Photo credit: Wes Duenkel, used with permission
At 13 years old, Aurora Straus enrolled in racing school. Things weren't going well early on, so an instructor offered extra help. He soon declared to her that it wasn't Straus' fault she was developing a little slower than others — "because she was a girl," he said, she'd never be as aggressive as she needed to be.
Straus was crushed. Being from New York, she was used to a more accepting mindset — not one that told her she couldn't do something because of her gender or the way she looked. For her, she said, the stereotyping was a big shock.
It's safe to say that in the years since, she's proved her detractors wrong, while they motivated her to be faster and better.
It's been about five years since Straus heard that comment, which she can now brush off as "he meant well." In those five years, she's worked her way into the second-tier Continental Tire SportsCar Challenge on the IMSA ladder, taken up engineering and gotten accepted into Harvard University.
Straus' No. 18 Porsche Cayman race car in the IMSA Continental Tire SportsCar Challenge, after she was told she'd never be aggressive enough to get the hang of this kind of thing. Photo credit: Wes Duenkel, used with permission
Straus, now 18, will head there in the fall to study mechanical engineering and English literature. But as a competitive racer, still hears the kind of stuff she heard as a kid at racing school.
"I have been surprised by the number of 40-something or 50-something-year-old men who have gotten out of a race car, however many spots behind me on the track, and tried to give me advice as to what I can do better next time," Straus said, laughing about the criticism this time around.
But when her father first signed her up for racing school, he didn't intend for Straus to become a racer. It was all for car control and basic defensive driving, she said.
"We live 45 minutes north of the city, and the weather is pretty often icy and slushy," Straus said. "I wanted to be able to drive my siblings in the rain and feel comfortable if the car slid."
Straus wasn't completely on board with going to school for actual racing, though. She "was sceptical to say the least," she said, but went ahead with it.
A sceptical decision landed Straus at the World Center of Racing. Photo credit: Wes Duenkel, used with permission
"I had always liked cars, but I wasn't really an adrenaline junkie," said Straus, whose father works at a private country club for racers, Monticello Motor Club, with a 6km asphalt road course north of New York City. "For some reason, racing changed me.
"I mean, the first time I went over 161km per hour, I was completely in love. I guess there's no other way to describe it. I was obsessed with the feeling of control and the sound of the engine accelerating at my will."
With help from her driving coach and the 2015 IMSA Continental Tire SportsCar Challenge champion in the Street Tuner class, Stevan McAleer, a sponsor eager to get her into the higher ranks and a place to practice through her father's job, Straus entered the sports-car ladder as soon as she could. By 15, she was racing Mazda MX-5s and Porsche Caymans in both international and domestic events.
Straus and co-driver Connor Bloum. Photo credit: Wes Duenkel, used with permission
Straus ran the full 2016 Global MX-5 Cup season at just 17 years old, and made her debut as the youngest Continental Tire SportsCar Challenge driver that same year. Straus and co-driver Connor Bloum, who race the No. 18 Porsche Cayman, are currently seventh of 39 in the Continental Tire ST class standings.
But ever since her first encounter with fast cars at the racing school, she said, the fact that she wasn't a man kept coming up.
Straus said at 14, she had a person tell her she might be able to attract more sponsorship if she wore tank tops instead of, say, a fire-resistant Nomex shirt under her racing suit. She said she's also encountered drivers who would "rather force [her] car off track and into a wall than be passed by a girl."
The comments and aggressions, both big and small, were getting to her. Straus got so discouraged that almost quit racing her first year.
Photo credit: Wes Duenkel, used with permission
"I think that it was a combination of the fact that I hadn't realised the learning curve would be so high, and, also, that female racers are few and far between," Straus said. "I hadn't really networked yet at that point, and I hadn't found other people who really understood."
