Jean Shields Fleming
Driving Spirit: An Interview with Rally Race Car Driver Renée Brinkerhoff
On competing in a man’s world, why it's cool to be a mom, risking it all, and saying yes to big, wild desires.
It was while she was folding laundry that Renée Brinkerhoff decided to race cars.
“I was looking out the window,” she said, “and I hear myself having a sub-conscious conversation. We have thoughts all the time, conversations in our head, like 'I’ve got to go to the grocery store.' This one was, ‘One day I’m going to race a car.’”
Brinkerhoff, a mother of four, didn’t ignore her inner voice. Instead, she followed it, becoming a top rally driver and founding Valkyrie Racing. Her passion for speed has taken her to six continents (more on that seventh in a moment), where she races her classic 1956 Porsche 356 and raises awareness – and money – to fight child trafficking. Along the way, she’s discovered that being different is a strength and that fear can fuel amazing things.
We had a wide ranging conversation about competing in a man’s world, risking it all, and saying yes to big, wild desires.
Growing Up in Tumultuous Times
Many people who get into motorsports grew up around cars. Renée isn’t one of them. However, her upbringing did prepare her for the chaos of racing.
“I lived in Taiwan as a child,” she told me. “At the height of the tension with China and our government, the cold war we could say. Then, when my dad got out of the military, we lived in Hong Kong and the Cultural Revolution was going on there. There were the Red Guards, the youth who were rioting in the streets, blowing up busses with Molotov cocktails. In high school, I lived in Laos. This was during the Viet Nam war. There were all these things happening that were adventurous, tumultuous, and I was struggling to find my path in the midst of it.”
She became the go-to driver for her friends when her parents gave her a secondhand VW Beetle – silver, like her future Porsche.
“It had this cool little thin pinstripe like from the hippie era,” she remembered, laughing. “It was souped up and I was just always putting the pedal to the metal. That car was just so fun to drive fast.”
Renée started college, where she met her future husband. He had just graduated and she was still in school. Shortly after they married, she became pregnant and had to make a decision.
“I’m going to college with my big belly. In those days you didn’t see pregnant women on campuses. I remember feeling very awkward about that. I’d hold out my hand so people could see my wedding ring – ‘see, I am married.’”
Reflecting, she recalled it as a kind of crossroads.
“I was a premed student and I wanted to be a doctor. Things were opening up for women. My girlfriends were having the same crossroads moment and choosing career. So I had to decide. Go for a career or be a mother? For me it was hard to balance those two, so I was going to do one or the other. I like to just dive into things. So I said, 'I’m going to be a stay-at-home mom.'”
Renée found her calling in motherhood and ended up homeschooling her children.
“It was so cool to be a mom. It wasn’t just changing diapers. Here was this littler person with a soul, with talents, with all these gifts. What are they? Who’s this person? They have a mind, they have a spirit. I wanted to know who this is. I just felt as a mom it was my responsibility to develop all that – to let this person explore and develop. I was just so enthralled with that whole process.”
Flash forward: Renée is 55 or 56. The kids are out of the house and Renée finally had time to do things for herself. Read a book, go to the beach, enjoy life a little. That’s when the voice in the laundry room started talking to her.
Learning to Drive – the Hard Way
Renée wrestled with the desire to race cars.
“I thought, ‘You’ve been saying this thing, so what are you going to do about it?' And knowing me, if I’m on my deathbed and I know I’ve been saying this and don’t go try, I’ll feel awful. You never did it, you never tried. So I said to myself, ‘You have to go do it.’ But I was in this happy place in my life. Now I have to disrupt all that. And I’m very afraid. I don’t want to fail, I don’t want to be laughed at. It’s super bizarre, what I’m going to be telling people I want to do. It’s dangerous. I had all this fear. But I wasn’t going to do it halfway. I had to tell my family.”
She did this by simply dropping the topic into conversations. On a trip to California, when her husband and cousin were chatting, she came into the room, said, “I want to race cars,” and then left.
“Then I started saying it more. And I said, ‘Let’s have a conversation about this because I really want to race a car.’ It was one line and then creating a conversation around it.”
