The Girl on the Track

Women have come a long way in male-dominated sports since 1972. In auto racing, where an equal playing field exists, female competitors are still few and far between. As one of only two women in her racing community, Brianna Robinson is determined to make a name for herself. 

Story and Photos by Nicole Raucheisen

Long blonde hair. That’s usually the first thing people notice about Brianna Robinson, a 16-year-old modified race car driver from Ironton, Ohio. Once they notice her race suit, a bewildered and awed look crosses their face. Somehow, even 40 years after the passing of Title IX and female athletes continually making strides in the sports world, people are surprised to see a female competing against men. However, for these same reasons, she is also somewhat of a racetrack celebrity. Each race, strangers consistently approach her for photos and wish her the best of luck. As Brianna defines it, “[Being a girl] is a stigma, but it’s an advantage at the same time.”
     Only racing cars for three years, Brianna has finished all of her races this year in the top 10, if not top five. Even more impressive, she usually beats men that are three times her age. At The Dirt Track World Championships in Portsmouth, Ohio — one of the last and largest races of the season — she hoped to continue this trend. Brianna was the only female competitor out of 112 drivers. She arrived with one goal in mind: to prove that she is as good, if not better, than her male counterparts. In the following Q&A, Brianna reflects on her racing career, her relationship with her father and what it feels like to be one of the few women in her racing community. 

Brianna listens to the race rules from track officials during the drivers meeting for the Dirt Track World Championships at Portsmouth Raceway Park in Portsmouth, Ohio.

How were you introduced to racing? 
My dad raced when I was very little. He raced from 1995-2000 and won the championship at Portsmouth Raceway Park in 2000, then quit. Coincidentally, I was born in 1999. When I was nine, he asked my mom if he could get me a go-kart because we didn’t have anything in common … he wanted something that we could bond over. And my mom said, “Yeah, sure” and now she always says that was one of the worst mistakes she ever made. (laughs) 

Brianna usually races her E-mod on Friday nights and her modified on Saturday nights, but at certain tracks she can race both on the same night.

You started in go-karts and now race two types of cars. Can you tell me more about your competition classes?
I started racing cars when I was 13. I race a sport modified, also known as an E-mod, on Friday nights and I race a modified on Saturday nights. In both classes, I almost always race with men. The oldest I’ve raced against was 60-years-old and the youngest I’ve raced against was 17, but I was 14 at the time. I’ve only raced against two or three girls ever in sports mod and one in go-karts. 

I noticed that you’re very close with your dad and he’s a strong support system for you, especially since he’s also the only member of your pit crew. Can you talk about
your relationship? 

Without him, I would not be racing. He’s my rock. I spend what seems like every second with him. When you spend that much time with someone, you better get along. We’ll duke it out in the garage all the time, … but we always make up. Of course, I’m a teenager so that’s always helpful. (laughs) But I’m a daddy’s girl, always have been.

Can you talk about your pre-race ritual? 
I always get nervous, but I’ve gotten less nervous. The first time I was about to get in my race car, I cried. I was crying while I was strapping myself in. I was just so scared. I was 13, I didn’t know what to expect. Now, if I’m really nervous, my dad will be standing there and I’ll hold his hand. We always pray before the races start and then I’ll tell him, ‘I love you’ and he says, ‘I love you too.’ It’s just calming.

Brianna and her father, Tim, talk about the track condition before she starts her heat race in Willard, Kentucky.

As a high school student and a competitive athlete, you must have a busy schedule. Between prep work, training and competing, how much time do you spend on racing? 
What time don’t I spend on racing is a better question. With two cars, it’s a lot. I’d say every night we work on cars for at least two-three hours. After I get home from school on Fridays, we’ll work on cars, head to the races and we’ll get home anywhere from midnight to three or four in the morning. On Saturday, we work on the car around 11 AM until we leave for the races and we’ll get back anywhere from midnight to one or two in the morning. Then we start over on Monday, usually just washing the cars and ordering new parts. 

Brianna poses for a portrait with her old go-kart racing helmet that reads, “You just got passed by a girl.” She ordered the sticker after one of the boys she competed against was upset that he lost to a girl.

My dad is very, very kind and will work on the car without me sometimes so I can go places with my friends. I’ve had quite a few Fridays off this year so I’ve been to three or four football games and that’s insane for me. My friends were all like, ‘Why aren’t you racing?’ They always give me a hard time because that’s all I ever talk about. They’ll say, ‘You sleep in your race car. You eat with your race car. All you do is talk about your race car.’ I say, ‘I know. I don’t do anything else.’ I don’t have the inclination to go party so I don’t think I’m missing that much really. 

What does it feel like to be one of the few women in your racing community? 
The first full year I raced, which was when I was 14, I got a lot of slack for it. People tried to wreck me all the time. I got wrecked almost every week last year. Now they don’t try to wreck me nearly as much. I’ve earned their respect as a driver that I’m not just goofing off out there. I’m there to compete and I’m there to win. They drive me just like they drive anyone else. If they bump me a little bit, so what? I might bump them back.

Off the track, the pit can be another area that is dominated by a male presence. Can you talk about your interactions there?  
It’s interesting. If it’s just a local race, it’s not really anything out of the ordinary. If it’s a big race and a lot of out of towners are there, I’ll be getting ready to go out and my hair sticks out from under my helmet sometimes … you can see people walk by and they’re thinking, ‘Is that a girl?’ They just stare at me and if looks could kill … Or people I don’t know will come up and ask for photographs or autographs and I’m always thinking, ‘Why? I’m nothing special. I’m just a person that’s racing, who happens to be a 16-year-old girl.’

What are your plans for the future? 
The ultimate goal is to race in NASCAR one day. I would love, love, love to do that. Of course, that takes money and sponsors and getting noticed and a lot of luck to just get in the right situation at the right time. And a lot of people don’t do it. And I have another stigma because I’m a girl, but I also have that advantage because I’m a girl.