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, her 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 expensive, and seemed like something she could do herself, she 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 set of Craftsman tools, and from then on anytime 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. She 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. Then we went to a vintage race and I just loved it.”
Gregory wanted Penelope to get out on the track, but “I didn’t think I could race cars,” she said. “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.”
On their trips to races, Penelope went out the track on practice day, did a couple of laps, “and once I got behind the wheel, I realized I loved it.”
So, they started looking for a cheap car to buy. “A car that we could afford so we could both race, too. We started with a Lotus Elite,” she said, which they would take turns driving.
Another Hard Job: Ignoring the Naysayers at the Track
But being a woman on the track wasn’t easy. “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.” And 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
And, 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 her: 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. Often, work done on a car by an unauthorized service provider can void a warranty; on her BMW, she lets the pros do the job.
Penelope’s Winning Tips on Buying and Maintaining a Car
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 she have for women in the car market? Here’s Penelope’s Car Buying and Maintenance Tips:
- Get your family involved and interested in cars, do a lot of research on line, learn a lot about them: what do you want, what do you expect in the car?
- Look at different models, look at reviews, check out safety records, do your homework.
- 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, and if they can’t do it, go to another dealer.
- When it comes to maintenance, try to learn about the car, look at the gauges, know what your car needs to operate; read the manual to familiarize yourself with the car and how it operates.
- 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?’
- 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, it won’t be easy to rip you off.
- 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.
So, her last tip is, if you think you’re not getting a fair deal, play to the bias. Take a guy with you to the shop.
Back when she 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.”