As she explored different racing options, it was rally racing that caught Renée’s imagination. Rally races are point-to-point tours of difficult terrain – think curvy mountain roads or across deserts. They are multi-day events, with speed stages on closed roads, connected by drives on open roads where drivers must obey traffic rules but not lose time. Drivers work with a navigator, and the teams are released onto the course in intervals, much like a time trial in bicycle racing. Rain, snow, ice, blistering heat – whatever is happening at the time of the race forms the conditions that the drivers must contend with. Rally races can be dangerous or even deadly.
Renée went into it without that background. While there are places where you can learn how to become a rally driver, they didn't work for her because her car was older and had lower horsepower, so the things they taught would not apply to her Porsce 356. Instead, she got her start at La Carerra Panamericana, a race renowned for its peril.
“I ended up choosing this race in Mexico, and I had no idea – at all – what I was getting into. All I read was seven day rally race, in Mexico, old cars. I said ‘It fits the bill!’ I didn’t know that 30% of the cars don’t cross the finish line, or that every day there were really bad car accidents and people were being medevac’d out. And of course you’re driving through cartel country. So many things about this race are dangerous. I didn’t know any of that.”
However, before she could race, she had to get her 356 prepared. It was built for regular street driving when she purchased it, so it required extensive modifications.
“Every bona fide race, whether it’s a track race, NASCAR, or a rally, you have to abide by very strict safety standards. There’s a whole list of things you have to do to prepare your car just for the safety. So I had to add a roll cage, among many other things. Then there are classes for your car for any kind of racing. Your put your car in with similar cars, so they’re matched. There are specifications for how you build your car so that it can compete in the class. I had to prepare it for the class and the safety. All that took time, all that took money.”
Her car was not ready for that first race, but Renée went to Mexico anyway. And it was here where she really learned her craft.
“I found somebody, oddly – I don’t believe in coincidence – who had exactly the same car as mine, just a year off. He had done the La Carerra before. His usual teammate didn’t want to go. But it was the 25th anniversary of the race, and this guy was desperate to compete. Somebody I had met when I purchased my car told me about him. So I emailed him. He agreed to have me share the driving and the navigating with him, and that's how I got started.”
Danger: Curves, Cliffs and Crowds Ahead
In 2013, with modifications underway on the Porsche, Renée entered it into La Carrera. And here she discovered what it means to be truly afraid.
“When I got in that car for the first time my body was literally shaking. Uncontrollably. Every part that could shake was shaking. They have a clock at the start and it counts down, and then I just had to go. As I started driving, the shaking would stop. But every morning I’d pray on the side of my bed to get in that car. Because I was afraid.”
Her fear was justified, as it turned out.
“The first morning of my first race, someone died. We passed the car. They were rolled over in a field. We found out later it was two brothers and one of them died. Three or four days later, cars went off a cliff. Five cars piled up, maybe 30, 40 feet. A couple miles down, a car was on fire. It was crazy.”
Despite all this, Renée and her team won first-in-class that year.
Over the years, she has had what she calls her “whoop-de-doos” – things that would qualify as downright terrifying for most of us. Spinning 180 on wet roads. Going off the road into a field. But the moment she recalls as her scariest came in 2015, during her third time competing at La Carrera. In the first year, she and her team finished first in their class, and in their second appearance, they finished second in class and 14th overall – against much more powerful cars. So they came into the 2015 race well prepared. Yet as they drove in the qualifying round, something wasn’t right.
I’ll let Renée tell you the full story.
“The relationship with your navigator is the most important relationship on a rally team. It’s like a marriage – even more than a marriage, really, because your lives are at risk. He has to trust me and I have to trust him. Impeccably. 100%. I listen, he talks. If I don’t understand him, which is not very often, I’ll say ‘repeat’. We have our own coded language. He calls the turns. He’ll tell me which direction the turn is and the difficulty or tightness.
“So as I’m driving, I’m visualizing, I’m processing. I’m looking at the landscape, what’s around me – trees, cliffs, whatever. I’m adjusting in that turn for what’s ahead. If it’s straight, I’m going to come out as fast as I can. If there’s another quick turn after, I can’t do that.
