A Passion for Racing, Learning, and Music Drives this Teen SportsCar Racing Sensation.
It’s the gap year that every parent dreams of: take a year off to continue a successful racing career, start a mentoring program for girls, work for a highly successful healthcare startup and then, start freshman year at Harvard. That’s what 19-year old Aurora Straus decided to do after graduating from high school. A teen SportsCar racer, musician, founder of #GirlsWithDrive, assistant to ZappRX CEO and rising Harvard freshman, I chose this assignment specifically because Aurora’s story would resonate with my own daughter.
Aurora did not grow up like other kids who are into racing. In her first ever racing school she was in the program with other students who had started karting at 2 years-old. The first time that Aurora had gotten behind the wheel was at age 13. She was a self-proclaimed scaredy cat but she and her father agreed that she needed some basic car control skills before she got onto public roads. She went to Monticello Motor Club, where her father, Ari Straus, is CEO and Managing Partner, to learn defensive driving skills. The intention was never for her to become a race car driver.
Aurora recalls that first time on the track. She was driving with Stevan McAleer, a family friend and one of the instructors at Monticello. “Everyone in the racing world has this story of when they got the bug. I went out on track. I didn’t expect to like it. I’d been a huge scaredy cat my entire life and something about racing made me fall in love with it. I don’t really know what it was to this day. It is hard to pinpoint. I don’t know if it was the control aspect of it or the competition aspect, but I love it.”
The Mazda Miata was the first car that Aurora learned to drive. She would work with Stevan for a number of years any chance she got. When they discussed if she was serious about racing they decided to jump right into the deep end and have her race in the Battery Tender MX-5 Cup which is considered professional racing. Aurora admits that it may have been too big of a jump to start off on, but she did this for two partial seasons over two years.
She must have been doing something right because she carried her sponsor ModSpace Motorsports from the Battery Tender MX-5 Cup to the Continental Tire SportsCar Challenge in 2017. That year she ran a full professional series and finished the top rookie in her class. This year she is running a BMW M4 GT4 in Pirelli World Challenge and she is currently leading the championship points in her class.
One of Aurora’s main influences in her life is her father. She describes him as always having been a gearhead who got involved in Monticello Motor Club in 2007. Aurora explains that Monticello has one of the only programs in the United States where kids can learn to drive at age 13.
This summer Aurora is running the first ever sleep-away teen racing camp for kids ages 13-19. Aurora will be one of the lead instructors and she is very excited about this. The program takes girls who have never been behind the wheel before to those who have been go-karting their entire lives. At the end of the program, the instructors will either recommend or not recommend the camper for a National Auto Sport Association racing license.
Education is paramount to this teen’s drive to succeed.
After racing camp Aurora is headed to Harvard as part of the 2021 class. I asked her how she is able to balance so many diverse interests. She explains, “Part of the reason that I took this year off was because I knew that it would be hard for me to balance everything the way that I wanted to. I had reached a critical point in my racing career where I could have gone to Harvard and been racing. I could have done both halfway, or I could have taken the year off, really dedicated myself to racing and see what happens. Then I would go to Harvard having continued off of that momentum and having developed something real. I think it has gone really well and was the right decision because I am leading championship points right now and I am really excited about that.”
“I am a big believer in the fact that you can do anything that you set your mind to if you just care about it enough. I would never give up Harvard for the world. I would never give up racing for the world and I would never give up music for the world. I’m going to do what I have to do to make sure that all three are still a major part of my life because I wouldn’t want to have it any other way.”
I found Aurora to be thoughtful, driven to succeed and completely down to earth. She will be studying mechanical engineering and English in the Fall, two subjects on the opposite ends of the spectrum. I asked her what drew her to those subjects.
She is already looking to her future beyond racing, so mechanical engineering has an obvious draw. She wants to work in car design and be an engineer long term. She tells most girls that ask her how to get into racing the best way to go about it. She tells them to stay in school for as long as they can and pursue a degree in engineering because it is the easiest, most effective way to become a better driver.
“Most of the best drivers I know have an engineering background and most of the best engineers I know, know how to drive.”
English is the opposite end of the spectrum from engineering. But English was always a constant for Aurora because she never expected racing to be a big part of her life– it was a surprise for her. English, however, has always been a part of her life: She has been reading non-stop for her entire life.
Later we discussed my own daughter’s interest in reading and discovered that they are both big time Harry Potter fans. On a more practical level Aurora states “English is also directly applicable to almost any career path that you choose. Having a good basis in effective writing will help you in anything. You can go from that to consulting, to business to almost anything. Knowing how to write effectively is one of the keystones of running something well.”
