country after football. Yet NASCAR is still looked down upon by many markets and industries. The fact is that it’s an amazing sport, a huge economy, a widespread business, and an incredible source of entertainment. I think in the future we’re going to see the cars become more cutting-edge, the fan-engagement more national, and the respect as a sport far greater.
NASCAR has partnered with HP to use big data for its fan engagement analytics and will only continue to make itself a technological powerhouse. I think people are starting to understand that it is a real sport and that the drivers are athletes, and hopefully that becomes a given. I hope I live to see the day when it’s a 50/50 split between men and women drivers, but I worry that that might take a little bit more time.
What has been your most career-defining moment thus far?
There have been a lot of ups and downs in racing (it’s said it has the highest highs and lowest lows, but no middle ground). What catapulted me to being a serious racecar driver was when I was 14 and won my first car championship. I was racing in the Skip Barber Racing Series, the next youngest driver was 22, and I won 12 of my 14 races, making me the first female champion in the series’ 31-year history. That championship defined me as a winner. I’ve won a bunch since then, but a championship that early on signified that people could take me seriously as a champion. And it was pretty cool to make history.
What is your ultimate goal for your racing career?
I want to win championships at the highest level of professional racing. Right now I’m focusing on developing myself via the NASCAR route. I also want to be able to drive many different types of cars, such as sports cars, formula cars, etc. But the goal is always to win, to improve, to be on the edge and at the limit.
I also hope that I’ll develop a platform from which I can help get more women into the sport. I think there’s this perception that there’s only enough room for a few women in racing, which is false. We need to work together, not bring each other down, and prove that women are just as able. Racing is a unique sport in which biology doesn’t prevent women and men from competing together, and I feel like that needs to be taken advantage of.
Do you have a favorite racer? Who has been your biggest role model?
I have several heroes. I’ve always admired Mark Martin, Kyle Busch, Lyn St. James and Michael Schumacher. Mark Martin, who just ended his full-time NASCAR career, raced up front into his mid-fifties with grace on and off the track. Kyle Busch, the “bad boy” of NASCAR, is so talented that he can get into any vehicle and win, whether on the national or local level. Lyn St. James was the first woman to receive the Indianapolis 500 Rookie of the Year award and has won the 24 Hours of Daytona, 12 Hours of Sebring, and dedicates her time now to helping other women in the sport succeed. Michael Schumacher was an exceptional Formula 1 racer, setting records all over the place and winning almost everything. I want to take bits and pieces from all of them as I develop as a racer.
If you could race anywhere in the world where would it be?
I grew up watching Formula 1 and always dreamed of racing on the streets of Monaco. The whole city comes out, people watch from their balconies, and the streets of the city are turned into a technical racecourse. I also really want to race on Watkins Glen, in upstate NY. It’s a historic racetrack that I was too young to race on before. And NASCAR races there, so hopefully I’ll make it soon!
What is your next adventure? What is next for you and racing?
The immediate goal for my racing is to find the sponsorship I need to go racing for the next few years in the NASCAR K&N Pro series (first televised series in NASCAR). I’m going to be out at Stanford until our graduation in June talking with companies and getting folks excited. Then, starting in July, I’m really starting the next chapter in my life by moving to Charlotte, NC!
I’m going to be racing in a local series several times a week in the NC region while continuing to get sponsorship. Plan B is to make Plan A work…right now, finding a Plan C isn’t quite an option.
How are you so fearless? What keeps your fear at bay?
The sheer thrill of racing a car overrides any fears I have. The feeling of being on the absolute edge of what you, the car and the track can do is so exhilarating that it would be such a shame not to push past the fears. And it is scary, but it’s also exciting and makes me feel the most full of life I ever feel.
Yasmin Shahida is a senior English major and communications concentration at Davidson College in North Carolina. She is originally from Scarsdale, New York. While at Davidson she has interned for CBS News, WBTV Charlotte, NPR’s The Takeaway, and is a contributor to Davidsonnews.net. Yasmin spent her junior year studying abroad in Istanbul, Turkey — a city she hopes to return to in the near future!