“We were in the qualifying round and something was not right with the car. But I didn’t know what it was. It was so bad I started yelling, ‘Something’s wrong with my car, something is wrong with my car.’
“But unless you have your feet on the pedals and your hands on the wheel, you don’t know what’s happening with the car. He started giving me thoughts about what to do, but he didn’t really know what was going on. Then there was a language barrier. His first language was Spanish, mine is English. It never really mattered. But in a moment of crisis, when there’s little time, each word has a lot of power. Now it mattered.
“I was coming around this corner applying what he suggested was the fix. But we were going out. There was a cliff. We were in the mountains in the southern part of Mexico, by the Guatemalan border. I’m coming around the corner and we’re going out. I’m thinking ‘G-O-D, what’s going on, I am not going out.’
“By pure brute strength I keep the car in the turn, but we were still coming too fast. Way, way too fast. Right after is another quick turn. I’m looking ahead and there’s all these people. The spectators have placed themselves where the action is, and I’m going straight for them. I ended up getting on the brakes. I shouldn’t have stayed on the brakes because I’m in an old car. In modern cars, you stay on the brakes, but not in old cars. I should have been pumping the brakes instead.
“We took out a guardrail, people went scattering, and we flipped the car.
“So here we were. I’m with my team, the car is badly damaged, and we haven’t even started the race yet.
“That was my most difficult moment. We’d won our first year, won our class. Our second year, we came in 14th overall, beating Mustangs, muscle cars, 911s, cars with 500 and 600 horsepower compared to our 120 horses – in the rainiest year of the race.
"We’d had these successes. It was devastating. My confidence was shattered. My car was shattered. And the race hasn’t even started. We’re at the tip of Mexico, the southern border. What are we going to do? How can we get this car fixed? What was wrong with car? We had to rebuild it, and figure out how to get the parts. Lots of problem solving.
“At the same time, I’m doing a massive evaluation of myself. What have you accomplished? Do you know what you’re doing or was this a fluke? Was this just some thing that happened, that you had this success, or did you earn it? I had to look at all that and say, 'Yeah we did, we did earn it.' Coming out of that, I started over from ground zero. I had to get back in the car and build my confidence as if I’d never driven before. Mile by mile. Turn by turn. Day after day.
“That was a huge growth experience. All races are. How do you overcome fear, daily? How do you deal with all the personalities, the sexism? And it’s not happening one thing at a time, they’re happening all at once. It’s fires all around. You have to grow.”
Odd is Powerful
It may not surprise you to hear that rally racing is dominated by male drivers. Renée often found herself one of the few, if not the only, woman driver in a race. The worst sexism she has experienced was not in Mexico or South America, where, despite the culture of machismo, she was always treated with respect. It was where she expected to find more progressive perspectives that she had to have the hardest conversations.
But now, Renée has come to see her position as an opportunity rather than an obstacle.
“As a woman in a dangerous, male-dominated sport – I’m very odd,” she said, “and people want to know what I am doing and why. In this way I’ve found I can use my voice. So we decided to use our platform to talk about the issue of human trafficking.”
Human trafficking is the second largest form of organized crime, just after drugs. It generates upwards of $150B every year. There are an estimated 40 million victims of this crime worldwide, 71% of which are women and children. These victims end up doing forced labor or being sexually exploited. Renée learned about the issue after a chance meeting with an FBI agent on a tour bus.
“I sat next to this young couple and we started conversing,” she told me. “What do you always talk about – where are you from, what do you do? Tell me about yourself. The young man said that he worked for the FBI. He was probably in his 30s. I thought, ‘I’m going to ask him what he does. He may not tell me.’ But he did. He said ‘I’m an undercover agent for the FBI in Florida.’ He poses as a john – a buyer. He tries to arrest the people who were either making, using or selling child pornography. He also tries to find the children. And then he testifies against the people who are doing this.”
The agent explained how the internet has increased child trafficking, allowing people to hide behind their computers and phones. Shortly after that, Renée witnessed this first hand.
