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He told me: “Capture the smell of burnt rubber and overcooked brake pads, the roar of the turbos, the sensation of flying through a banked turn, and the excitement you get from all of it,” so that’s what I tried to do. 

 

Fast Girl by Ingrid Steffensen:  A Review

by Ziva Allen

 

FastGirl2I don’t know about you, but my favorite kind of book is one in which I can identify with either the character in a fiction novel or the author of a memoir.  I love to learn about what makes others tick and the insight it tends to give me about myself.  I recently read Ingrid Steffensen’s book Fast Girl, and I have to admit that the book simply made me feel good.  Because I could identify with Ingrid and many of the topics she wrote about (in the track day world….and beyond), I felt validated, not only as a woman for taking on this hobby (which in itself was quite helpful!) but even in the most general sense.  Ingrid opens up about how it feels to be the only girl or one of the only girls at the track and reading her accounts made me feel like I’m not the only girl at the track – even if she and I aren’t at the same one at the same time!  

I have to make one thing very clear to you guys!  This book is not just for women.  If you don’t believe me, check out the section on lingerie (yup - even panties have their place at the track!) and one of the most hysterical passages I’ve ever read in any book about how it turns out that women really do need a set of balls to effectively hit the breaking point coming up to a turn at the track.  Ingrid can be humorous.  But she uses her humor to talk about some serious topics that almost all of us can relate to.  In one of my favorite chapters, Ingrid writes about the oftentimes push-and-pull that exists between husband and wife in the car.  Who’s in control of the wheel and who’s wishing they were in control of the wheel?  Reading Ingrid’s account of the lead-up to her husband coaching her is an experience I think many of us can relate to.  And if you’re even contemplating undertaking this for yourself in your own relationship, I suggest reading first what Ingrid has to say about it.

Ingrid’s book, although about track days, getting to track days, being at tracks, eating at tracks....well basically living the track day world, is really also about life.  It is about Ingrid’s very personal journey from her small town upbringing in Pennsylvania to her self-discoveries and growth and she uses track days not only as the backdrop through which she tells her story metaphorically, but with track days being, in fact, the real life backdrop that led to her journey of growth and self-discoveries.

After interviewing Ingrid for a previous article, I realized through my research about her and her writing career, that I just had to read Fast Girl.  I already knew I’d more than likely enjoy it before opening up to the first page because I’d already enjoyed everything else she’d written.  And I was not disappointed.  In reading Fast Girl, I felt like I was sitting down with a good friend over a cup of coffee....or in our case a nice glass of Merlot.  With both feet in, I highly recommend this book to anyone who has the balls to brake effectively, wish they had the balls to brake effectively, or does not want them but can, in fact, brake effectively despite it. 

Ingrid gave me some more of her time and granted me an interview about Fast Girl

Q.  Ingrid, when we last spoke, we talked about your background in education and teaching, your varied interests and your love of track driving.  I’d like to talk more about your love of writing and specifically about your book Fast Girl.  You previously mentioned it was initially a friend’s idea to write the book.  But for your friend to come up with that idea, he must have been listening to you tell quite a few entertaining, comical, surprising track day stories.  Can you share one or two of them here for our readers?

A.  My friend Lenny is one of those wonderful people who is simply interested in everything—you know: life.  He’s a professor of English, and he’s edited a book about baseball, written a book about hard-boiled detectives, and taught a class about zombies and all things disgusting.  So here’s somebody who can talk about the guy who explodes from overeating in Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life and then listen with an open mind and great enthusiasm when you (meaning me, of course!) blather on about getting a ride from an instructor in a Ferrari or passing flame-spitting Porsches. (Yeah, I did that once.  In my Mini.  Best damn day of my life.)  When I started trying to put into words the change and the growth that were working on me as I overcame my fears and my hesitancies and my self-doubt, he was the one who encouraged me to set those notions down in book form.  He told me: “Capture the smell of burnt rubber and overcooked brake pads, the roar of the turbos, the sensation of flying through a banked turn, and the excitement you get from all of it,” so that’s what I tried to do.  And it was the bravery I found at the track that gave me the courage to find—and express—my own personal voice.

Q.  The book strikes me as not simply a book about driving.  Or driving fast.  It is more a reflection of self-growth through your HPDE experiences.  From safe, meek, cerebral, to flat out adventurous, bold and well....still cerebral.  In your book, you talk about many self-discoveries you experienced through track driving.  Can you talk about what you might have learned about yourself in writing this book?

