One day, Ingrid Steffensen was a college professor, wife and mother who wasn’t very interested in cars. Fast forward by one weekend and this same professor had passed several cars on a race track–in the rain, no less. Fast forward again and this same professor is now a racing instructor, a “hopelessly addicted speed freak” and the author of Fast Girl: Don’t Brake Until You See the Face of God and Other Good Advice from the Racetrack.
“I didn’t grow up in a car family,” Ingrid says. “Dad saw a car as a way to get from one place to another. Once I started to drive, I found that I liked easily maneuverable cars, but that’s about all.”
As an adult, Ingrid taught art and architectural history at Bryn Mawr. She also happened to be married to a man who loves performance cars. “I remember being unhappy with my husband when he would go to a race track, leaving me home alone with our toddler. I thought that what he was doing was a waste of both time and money.”
Her husband kept inviting Ingrid to go to the track with him, to watch or even drive a race car. When their daughter turned ten, in 2008, Ingrid agreed and found herself behind the wheel of a Mini Cooper S. “I was absolutely petrified,” she says, “terrified out of my mind. I knew I would be driving so fast and figured I’d be so bad at it. I was literally shaking with fear. Fortunately the instructor was nice, seeing my nerves and telling me that I didn’t need to do this.”
Ingrid stayed in the car and, on the first day of the two-day training, she was the slowest one on the track. “I had one of the least powerful cars and I didn’t know what I was doing,” she says. “I had lots of info to process and I was still scared.”
On the second day of the event, it was raining. The instructor told Ingrid that was good, as she would learn more safety techniques. “I also learned that, in the rain, the more powerful cars couldn’t use full horsepower and I started passing up people. That’s because, on day one, I learned about technique.”
Ingrid then headed home, relieved that the weekend had ended. “But,” she says, “I also kept thinking about the experience, replaying it in my head. This was the start of a beautiful love affair. I was hooked, not so much on speed, but on the mental challenge of getting all right, accurately and smoothly. It was extraordinarily liberating and empowering.”
The seeds of a memoir
Fast Girl captures Ingrid’s experiences of tackling new challenges as she falls in love with high performance race cars and shares what she learned about her life and life in general at the track. “I devote a chapter to rain,” she says, “because you learn what you’re made of when life gets more difficult. Both racing and life are great fun when all goes well but, if you can embrace life when life is more difficult, then you should be even more proud.”
Writing the book has made Ingrid braver in multiple areas of life. For example, the tenure track eluded her at Bryn Mawr, so she has changed her career focus rather than continuing to pursue something that wasn’t making her entirely happy. She also became a race car driving instructor, an experience that she says changed her life.
In fact, Ingrid is writing a follow up book that shares her experiences as a driving instructor. “Picture two strangers,” she says, “sitting in the front seats of a car, with one telling the other how to drive, fast and dangerously. This is a very intense psychological relationship where the driver needs to figure out what kind of person the student is, and really quickly.”
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