Girl in Action: Student by Day, Race-Car Driver by Night
By Rebecca Klein
Photo by Julie Davis Photography
Collete Davis was not your average 12-year-old. Instead of playing outside or with friends, Davis spent her days studying the mechanical engineering of cars by taking apart and reassembling trucks. By the age of 13, this interest led her to realize her dreams: to become a race car driver. And now, at the age of 17, Davis is already an accomplished race car driver, who is currently studying mechanical engineering at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, after graduating high school early.
Davis dedicates her life to defying stereotypes about the traditional role of women. In a sport typically dominated by males, Davis is determined not to let her gender inhibit her success. And while Davis may be one of the few females on the race car track now, she has resolved not to let it stay that way. In addition to pursuing a college degree and a career, Davis travels to middle schools to encourage girls to pursue their dreams--whether it be in math, science, or racing--and most of all, to let them know that it's okay to be smart—in fact, it's GREAT!
But her vision does not stop there: in the upcoming years Davis hopes to create a clothing line for women as well as a foundation to support young girls in the engineering field and racing industry. And don't forget, she is only 17!
Teen Voices: As a young girl, what made you interested in race car driving and automotive engineering? At what age did you start to pursue these interests?
Collette Davis: If you mean what started my interest in the whole automotive field in general, it started when I was 11. I went to my first "SRT experience."-" SRTs are a high-performance vehicle made by Dodge and the SRT experience is something Dodge does for SRT owners." My grandpa bought an SRT10 Dodge truck and it came with the SRT experience." So they had all these high-performance vehicles at this event, and my parents got to drive." A professional race car driver took me out on the race track in a Dodge Viper. and ever since then, I've been wanting to learn more about cars and work on them. So when I was 11, I started taking lawn mower engines apart." And by the time I was 12, I was working on cars and trucks by myself.
TV: Oh wow. So at what point after did you realize that maybe this was something you wanted to pursue professionally?
Davis: After working on cars for awhile, I wanted to get more into the racing side and not just the hands-on mechanical side of it. So at age 14, I started doing competitive karting-- a type of open-wheel motorsport." After my first full season of it, I knew racing was something I wanted to pursue professionally. I won a championship my first season too, so had good results. I started to think that if this is something I want to do professionally, then I have to step it up. I've been pursing this career ever since.
TV: What has your experience been like as a female in a field that it is typically male dominated? Have you faced any disadvantages that male race car drivers don't?
CD: Well, I've always grown up being kind of a tomboy. I still liked putting makeup on when I was little and dressing up and stuff like that, but I've always played sports, so I was used to hanging out mainly with guys and I had mostly guy friends. But in racing, it's definitely apparent when you're the only female out there. At times, it might have been harder because the other drivers would purposely try to wreck me during a race so they wouldn't loose to a "girl." " But I'm used to being the only girl in many situations. For example, in pursing my degree in mechanical engineering, for now it's still male dominated. But I wouldn't say I've had any disadvantages. I've grown up being the only girl, so you get use to it and it becomes normal. But I think it's something that other girls may shy away from because racing is so male dominated and I want to change that.
TV: Do you think you've had any advantages in your field because you are a female instead of a male?
CD: I think so, because being a female in a male-dominated sport can also be an advantage. Since there aren't a lot of females, I might get more recognition, especially when it comes to partnerships or sponsors. But you still have to win and be a competitive race car driver.
TV: What do you family and friends think of your career goals? Have they been supportive?
CD: Yeah, my family is way supportive. My grandparents--I've lived with them my whole life--my grandpa was my first crew chief. Everyone in my family is really supportive. My friends are too; they think it's really cool." I really try to bring my friends and family to my races whenever I can.
TV: Do you have a role model? If so, who? And what motivates you to want to be a role model for other girls?
