After a Bump, It's Full Speed Ahead
Sophomore Julia Landauer spends her summers training as a NASCAR racer.
Photo: Chris Ramirez/The New York Times
By Anna Sale
It started as an effort by the Landauers to get out of Manhattan for some family time: a visit to a go-cart track. Julia was 10. At 12, she'd won her first go-cart championship and was behind the wheel of her parents' car in a school parking lot, getting the feel of the clutch. (She collected her first car racing championship at age 14.)
And by 15, the concerned parent of a competitor let her know he thought her go-cart driving was overly aggressive.
"I was bumping the guy in front of me. It's what you do in the go-carting world," explains Landauer, a Stanford sophomore. "And I had a dad come up to me and say, 'You know, you're not going to make any friends by doing this' in a pretty condescending way. So I came back with, 'I'm not here to make friends, I'm here to win races,' and that kind of silenced him."
Her aggressiveness won over trainers early on. "Here's this 5-foot, 90-pound girl who's able to muscle these cars around, and I think they saw I was serious about it." She trained on weekends and raced in 16 states while attending New York's Stuyvesant High School, transitioning from go-cart to Formula car races to NASCAR's stock-car circuit.
But the summer before entering Stanford, Landauer found herself on the receiving end of a bump. She was nearing a finish in the NASCAR Whelen All-American Series at Virginia's South Boston Speedway when a hit from behind sent her Chevrolet Impala stock car ricocheting off one wall, spinning around and slamming into the opposite wall. She was unhurt, but both vehicles were totaled; her season was over.
"It was awful, devastating," Landauer recalls. She would miss the chance to gain a few top-10 finishes and move up in the national NASCAR rankings of individual races—her best shot at getting attention since she doesn't race full time. And she'd have to raise money to get back to where she'd started. Meanwhile, Landauer suspended training during freshman year.
About starting over, Landauer says, "There's no right way to do this. We're shooting bullets and seeing what we hit." Leasing a car, staffing a crew, and covering travel and entry fees can stretch to hundreds of thousands of dollars a year, even for a NASCAR trainee. She initially sought investors as she set up her business but now relies more on sponsorships and fan donations through her website and social media. The communication major spent her summer cold-calling companies, including hair and beauty product firms, telling them that about half of NASCAR fans are women and "it's a little weird to market lady products on a guy's car."
If the business plan holds, she'll take spring quarter off to get a leap on summer training. She earned several top-10 finishes in South Boston, Va., last summer and is steadily moving up in the rankings. But for now, she's just happy to see the novelty of a female driver from New York City wearing off among the local drivers.
"There's this, 'oh, she's a Yankee, a city girl.' But then I get on the track fast, and I gain the respect of my competitors."
Anna Sale, '03, is a journalist for WNYC.
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Data is from the past two weeks.