“I’m not the fastest driver out there, but I’m good at communicating, good at breaking things down, tackling challenges from different angles, and—I hope—reading students for how much they can absorb in any given session or day.”
Fast Girl: Ingrid Steffensen
by Ziva Allen
Okay. Man up (and woman up, as it were). If I were to tell you that for the next 15 minutes or so you will be spending your time reading a question and answer session between two gals about track day driving, would you read it? Of course you would and here’s why! The woman asking the questions is, well, just me. But the woman answering the questions – Ingrid Steffensen – is 1) a highly educated, over-the-top knowledgeable, and enthusiastic track day coach, 2) a contributor to Ross Bentley’s Speed Secrets e-newsletter (yup, thought that’d grab ya’), and 3) an author who has written for the New York Times automotive section, Roundel Magazine, Bimmer Magazine, Wine Enthusiast Magazine, and other publications, in addition to publishing her own books. Besides, right from the starting gate, you can tell that Ingrid is just plain fun and that if you love track driving, you’d love to hang with her at the track. Ingrid’s journey into our world of track days, I believe, is a journey that many of us can relate to. I’m sure most of us discovered and were introduced to this sport through a friend, partner or spouse. Ingrid is no different. But what is different about Ingrid is that she is not only a talented driver and gifted coach, but she is a gifted writer as well. We think it. She can transfer it into words for us. Read on about Ingrid’s journey into the world of track driving and when you’re done, check out the excerpt embedded at the end of this article which is from her book Fast Girl wherein she does nail just how it feels to enter the world of track day driving.
Q. So let’s start with the obvious question and get it out of the way. You’re a woman participating in a predominately male sport. Can you describe for me how that feels and do your feelings vacillate depending upon the situation? Have your feelings about sharing the track mostly with men changed over time?
A. Let me start by replying: I love men! Off the track, I’m a feminine sort of gal who loves dangly earrings and high heels and hanging out with her girlfriends, but I also really enjoy the company of men, and I find it hugely entertaining to be ‘one of the guys’ at the track. I’ll confess that when I first started out, the aggressive and masculine atmosphere was kind of intimidating—not so much the men themselves, but the raw physicality: the noise, the speed, the stink. That was hard for mild-mannered me! But in the end, dealing with these aspects was a fantastic learning experience—one that expanded my sense of my own capabilities as not just a woman, but as a human being.
Q. My husband and I have both noticed that over the past several years track driving has become more and more popular while at the same time becoming more accessible to the average person. It is, in fact, why we decided to launch this magazine. The hobby is growing but the media has not yet seemed to have caught up. Have you also noticed a growth in this hobby? If so, why do you think it is growing?
A. I’ve definitely noticed that! There are a couple of events up at Watkins Glen I go to every year, and now all of a sudden I have to be sure to sign up the moment registration opens in January, or I’ll get blocked out. If I may make a plug to the readers of Auto TrackDay Monthly, I contribute regularly to Ross Bentley’s Speed Secrets Weekly which can be found at http://www.speedsecrets.com/speed-secrets-weekly/ and is an e-newsletter that would be an ideal complement to your readers—Ross focuses on short, practical performance tips for the track-day enthusiast. (See our interview with Ross at http://www.autotrackdaymonthly.com/index.php/articles-general/featured-articles/trackextras). I’ve also been pretty successful at recruiting new drivers myself. Why do I think it’s growing? It’s probably a convergence of factors having to do with the outstanding new facilities that are popping up, a rebounding economy—and people like us spreading the gospel. As most of us know to our cost: it only takes one time to get irretrievably hooked!
Q. On YouTube, I caught your speech at the University of Delaware President's Leadership Series. In it you mention that it was your husband who had been involved in HPDE events and that he had suggested you give it a go. You put it off for a while before you tried it. I’m curious as to why you didn’t just jump in and if you could talk a little bit about your progression from the no to the yes.
A. It’s true: I took a LOT of convincing. When my husband first started going to DEs, our daughter was a toddler; between that and a full-time teaching job—not to mention a home that curiously doesn’t seem to want to vacuum itself—it was basically impossible for me to fit in any new time-consuming hobbies. That, and I frankly had no interest in track driving at all and thought the whole endeavor was a waste of time—all that gas wasted in going around in circles! The only pre-requisite I possessed was that I had a little manual Mini Cooper S that I enjoyed doing my errand-running in. It took seven years before I looked around, realized my daughter was now ten and didn’t need my constant attention anymore, and decided to see what it was my speedy husband had been up to all that time. It required a lot of crow-eating afterwards, I have to confess.