“I was on a bus to a rental car lot. I sat next to a man who had his phone open. As soon as I sat down, he changed the image but I saw it. It was a pornographic image of a very young child. I don’t believe in coincidences, so I thought, ‘Something’s knocking on your door, so what are you going to do about it, Renée?’”
Her response was to create Valkyrie Gives, her racing team’s charitable arm.
“The Valkyrie are Norse mythological women who would leave Valhalla, go to the battlefield, rescue the wounded and dying who were worthy, and restore them to life. I thought it was cool, the whole woman warrior thing, but didn’t realize this other part of it. Now, we desire to be modern day Valkyries and could only hope to become one."
To date, Valkyrie Gives has raised nearly $300,000 to fight this problem – and you can make a donation at their website or below. Even a small amount, say the cost of your daily coffee, can mean the difference between a child who can heal from trauma and one who is trapped in a continual cycle of suffering and exploitation.
The Last Continent
After discovering how powerful her platform and voice could be, Renée and her team were eager to find additional ways to leverage their uniqueness.
“We asked ourselves, how can we be different with this car?” she said.
The answer was Project 356: Racing the Porsche on every continent in the world, while raising awareness about human trafficking. To date, she has raced in South America at the Caminos Del Inca, in Africa at the East Africa Safari Classic, and in Australia at the Targa Tasmania. The Peking to Paris rally covered both Asia and Europe. And with their three trips to La Carrera Panamericana, North America was already set.
“We find races that are modern events, no old cars, and we put this car in it. Or there’s never been a woman driver. We try to find super tough events for the car. That’s how we picked the races. We have one left: Antarctica.”
There is no formal rally on Antarctica, so Renée is teaming up with polar explorer Jason de Carteret to create an extraordinary challenge.
“Jason has led over 50 expeditions on the ice. He will be in the car with me. We’ll be camping. Dried foods, cooking and all. The goal is to do 356 miles on the ice. Not the picturesque part where all the animals are, this will be in the interior of Antarctica. We will be charting our route depending on the conditions of the ice at the time. The situation changes constantly, so you can’t just draw a line and say, 'We’re going to go here.'”
The car has been prepared with tracks and skis, and solar panels. The average speed will be about 30 miles per hour. They will use a special kind of fuel as well. After the 356 miles, they’ll take off the skis and tracks, put tires back on, and see how fast they can go.
“We’ll try to establish a land speed record that somebody else can come break,” Renée said.
Clearly, an undertaking like this requires enormous preparation, and Renée interviewed Jason to make sure they could work well together.
“Jason said, ‘I’ve had a lot of people wanting me to be involved in their expeditions, and for the most part everybody gets a no. But I’m intrigued by what you’re doing and I think I might want to be a part of it.’ Then he told me, 'This will be the most dangerous thing you'll ever do.'”
The team will have to tether themselves to the car anytime they get out, a safety precaution to prevent falling into a crevasse, a deep crack which can open up suddenly on the ice. The car will also be fitted with a special crevasse bar as an additional safety measure.
After explaining all of this, Jason asked her the ultimate question.
“He said, ‘Renée, are you willing to die on the ice? Because that’s the risk you’re going to take.’”
For Renée, this was a question she had faced before.
“I don’t say this flippantly. Every time I did a La Carrera, I had to think if I was going to risk my life to go in that race, because that’s what I'd be doing. But I’d think about it way in advance and make my decision. Then that decision would go on the shelf and I’d go do the race. Because you can’t think about it while you’re driving.
“So I told him, ‘yeah.’”
The team hopes the conditions will allow them to go in the winter of 2021. When the time comes, I asked, will she be afraid?
“Of course,” she said. “But I’ve learned that fear is an amazing power. If you can harness your fear, it fuels amazing things. Out of death comes life. Don’t hesitate. Push through hard things. Go after hard things. Because what you’ll get through that, you won’t get any other way.”
Jean Shields Fleming is the founder and editor of Certain Age. She interviewed Ms. Brinkerhoff in May 2021.
What if it were your child?
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