Turning the conversation back to racing I asked Aurora who her racing influences are. Top of the list is her father. Ari Straus has run some races but is not a professional racer. He is, however, a very supportive father who comes to most of Aurora’s races. As the managing partner of Monticello Motor Club, he’s around performance motor sports as a business and racing is a major bonding activity for them. Aurora would not have gotten into the sport without him.
Aurora’s second major racing influence is Stevan McAleer. He is also the person who gave her the best racing advice which is to never, never, never give up. Stevan is a guy who lives that truth. In Stevan’s own personal story, he has gone from sleeping in his car to having a successful race team running in the MX-5 Cup and an extremely successful go-karting team.
Aurora has raced in a Mazda Miata, an RS1 Porsche and is currently racing in a BMW M4 GT4. Those are some great cars but what I really wanted to know was what would be her dream car for just cruising cross country.
Aurora is going back to her first love, the Mazda Miata, more specifically the 2018 Mazda MX-5 Miata RF Convertible. Her reason for the choice, “I just know from personal experience in racing that MX-5’s are really, really fun cars to drive. Driving one of those cross-country with the top down would be a great way to spend two weeks.”
Aurora is so driven to succeed in areas outside of racing as well. She works for a startup called ZappRX as the personal assistant to Zoë Barry, the CEO. Along with her mother, Zoë, and several other powerhouse women Aurora has grown up with great female role models and this has inspired her.
In researching this article and Aurora prior to our interview I kept seeing the hashtag #GirlsWithDrive. I just figured that it was a racing thing but it is much more. I asked Aurora about it and she explained that #GirlsWithDrive is actually her non-profit. She is the founder and the goal of #GirlsWithDrive is to inspire, identify and then invest in girls that want to get involved in male-dominated careers. While racing is one of those careers, Aurora says that she is more interested in politics, business and STEM.
#GirlsWithDrive is a Non-profit program Aurora founded to help young girls seek mentors.
“One of the biggest barriers that is stopping girls from getting into male-dominated careers is lack of role models. If you do not see someone like you in the sport or in the field it will make you that much less likely to do it.” The long term goal for #GirlsWithDrive is to have an online application process where girls can apply to be part of #GirlsWithDrive. If accepted then they will be assigned to a mentor. That mentor can have no more than three girls that they are responsible for helping succeed. Mentos will help with sponsorships, scholarships, college applications and more. Once a girl goes through the program they are required to become a mentor to three new girls. Aurora is in the fundraising stages of this program.
While that program is not yet in place Aurora is working with the Girl Scouts and her sponsors to offer programs where any Girl Scout can come to see Aurora race. The girl scout will also get a full day educational program to see what it takes to support a racing team. They get to go to race control, to the Pirelli tires on site tire factory and watch the tires be made. They learn a lot about the physics on how to drive a car. They realize that the physical components of a race car are all about math equations that they are learning in Middle and High School Math. “Watching them realize that they are completely capable of this engineering is really cool.”
“The best part is that the girls get to watch me race and the very first time we ran the program was my first professional race win. The girls got to come up onto the podium with me and got to spray sparkling cider. It is sparkling cider because I am not twenty-one yet.“ She went on to say, “I like to think that one or two girls from that group of 45 have a completely changed mindset at this point about that career path they want to pursue and hopefully one day will become #GirlsWithDrive in the next couple years.”
Yesterday morning in my @pirelliwc debut, I won my first pro race. I couldn’t have asked for a better team than ST Racing, a better crew than the @gsctx, a better car than our @bmwmotorsport, and a better codriver than @alcarter3… not to mention that my teammate @samanthaatan and I made history when we became the first two women to each lead out on track. 👊🏼 I am so incredibly lucky. #GirlsWithDrive
Cold Spring New York is Aurora’s Musical Mentor
As if everything that Aurora does wasn’t enough, you can add musician to her resume. Aurora sings and plays many instruments. She grew up in Cold Spring, New York which has a large folk music scene. I asked her who her musical influences were and she told me that Cold Spring was her mentor. Whenever Aurora wanted to listen to music she would walk to her neighbor’s houses with her guitar and play with them. Neighbors like Pete Seeger and Dar Williams. One of the first songs that Aurora ever learned on guitar was Dar’s song Mercy of the Fallen. When she was in ninth grade she saw a need for a bass player and so she taught herself bass. She also wrote her first song at age 8 with the help of her guitar teacher Kathleen Pemble. She plays in jazz, rock and folk bands. When she plays folk she plays with people from Cold Spring and always on her guitar.
Recent races for Aurora include races on Memorial Day at Lime Rock in Connecticut where she also be sang the National Anthem to kick off the race weekend. There is no doubt in my mind that she will continue to lead the pack in so many ways beyond racing. Aurora truly defines the what a Girl with Drive can accomplish.