A.  I trained as an art and architectural historian, and I was a professor of those subjects for a decade and a half.  The historian cultivates a pose of distance andFastGirl8 400x267 objectivity:  in all those years of writing and publishing about great artists and architects, I don’t think I ever once used the first-person pronoun.  The code of the historians is:  never say “I.”  As a writer, then, you’re in many ways invisible.  The confidence and courage that I discovered—to my eternal surprise—behind the wheel of a speeding Mini (yes, please note the irony) also gave me the confidence to stop hiding behind the accomplishments of others.  For the first time, it was my life that was interesting, and I decided I didn’t like being invisible anymore.  It also takes a lot of self-confidence to go through the process of finding an agent and dealing with an editor.  You have to develop a pretty thick skin to deal with a publishing world that is in upheaval and is demanding a great deal more from an author than just a good story, told well.  There were bleak moments when I thought I’d never get there—but it’s a deeply fulfilling moment when your book actually appears.  Now I want to do another one!

Q.  Who do you believe your audience is for this book and why?

A.  That’s a really interesting question!  When I write, I channel a voice—I “listen” to myself, and I overhear a conversation between the author (that’s me) and the person I imagine I’m writing for.  At the time I was writing the book, I belonged to a book club whose members were women my age, all with school-age kids.  Some had full-blown careers, some were juggling part-time work with their kids, and some were full-time moms, but all of them were scary-smart and educated.  I was itching to tell them about how I learned that there was more to me than being Super Mom and Wonder Wife, and so I wrote the book for them.  It’s basically one of those stories about inner transformation—think Eat Pray Love at the Racetrack (!).  I actually held off reading that book until after I’d finished writing Fast Girl.  Boy, was I disappointed.  But that’s another story.  What’s interesting about your question, though, is that even though I wrote the book for a female audience, and the women who do read it really get a kick out of it, men are the ones who just love, love, love the book.  The fan mail I get (and it’s not a lot, believe me) is mostly from men.  My favorite reader story is about a guy who’s a real Master of the Universe type: seven-figure salary, homes in Manhattan and in horse country, total workaholic.  We met one time shortly after he’d read the book, and he told me that it had inspired him to take the subway for the first time—at age 50, after having lived in Manhattan for his entire professional life! 

Q.  In the book you describe a feeling I think many, if not all, of us track day enthusiasts have experienced upon our first forays around the track.  This feeling is the very one thing, in fact, that might drive us all crazy enough to keep coming back and back for more.  Below is an excerpt wherein you write in the book about this mythical line we’re all chasing and I believe hit dead-on the common bond among us.

Life is filled with twists and turns.  We never get to practice them.  The Line of Life is always variable, never clear or mathematically symmetrical.  We blunder through from one moment to the next, and sometimes you sail right through it, and sometimes you go right off the road.  That’s the way it is, since life is shot in a single take.  You never get to go back to try to do it better the next time.  The beauty of The Line of the track is that there is a Platonic, perfect way to drive it, and you can practice and practice and practice until you can nearly nail it every time.  And when you do you rejoice in the elegant simplicity, the pure, perfect precision of The Line.  Nothing surpasseth the beauty of The Line.  And so, I was hooked.

What a great passage!  So do you think that getting the opportunity for second chances at the track can help relieve frustrations for people who have experienced failures (haven’t we all?) off the track? 

A.  Thanks for selecting that one!  I’m rather proud of it.  I hope it reflects some of the elegance I see in a sport that, from the viewpoint of most outsiders, I suspect is conspicuously lacking in elegance.  I don’t think many people would regard anything about racing around a racetrack as either elegant or thought-provoking.  But I am a thinky sort of person, and Fast Girl really is a book about life.  Yes, second chances—how many times in life do we wish we could get a do-over?  In life we chase after goals that always seem to shift as we near them—slippery suckers, those goals.  Of course for every one of us there are failures, near-misses, or imperfections.  Sure, there are those who come to the racetrack for the simple fun of it—and it is fun, no question.  But I think there are many people who come because they are compelled by the opportunity to pursue something for the sheer sake of pursuit itself, and to rehearse and polish a skill until it achieves a fine sheen.  I see great beauty in that.  Weird, huh?