Q. I’m very intrigued by your diverse interests. Actually, I’m a little intimidated by your diverse interests. Let’s start with wine, one of my favorites! Can you tell me how you came to write for wine publications?
A. The whole thing is a little bit circular, in that the passion and bravery I discovered in myself at the track led me to reconsider my career as an academic who spent her time writing about other people’s accomplishments. Suddenly, I became more interested in my own accomplishments, and I decided I was interested in writing for a broader audience—not just a rarified academic few. And I wanted to release the inner ham that was clearly dying to get out! My first piece for a wine magazine was about a long-running joke between us and our friends Klaus (a talented car photographer whose work regularly features in magazines like Bimmer and Roundel) and his wife: every time we get together, we find a new way to pass off a cheap bottle of fruit-flavored wine to each other. The jokes have gotten increasingly elaborate over time, and it was fun to write about. It was learning how to drive at the track that gave me the courage to put myself out there in a much more personal way—and to deal, as all writers must, with a lot of rejection. But, hey: if I can scream down the front straight at 130mph, what harm can any editor do to me?
Q. Our magazine runs a column featuring track drivers, which is why I’ve been interested in learning more about you. However, I’ve also considered writing an article about “track dogs” since being at the track with my dog makes the day even more enjoyable for me! Can you tell me about your upcoming book Life at Ankle Level?
A. Writing about my experiences at the track in Fast Girl unleashed a creative force within me that I didn’t know existed. Everything started to look like story material to me—including my embarrassing little furball of a dog. As a combined dog-and-car person, of course I loved The Art of Racing in the Rain. And yet there were aspects of the dog in the story that didn’t quite ring true to me (why would any dog want to be human, I wondered—isn’t one of the best things about dogs the fact that they are happy just to be dogs?), and so I started to think: what does the world really look like through the eyes of my staunch companion and ferocious guardian? The answer—which I’m still working on—involves The Men in Brown (the UPS guys), A Conspiracy of Squirrels, and The Evil Empire of Cats.
Q. You have become a track day instructor. What about instructing do you find most rewarding?
A. There’s not much better than teaching someone a new skill—unless it’s serving them a perfectly mixed Manhattan. Okay, seriously: recently I had an intermediate student who was getting the track down nicely, but he had a heavier car and was frustrated by some of the tight turns. By breaking down both the track and the skill, I was able to teach him how to use trail-braking to get his car to pivot around some of the tight turns. When the light went on, I swear, he was like a kid on Christmas morning with a brand-new toy—literally, he was giggling with delight. How often do you get to make a grown man that happy (without the application of alcohol)?
Q. Possessing a Ph.D, you’ve taught art and architectural history at Princeton, Rutgers, NJIT, and Bryn Mawr and have published numerous articles and books on nineteenth- and twentieth-century art and architecture. How has teaching to a classroom of students informed your ability to teach to track day students?
A. The tech guy at one of the club chapters I often run with calls me “Professor,” and it was probably because the Chief Instructor knew of my teaching background that I got tapped for ITS (instructor training school) fairly early. Knowing how to teach, versus knowing how to do, are two different things. I’m not the fastest driver out there, but I’m good at communicating, good at breaking things down, tackling challenges from different angles, and—I hope—reading students for how much they can absorb in any given session or day. It was probably also because of my college classroom teaching that I was asked to do DE classroom instruction, as well. That’s fun for me: I get to talk about the mental aspects of being a good driver, which is maybe my favorite part. I think the supercomputer inside the helmet is the most powerful performance tool we have. I say: forget whatever fancy new upgrade you think your car needs, and work on the programming of the driver.
Q. On your website you say, “Unexpectedly, exposure to this male-dominated sport changed everything I thought I knew about myself.” Can you please explain what you mean by that? What had you thought you knew about yourself and how did track driving make your own self-image clearer for you? How would you define or characterize the “before” and “after” you with respect to track driving?
