Home » Can Nice Girls Win (Races)? Julia Landauer at TEDxStanford (Transcript)

Can Nice Girls Win (Races)? Julia Landauer at TEDxStanford (Transcript)

Julia Landauer – TRANSCRIPT

The most common question I’ve gotten since I started racing go-karts is what’s it like to be a woman race car driver? Specifically now, maybe, what on earth is a New York-raised, Stanford-educated female doing behind the wheel of a race car?

But the reality is, why not? Racing is one of the most unique sports, because biology doesn’t prevent men and women from competing together. It is a sport, so I’m going to have you do me a favor and put your hands like you are driving without hitting the person in front of you.

Awesome. Close your eyes, and you’re starting to turn left, and you’re muscling around 3,400 pounds of machine. You straighten up and you’re getting within an inch of the wall. It’s 130 degrees [Fahrenheit] in the car, and you’re fully suited up with a helmet that weighs a pound or two, and you’re doing this for hours. Open your eyes. It’s tough. But because biology doesn’t prevent men and women from competing together, there’s got to be something else. And I firmly believe that social and cultural norms and stereotypes are preventing women from getting involved.

Because what is the one thing that girls are always told they have to be? Nice. But I’m going to tell you: niceness loses races. Racing is an exceptionally difficult sport and not everyone can do it. So as a woman, we have to not only prove ourselves on the race track but fight through these stupid stereotypes that just hold us back. And there are three main stereotypes that I think I have discovered while I’ve been racing, that I’m familiar with in racing but I’m sure that they apply to many other fields.

The first is that women aren’t aggressive, and girls are told early on that being aggressive is a bad thing. This photo was taken when I was 14 years old. It was the first national go-kart race of the year, and we were in Daytona Beach, Florida. I was really excited, I had done very well in practice, we were up in the top 3, top 5, out of 40, and I was just ready to go win.

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Race day comes, and I stayed about the same while everyone else got a lot better – all my male counterparts – and this was frustrating and it had happened at several races before this. So the morning of the next race day, my dad walks into my hotel room, a little bit early, comes up to my bed and says, “Julia, get up.” Looks at me and says, “You need to rip their livers out! These boys just got beat by a girl the other day, they’re not going to sleep, their parents won’t let them, and you need to be just as angry.”

In retrospect I realize that my dad was essentially giving me permission to break free of how I was being told to behave, and go destroy everyone on the racetrack. And it was great, and it was scary. And I’m sure it was scary for him and my mom to support me, completely breaking against every social norm and appropriate behavior.

The second assumption that I had to learn about, was that it’s acceptable to take the victim role. And not only that, but I feel like it’s very expected for women to take the victim role. This photo was taken when I was 11 years old at our local go-kart track. And it was just one race day, and I had gone out, and, again, done very well in our time trials. I was starting 3rd or 4th, but I went to my parents and told them, “OK, I’d like you to change X, Y, and Z on the go-kart to make it better.” I went out to race and the kart was not doing what I wanted, and I was getting more and more frustrated. One kart after the other were going by me, and then I was just losing it. I finished somewhere at the back, and I get off the race track, and was the most pissed off 11-year-old that you will ever see. I pushed my go-kart up to this pit, and dropped all my stuff off, and ran up to my parents, and said: “You messed up the go-kart, it would have been so much better if you’d done this and this, and I could’ve won.”

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And then my dad looked at me, and I realized I had messed up. And he walked up to me and he said, “F*** you! You told me to make that change to the go-kart, and I did. And if it isn’t what you wanted, too bad. It is you and the go-kart on that track, and it’s your responsibility to make it work.” Sorry about that. And he was right. You know, it might not have been an ideal situation, and it might’ve been completely his fault, but the fact is that I had to take my situation, own it, make it mine, and make the best of it.

The third assumption about women that I find most personally offensive, is that women are fragile. Women are routinely portrayed as emotionally and physically fragile. And the thing is we’re not. I have some three — I have some 300 pounds of go-kart on my neck, and I’m fine, right? I’m standing up today. And this is problematic. I have told you stories that I learned in go-karts early on, but I am still facing and fighting these assumptions as I’ve moved into race cars.

Last spring I was racing in Sacramento and Stockton area, and I had brought my resume and all my wins and championships to this team. I was super-excited; I thought they were super-excited. A couple races in, I had won once, and we were doing well, and one of the guys in the team who was helping me out, takes me aside and says, “Jules, you know, when I heard that we were to have a girl on the team, I was just bummed. I thought we were going to be racing at the back all season, but we’re not.” And I realized that he was trying to compliment me, but at the same time, my team -this was supposed to be my backbone- had very little faith in me, and didn’t expect me to be racing on the edge and at the limit.

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There is a study where researchers asked mothers to set the steepness of a ramp for how they thought their toddler could climb up. Mothers routinely set the ramp steeper for their boys than they did for their girls. So from toddlerhood we are priming our daughters not to take risks, not to push themselves, not to fall down, and not to learn how to pick themselves back up. And this directly affects how people interact with them, as I learned as a professional racer with my team.

So because being a woman that society tells me to be and being a race care driver that I really want to be are at odds with each other, we have to break the rules. And racing is not particularly scary for me. Going over 130 mph, getting within a couple inches of the wall, racing side by side with someone, and crashing, although unpleasant, is not very scary. Breaking centuries of negative perceptions of women is a little daunting, but very important. So back to the original question of what’s it like to be a woman race car driver? It’s awesome. It is fabulous. Being in the zone is so cool. It’s me operating with the car, operating with the race track on a subconscious level. Nothing in the outside world matters.

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