CD: One of my role models--it may sound like a clichéd answer especially with the hype lately—is definitely Danica Patrick [a 29-year-old who came in 6th place at the Indy 500 in 2010]. She was one of the first female race car drivers I ever saw race in person. When I was 11. I saw her for the first time at Pikes Peak International Raceway and it was great having her as an example in a male-dominated sport. Lyn St. James has also accomplished a lot and she's definitely one of my role models." I actually got to meet and have breakfast with her a couple of months ago, so that was really awesome.
TV: How exciting!" " How did you meet her?
CD: I met her in Washington D.C. I'm part of a group at my university called EcoCar which is a three-year national collegiate competition sponsored by GM and the Department of Energy." We had year three finals in D.C. and each year at the competition, Lyn gives out awards for women in engineering. I ran into her at the sponsor dinner and asked her if she had 10-15 minutes to talk to me some time." I explained that I've always wanted to meet her. The next morning she had breakfast with me." It was really awesome being able to talk to her about my career and her driving academy.
TV: So what motivates you to want to be a role model for other girls?
CD: The main thing I do is speak at a lot of middle schools. I think it's really important to tell girls--especially girls at that age--that they can be smart. I hear so much about being smart in math and science as "guy thing."" It's such a cliché and I want to change it. A lot of girls could be great at science and all these male-dominated fields. I really want to inspire girls to follow their dreams no matter what they are--whether it's racing or engineering. Giving them motivation is one of the major points that I'm trying to get across--especially in male dominated fields." I want them to realize that they can do it.
CD: I would say...that it is a challenge. You're always learning something new in racing. There is not a race car driver out there who knows everything. My favorite thing is that it's such a complex business--it incorporates marketing, branding, public speaking, social media, and politics, not to mention racing on the weekends too. It's an ongoing challenge and I like how it always motivates me to push myself.
TV: On that note, what do you think has been the biggest challenge thus far, on your path to becoming a race car driver?
CD: Right now, I think it's never giving up. Financially, racing isn't the cheapest sport. And my family and I, we definitely don't have the money to afford everything. So it's about never giving up mentally, and staying motivated while on the search for sponsors and partnerships. My university has been really " supportive of my career, which I'm really thankful for. Obviously, financial issues are one of the biggest challenges in racing for everyone, not just me.
TV: So you're a full-time student and you're also pursuing a professional racing career, and you are doing public speaking to kids in middle school." You have a lot going on. How do you find the time to balance all this?
CD: I've been really busy, especially with my last year in high school and having to do so much to try and graduate early. I have had to really focus and learn how to manage my time. Time management is huge and I'm still trying to perfect my time management skills now. Just study hard and keep chasing after what I want to do." I want to pursue this career and it takes a lot of work, but I know in the end it will be worth it. When you are so passionate about something, most of the time it honestly doesn't feel like I'm doing "work".
TV: So you've chosen to stay in school through all this and graduate high school early, and be academically successful. Why do you think it's important to stay in school and what skills do you think your education has given you through this process?
CD: For me, school is really important. Not only is my university one of my partners in my racing career, but it's always a back-up plan." No matter what, my degree will secure me a career in the motorsports industry. I think my education also gives me a big advantage on the race track. In and out of the car, I may be better able to understand mechanically what the car is doing, compared to other drivers. I can hopefully communicate with my engineers a lot better as well.
TV: How do you think all of this has affected your teenage experience?
CD: I have grown up a lot through it and it's made me more mature and responsible. It's really helped me focus on what I want to do and what I have to do in order to make my dreams come true and be on the right path to pursuing the career that I want.
TV: You've talked about how you want to be a role model for other girls." Specifically, what qualities do you want to role model for them?
CD: My big message is to never, ever give up and to pursue your dreams no matter what they are. But the main thing is just to be yourself and be comfortable in your own skin. I want to inspire girls to have confidence, perseverance, and determination. And for them to know that engineering, math and science are not just for guys. Breaking down the barriers and making a change in typical cliques for male-dominated industries is very important to me.
For more information on Collete's career, visit: www.ColleteDavisRacing.com
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