A. The “before” me was a professor of architectural history, and the biggest excitement of my day-to-day life was the arrival of the Sunday New York Times crossword puzzle (outta my way!). Both my professional life and my private hobbies were largely cerebral: I’ve always been more of a thinker than a doer. And, to go further, I was also pretty quiet, non-confrontational—to the point, perhaps, of being a bit of a doormat. Learning that I could do this very physical, very challenging, very aggressive thing, and even be fairly good at it, was truly transformative. I realized I could be more aggressive about what I wanted from life—yet still be a good sport—and that I could take risks in my personal life, put myself out there, and still come out okay. The “after” me is braver, more adventurous, more willing to expose myself to potential rejection, and also better equipped to deal with it when it—inevitably—comes.
Q. Badass. In March 2014 you wrote an article for Skirt.com wherein you define “badass.” You name other badasses and I love the company you keep. Can you define for our readers what being a badass means to you?
A. You know the musical Grease? I wrote that essay because all my life I’ve been the Sandy, watching the Rizzos of the world from the sidelines. But after I took up high-performance driving, all sorts of people started referring to me as a “badass,” and I thought: who, me? Seriously? The woman who pre-sorts her silverware in the dishwasher? What does it even mean to be called a “badass”? It’s clearly a label bestowed with great approbation. Here’s what I think it means: I think it means being your bravest, most authentic self, willing to take risks that are not (or not just) physical, and doing something that exposes you to failure, ridicule, or disapproval—and emerging triumphant. When you get right down to it: competence is dead sexy.
Q. Do you find any one or two common skill-challenged themes among students that you find you continuously have to work hard to crack through?
A. Probably the two most consistent issues I work on with my in-car students are smoothness and vision. The speed and stress that are the natural by-products of driving on a track are also natural hindrances to both smoothness and vision—that is, the feeling of danger heightens our senses and sharpens our reflexes, and therefore we want to do things FAST. It’s highly counter-intuitive to slow down our hands and feet as we pick up speed. That, and making quick, jerky inputs feels fast, even if it isn’t. So I spend a fair amount of time working on slowing down and smoothing out inputs. The other instinctive thing that we as humans do under stress is to narrow down our focus, and so I also spend a lot of time working on raising my students’ eyes and having them look farther down the track. This always, without fail, makes them smoother and faster.
Q. What do you find are the differences between men and women students with respect to not only how they learn but what they instinctually come to the track with?
A. Ask pretty much any instructor whether he (or she) would rather have a male or a female student, and he’ll say: give me a woman. Why? Well, for one, women listen! They also tend to have less of an emotional investment in their ability to drive fast (don’t all men already know how to drive fast?). And they have a tendency to be more cautious, so that makes the instructors feel safer. But that can also be their hang-up, as well: they’re usually less willing to take risks, and often need more encouragement or pushing than a man does. I wouldn’t be doing this, though, if I didn’t absolutely love working with men. I like that men take criticism as a challenge, and they’re willing to try new things if it means it’s going to make them better.
Q. Through putting out this magazine and interviewing and writing articles, my husband and I constantly find ourselves talking to each other about the phenomenon of having to tell a student to not look directly in front of the car hood. My personal opinion is that different people bring different degrees of reflexes to the track. Going 100+ miles per hour causes some of us to reflexively feel – without thinking – to look far ahead. You talk so eloquently about the distance being the future and looking too closely already being the past. Can you talk about why you think some people might be more challenged in this regard and about the techniques you’ve used to help students overcome it?
A. As homo sapiens, we’re hard-wired to narrow our field of vision when we’re faced with danger. Think about it: when you’re being charged by a saber-toothed tiger, you’re not going to be admiring the pretty little forget-me-nots the tiger is trampling underfoot or the magnificent mountains behind him, right? When we’re driving fast, it feels super dangerous, so it’s perfectly natural that we should tend to fixate on that little piece of property in front of the hood of the car. I have a favorite exercise in which I start a session by telling my student where to look—at least a full step ahead, preferably two. “Sight the apex,” I tell them in the brake zone, “and now forget it, look at the track out,” and I point, as well. I’ll do this for several laps, and then I hand over the exercise to the student, and I have him tell me where he’s looking. The exercise is practically a magic bullet! It works every time.