And while Straus was and is in a better situation than others could be — parents and sponsors who support her racing career, and being less demographically challenged than people with other gender identifications or racial identities — she still felt pretty alone for a while. There weren't a lot of women around her, and she had to seek them out in order to network with drivers she felt could understand.
Doing so helped Straus get over that early comment about her perceived lack of aggressiveness, which stuck in her head for years to come.
"Seeing other women who were actively succeeding at [racing] — through marketing, straight-up speed or otherwise — reminded me that that guy was full of shit," Straus said. "And that no one can make me feel inferior without my consent in the matter."
Straus and co-driver Connor Bloum at Daytona International Speedway. Photo credit: Wes Duenkel, used with permission
Straus also said racing's taught her to be more assertive with her thoughts. If she sees a driver not give her as much room as that person gave someone else, Straus said, she's no longer afraid to walk up and ask about it.
"I think that I've learned to brush things like the backhanded comments off, and I've gotten really good at pushing to get what I need," Straus said. "That's not just in racing, but in life.
"By asserting myself in those tiny ways or by pointing out those individual passive-aggressive comments that my counterparts don't even think about, I'm slowly making the men around me kind of aware of what women have to deal with. Overall, it's been a good thing for me to have to learn how to earn respect instead of have it given to me, but it was definitely tough."
Photo credit: Wes Duenkel, used with permission
The education part of things was tough, too, and will probably only get tougher. As one would expect from a person heading to Harvard, Straus divides up her time in the pits between getting ready for practice and doing homework.
She said it hasn't been easy, but that she was also surprised by how much her maths and engineering courses overlapped into racing.
"I've learned to translate laps into maths and physics," said Straus, who wants to stay a driver as long as possible but is interested in engineering or car design as a post-Harvard career. "A race car has a maximum velocity through a given turn based on grip, and part of being a racer and getting faster is learning how to best yourself.
"You can calculate the theoretical fastest lap for your race car, and that analysis allowed me to overlay data from my practice laps to see where I could gain one tenth or two tenths of a second in any given turn."
Straus said she's been "lucky enough to see the direct effects of what maths or physics can do a car," just like she's been lucky enough to see how having role models who remind someone of themselves can be all a person needs to pursue something they never thought possible.
Straus showing a young girl her race car. Photo credit: Wes Duenkel, used with permission
She's seen the same thing with her sister.
"I think my favourite part about racing is talking to these little girls who grasp suddenly that they, too, may upend stereotypes," Straus said. "For every girl who does something novel or gets involved in a male-dominated sport, they create a space for the next girl who wants to get involved.
"I mean, my sister is wrestling on the boys team in her middle school and she's going to be on the varsity team next year. I had no doubt that she would not have pursued that if one of her biggest role models hadn't been another girl three years ahead of her who decided to be the first girl to join the team and do something that no one else had done before."
Straus also thinks that in addition to having female role models, any woman, young or old, or any other minority needs to be listened to when discussing what they have to deal with. Those people also need to be supported as allies, she said, until things become more equal than they are now.
Straus signing autographs for a group of people, mostly young girls. Photo credit: Wes Duenkel, used with permission
Straus said that's been the case for McAleer, her driving coach, over the years. She said he's become more aware of what female racers have to deal with due to coaching her, and she's learned a lot from him as well.
"I think that it's a mutually beneficial process," Straus said. "I learn from the drivers around me and they learn from me — not just how to get faster, but how to be better, more respectful racers."
But it doesn't come automatically, and Straus said one of the biggest skills she's had to develop as a racer has been "a thick skin in general." She's fine with it, though, because Straus hopes her efforts can lead to those who come after her needing to block out less and less of the negativity as time goes on.
"I have to expect to receive those comments and to work 20 times harder than the people around me for attention, for respect on and off the track, and for friendship from these guys," Straus said. "I've also had to work harder than my male counterparts to earn the respect they receive immediately.
"But all of the hard work has been automatically worth it when I see the shock that flickers across the faces of race fans when they see a girl amongst the professional drivers."