Car Buying and Maintenance Tips From a Race Track Star

Car Buying And Maintenance Tips
It takes a team: Part of Penelope’s commitment to her passion for racing is her team, including her mechanics who maintain her car before, during and after each race.

Race car driver Penelope Carr shares how her own car breakdown led to winning races and learning to be confident in an intimidating world.

It’s that awful thing none of us wants to face, but so many do: finding yourself a divorced mom, alone with three kids, little money, even fewer resources, and things breaking down around you. Some women break down, go into debt, or plow into another bad relationship just to keep their lives intact. Others find strength deep within themselves to question, endeavor and learn how to make things work by themselves.

That’s what Penelope Carr did. And that’s how this mother and information technology systems expert at NetApp became a winner on the race track, too. When she was a newly-divorced young mother, Penelope’s Ford Taurus broke down.

“I was terrified; my ex had taken care of everything. I had no idea what to do, where to go. But my dad worked on cars,” she said, and she’d learned a bit from him.

When she got an estimate from the repair shop that seemed too expensive and seemed like something she could do herself, Penelope decided to do just that.

“A friend suggested that I buy a book and fix it myself. So, I went out, bought a book, went to Sears and bought a set of Craftsman tools, and from then on any time something went wrong, I figured out the issue and fixed or replaced it. I replaced the alternator, the starter, changed my own oil, replaced the battery, changed my own tires,’’ she says proudly. “It was nice to know I could go to the automotive store, tell them what I needed and fix it myself.”

And she learned something important: “I learned I’d rather do it myself and know it’s done right, that I’m not getting ripped off, and that I don’t have to wait for someone to fix it for me.”

From Learning to “Wrench” to Learning to Win

Several years later, that sense of confidence translated to dominance on the race track. Penelope began dating her boyfriend Gregory, a car and race enthusiast who came by his passion honestly. His parents invented the timing and scoring process that is used for vintage races. Under contract for Ford, they traveled the world keeping time and scoring track events.

“When we started dating, I loved helping him with things like car repairs and maintenance,” Penelope said. “Then we went to a vintage race, and I just loved it.”

Gregory wanted Penelope to get out on the track, but she didn’t believe that she could actually race cars.

“When we first started, Gregory did the racing, and I sat on the sidelines. He said, ‘You can do this,’ so we started sharing a car.”

Then on their trips to races, Penelope went out to the track on practice day and did a couple of laps. “Once I got behind the wheel, I realized I loved it.”

So, they started looking for a cheap car to buy, so they could both participate in the races. Penelope and Gregory came upon a Lotus Elite, which they took turns driving.

Pre-Race Check

Pre-race check: communication with Penelope Carr’s mechanic and team is key to a good race, and to winning.

Another Hard Job: Ignoring the Naysayers at the Track 

But being a woman on the track wasn’t easy for Penelope.

“I got a lot of ‘You don’t belong here,’ and ‘You cause too many problems.’ But Gregory was wonderful. He said ‘Don’t listen to them.’ I kept at it.”

And, Penelope revealed a little secret that evened the race: “When you are in a suit and helmet, no one knows who you are. They can’t tell what sex you are.”

But it got even better when she won. “One guy was jumping up and down and yelling because he was beat by a girl in a vintage car. It ended up being down to the two of us in the race, and I was determined to beat him.”

Penelope credits some of her talent on the track to her ability under the hood and also her love of the sport and vintage cars. “The Lotus 7 Series 2 is so easy to drive. You can go deep in the turns, and that’s an advantage. So on that race, I ended up beating him at Limerock; at the first turn we were neck and neck.”

Still Wrenching, This Time For Fun

Penelope still works on her own cars, but mostly her race cars.

“People can’t believe I do it!” she said, showing off a glamorous set of manicured nails.

But it’s critical to Penelope’s success: she needs to understand what’s going on under the hood in order to dominate on the track.

“I’ve found that it’s made me a better driver. When you get back to your mechanic, he will ask you what gear were you in in each turn, what your RPMs were, what the oil temp was, if you were getting traction in the turns, and that is how he’ll know what needs to be done to the car.”

But does she still work on her daily drive, a BMW?

“No,” she says. Oftentimes, work done on a car by an unauthorized service provider can void a warranty. So when it comes to her BMW, Penelope lets the pros do the job.

Car Buying And Maintenance Tips

Penelope Carr, suited up and ready to hit the track at Lime Rock Park raceway.


Penelope’s Car Buying and Maintenance Tips

Over the years, Penelope, with Gregory and her two sons and daughter, has bought and maintained a lot of cars. And despite her record on the track and knowledge about cars, she has to prepare and be confident in her decision-making, just like everyone else.

“A lot of people come to me for best deals on cars,” she says. So, what advice does Penelope have for women in the car market? Here are Penelope’s Car Buying and Maintenance Tips:

  1. Get your family involved and interested in cars. Do a lot of research online, and learn a lot about them: what do you want, what do you expect in the car?
  2. Do your homework! Look at different models and reviews. Checking out safety records is extremely important.
  3. Have the car in mind and know what you want to spend before you go to the dealership. Tell them this is the car, the price and the payment you want. If they can’t do it, then go to another dealer.
  4. When it comes to maintenance, try to learn about the car, look at the gauges, and know what your car needs to operate. Read the manual to familiarize yourself with the car and how it operates.
  5. Listen to your car, so you know when it has an issue. If you can, research the problem. There are a lot of websites where you can search what you think the problem is or the symptoms of the problem. Talk to a few people, ask your neighbors, and don’t be afraid to ask ‘Have you ever taken your car in for … ?’ Or ‘What did you do, what did it cost?’
  6. Do some comparison shopping on the service or repair. A lot of shops take advantage of women, and that’s a fact! But if you go in armed with information, like what it should cost you, then it won’t be easy to rip you off.
  7. Be confident! Don’t appear afraid, or people will take advantage of you.

Even so, says Penelope, it’s hard to avoid bias if you’re a woman. Therefore, her last tip is this: If you think you’re not getting a fair deal, play to the bias. Take a guy with you to the shop if necessary.

Back when Penelope was trying to figure out what was wrong with her Ford Taurus, she went to a mechanic and got an expensive repair bill. Not believing that it was right, she went to a neighbor.

“I asked him to go talk to this guy, pretend the car was his, and he came back an hour later and gave me the bill. It wasn’t close to the original estimate. There was nothing wrong but the one transmission issue.”

And all these years — and expertise under the hood and on the track — haven’t changed things all that much.

“I still run into this everywhere. I can tell a huge difference between how people treat Gregory and how they treat me. I don’t know why, but it happens.”

Journalist, entrepreneur and mom. Expertise includes new cars, family cars, 3-row SUVs, child passenger car seats and automotive careers... More about Scotty Reiss