Q. Do you and your husband both go to the same track events together? Does he also instruct?
A. One of the best things for me about the whole endeavor is I get to do it with my husband. He’s the one who got me started, and he’s been tremendously encouraging about my progress. I think he’s pretty proud of me, having a wife who drives and even instructs. He’s an instructor, too, but he’s also recently made the leap to club racing, which is a whole new set of technical (and, yikes, financial) challenges. But, you know, at a time in our lives when many couples watch their children grow up and start to leave, and they look at each other, and they say, now what?—we have this thing we love to do together, and it’s definitely made our relationship stronger and even happier. Which is not to say that I don’t dream of passing him some day!
Q. Can you tell us about the car you drive, why you chose it and what you like most about it?
A. I started out with my Mini, which I loved so much that when it came time to sell it, I just bought another one, but this time a John Cooper Works. Can you say “Performance Junkie?” But that’s now my daily driver (and only performance nuts know what that even means!), and I have a Lotus Elise that I love, love, love as my track car. It was about 10 seconds into the test drive that I knew I had to have this car. I love it because—once I manage to wedge myself in—it feels like an extension of my body; you can feel every nuance of the car and the track, every movement you make has a direct translation into the actions of the car. It’s so light, and so nimble; I don’t have a lot of horsepower, and so I’m not as fast as a lot of the guys with their massive amounts of go-go juice, but I’m sure having a lot of fun!
Q. Do you think that HPDE participants are, for the most part, content with track driving or do you think there are a number of us who secretly harbor the fantasy to race? What are your own thoughts about racing?
A. I watched my own husband transition from DE events to club racing. He loves competition and he loves to challenge himself, so it seemed like a natural next step. We drive with the BMW CCA, which runs racing events simultaneously with DE events, so we both get to go and do our thing. I’ve thought about club racing—it would be fun in some ways to see, if I had the exact same car as the other guys, whether I’d be just as fast as they are. But for right now, I feel I still have a lot to learn as both a driver and as an instructor, and I’m happy to continue doing what I’m doing. The additional problem for a two-car couple: with two non-street-legal cars, we’d either have to get a massive duallie and stacker, or a second truck and a second trailer. Not gonna happen, at least for now!
Q. You have a teenaged daughter. How does she feel about her parent’s hobby of choice? Has she expressed an interest in track driving? What are your feelings about that?
A. Until she was about 14, we always parked her with the grandparents when we both went to a DE event, but then we started bringing her along, and my husband asked her: do you want to sit and watch, or do you want to learn and help out? She opted for the latter, and is extremely proud of being a teenaged girl who can change a set of wheels, check oil levels and tire pressure, torque lug nuts, and call a race for her dad. We’ve also taken her karting, and she really enjoyed that—after the first session was over, she came to me, and she said, “Okay, Mommy, now how can I go faster?” That’s my girl! Our first hurdle is upon us: she’s working on getting her learner’s permit. I’m actually totally psyched, because I can’t wait for her to drive herself everywhere she needs to go. Am I scared? Sure, but what parent isn’t? When she reaches 18, if she wants to try out an HPDE, of course we will let her. It would be pretty hypocritical if we didn’t. By the same token, if she isn’t interested, that’s fine, too. As an HPDE instructor, I’ve taught two different 18-year-old girls, daughters of other instructors, at the track: and, man, let me tell you, are they ever quick studies!
Q. Tell us about your book Fast Girl and your decision to write it. What did you learn about yourself through writing the book?
A. I have a good friend who is a professor of English at Fordham University, and after listening to me blather on about all my adventures at the track, he said to me: “I think there’s a book in that.” As an academic, it had never occurred to me that I might write a book that wasn’t about some great architect or building—but the brave new me that I found at the track was also adventurous enough to hear my friend’s suggestion and say: why not? The writing itself was in a way one of the easiest tasks I have undertaken—I loved every minute of it, and I loved writing about all the funny things I’d seen and done and thought about. But the next part—finding an agent, then a publisher, then dealing with the editing process, and, by far the worst of all, doing the marketing and publicity—that was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. It was also one of the best, too. When a complete stranger reached out to me and said, “Your book inspired me to go for my Divemaster certification,” that was one of the best moments of my life, and I thought: this is what I want to be doing!
Click on the link below to read an excerpt of Ingrid’s book Fast Girl. You will quickly get sucked into her writing style! For me, this was one book that I had wished wouldn’t end. We will be writing more about Ingrid’s writing career and her book Fast Girl in a future issue so don’t miss it!