Q.  You describe your pre-track life:

....I teach, I parent; I am a whirlwind of domestic efficiency.  And it’s all as dull as that thud you hear when you wake up and find you are forty years old and there’s no chance you’ll be discovered by Hollywood while shopping at the mall anymore. 

You also, however, describe your pre-track life as quite content, having everything you ever wanted and missing nothing whatsoever.

So this is not a story that begins with a crisis.  I was not compelled to embark on a quest to find spiritual enlightenment or a better relationship or the sleek thighs that no amount of time on a treadmill seem to be able to produce.  In this Martha Stewart Age, I figured I had already achieved Wonder Woman status by managing, Xanax-free, to juggle a husband, a house, a kid, and a more-or-less career.  I didn’t think any superhero-type transformations were necessary.  Those DNA-altering gamma rays came at me out of nowhere, as they so often do, and wrought their surprise transformation anyway.  That transformation came about because of a freak exposure to high-speed driving and high-octane race fuel.

Can you tell us about how this transformation affected other, non-track day, parts of your life?  You write about the spillover effect and we talked a little bit about that in our previous article.  But if you could maybe pick one or two ways in which you feel you’ve changed or grown and tell us how this hobby has been a part of your transformation off the track?

A.  Sometimes I think I was born middle-aged and now I’m aging in reverse!  I married young, cruised through graduate school and had my PhD in hand by the time I was 27.  I had a house, a husband, a baby and a job as a professor all by the time I was 31.  I pretty much had everything I wanted.  Learning how to drive a fast car around the racetrack introduced me to an alter ego I never knew was there—someone braver, more adventurous, even more aggressive—in short, Fast Girl.  In the end I think it comes down to just being a good sport—being the one who says “yes,” and being open to new experiences, whether that’s my first trip to Africa, volunteering to be sous-chef for a friend who’s a caterer, or signing up to take a class in the art of the voice-over. 

This may sound dramatic, but since writing Fast Girl, I have also reconsidered my entire career.  The payoff for writing the book was that I was able to reach a whole new—and much more engaged and diverse—audience.  Most things that academics write don’t get read by very many people.  I’ve found I love having a dialogue with a much wider audience: hey there, AutoTrackDayMonthly readers, that’s you guys!  Keep on reading!

FastGirl9 400x279Q.  Have you considered taking up any other high-risk or out of comfort zone hobbies?

A.  I guess it isn’t surprising that if you conquer one terror-inducing activity, you might then think you are endowed with other super powers.  Here’s a good example:  I grew up in central Pennsylvania where there are gentle rolling hills but no mountains.  I knew how to cross-country ski—not especially well—but anytime Mr. B and I drove past a downhill ski resort, I’d look at it and say:  “Nope.  Never gonna do that.  I’ll stick to cross-country.”  But about a year after my initial exposure to track driving, I was invited to go on a family trip to ski country in Colorado, and I thought:  “Well, if I can fly up the Esses at Watkins Glen, then I can probably ski down some Esses in the Rocky Mountains.”  There’s another aspect to the comfort zone, too—as adults, we reach levels of competency at the things we have chosen to be good at.  It’s distinctly uncomfortable to enter into a new activity at which we are forced to acknowledge that we are incompetent.  But I’d gotten over the discomfort of feeling incompetent as a novice on the racetrack—and re-discovered how fun it is to learn something totally new, even if you look ridiculous, at first, while learning it.  Yep:  I spent a lot of time on my butt in the snow.  But now I can ski black diamonds (the East Coast kind, anyway).

And at the moment I’m writing this, I’m about 48 hours from departure for another outside-the-box adventure:  I’m joining a friend in Spain and we’re going to walk the last 200 miles of the Camino de Santiago, from Leon to Santiago de Compostela.  I’m not doing this for religious reasons.  I’m doing it because I’m interested in further testing my physical and mental stamina.  What will I discover about myself and the world next?  I can’t wait to find out!

Thanks Ingrid!  The fact that you’re reading this article means you clearly enjoy looking for ways to stay near and dear to the track in between your track days.  Reading Ingrid’s book is a great way to stay connected on the off days.  You will not be disappointed!  Pick up a copy of Fast Girl, available from amazon.com.  You can also spot Ingrid in Ross Bentley’s Speed Secrets Weekly newsletter to which she contributes on a regular basis.

 

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