From Stopwatch Girl…to Girl Racer!

Girl Racer

As long as you’re out there – YOU’RE A BAD ASS!

This is the story of my journey from supporting my husband trackside in the mid-1990’s to being on-track as a girl racer the last three years. What I hope you’ll gain from this is: 1) courage to try something new and maybe intimidating, and 2) a sense of comfort and relief that you can enjoy a hobby however you see fit and to whatever extent you like!

So, let me introduce myself. My name is Doris Gilles. I am married to Ralph Gilles, head of design for Fiat Chrysler Automobiles N.V. (FCA), and certified track addict. He has raced in the Mille Miglia in Italy, Targa Newfoundland, One Lap of America, the Dodge Viper Cup Series and SCCA Spec Neon Series. He has completed professional racing programs at Bondurant, Skip Barber, and Jim Russell Racing Schools. Plus he has participated in hundreds of track days, events in which drivers bring their own cars to a track, over the last twenty-five years.

My days as a Stopwatch girl with my track-rat husband

Girl Racer

Me with our pit crew hanging out in our trailer during one of our track days events. Photo: Doris Gilles

I eased into the track hobby over time. I grew up in New Jersey with practical Chinese immigrant parents who bought dependable but boring Japanese cars, which we never washed. That’s what rain is for! After graduating from The University of Michigan, I joined Chrysler as a management trainee in purchasing and bought my first car – a black Eagle Talon (sadly, not even the turbo version). By this time, I did appreciate washing (and even waxing) cars and thought I was pretty cool with my 135-horse power sports car. Ralph and I met at Chrysler in summer of 1992, started dating fall 1994, and got married December 1995 – we have been married more than 21 years.

From the beginning of our relationship, Ralph was a track rat – driving his daily/track car (one in the same) to Michigan tracks whenever he could. This was the mid 1990’s before there were computerized timing systems or lap timing apps. So, I joined him on those long track days; I sat myself in a shady spot and used a stopwatch and pad of paper to write down each of Ralph’s lap times, session after session.

After Kids: The Minivan Years  

Girl Racer

Ralph in our track van at Road Atlanta for the One Lap of America event. Photo: Doris Gilles

Ralph thought he would have to give up his track hobby after our daughters were born in 1998 and 2000. BUT, HE COULDN’T. So he put silver racing stripes on our white short-wheel base Dodge minivan, upgraded the motor and suspension, and added Viper brakes and Viper seats. The race van was quite legendary, even getting written up in a few car magazines. Having to take care of two young kids, I joined him at the track less and less; timing technology had advanced by then and recording lap times was no longer my concern.

I have always been an organizer/event planner, and as the kids grew older, I somehow got convinced (or conned) into organizing track days for Ralph and our friends. Our track days were quite popular – with catered lunches, free water and Gatorade, organized timing, and a laid-back atmosphere. I continued to remain trackside – there were always friends and strangers far more eager than I for a ride. We stopped putting on track events after five years or so, although every once in awhile Ralph still asks me to consider organizing one again.

My husband de-stresses at the track. So I joined him!

Girl Racer

Ralph coaching me in the Netflix series, “Abstract: The Art of Design.”

Fast forward to 2014. Ralph was busier than ever at work. And work was INTENSE; he was promoted to the head of design in 2015. For him, time on the track was, and continues to be, his release…his zen…how he lets go of stress. As busy as he was with work, he needed track days more than ever. Luckily, our girls were 14 and 16 at this time and much more independent. So, we decided I should get into the track hobby too – how better to maximize what little free time he had!

Now I’m in my third year of this hobby. I’ve participated in over 30 days at 15 tracks, including a few professional high-performance driving programs and have driven track cars named ISCREEM (a 2007 Porsche 911 GT3, manual), BELLA (a 2015 Alfa Romeo 4C) and SUNDAE (a 2012 Porsche 911 Carrera S). I even drove Ralph’s Vipers, STORM and VOOODOO, a couple of times.

There is nothing like the thrill of learning the line at a track, driving well, and chasing down and passing other cars. As a woman, it is especially empowering. And I have to admit, it feels extra good when you get out of your car and a male driver is surprised to learn that it was you – a woman – driving!

Track Days are not just about racing; they’re about family and friends, too

Girl Racer

Track weekend dinner with pit crew and friends –at Mama Nunz Restaurant near Putnam Park. And we got to meet Mama Nunz! Photo: Doris Gilles

However, for me the track day hobby is very much about quality time with Ralph. What’s the saying, “If you can’t beat them, join them?” The long drives to the tracks are when Ralph and I get caught up and have some of our best conversations. We eventually purchased a stacker trailer so we could be in our Ram 2500 together hauling our two track cars.

And, instructing me and seeing my progress is a whole new angle to the hobby and brings him great satisfaction. Honestly, if Ralph did this hobby solo, we would never see each other or he would feel guilty and do it far less often. Our 17-year old daughter, Sydney, has gotten into the track hobby too – she recently ran at the historic Watkins Glen International with us.

Track days are also about the friendships. We try to coordinate calendars with our racer friends as much as possible. It’s a blast for Ralph to run with similarly-skilled Viper racers. I am all about the group dinners, parking together in the paddock, and hanging out in our trailer with young car enthusiasts who have somehow become our pit crew. Traveling to far away states we see friends: some come visit us at the track, others we see on the way there or home.

I think “social racer” or “racer-lite” probably describes best my current stage as a track driver. I am not bothered letting people pass me and I’m not thinking much about lap times. If I eat too many fries at lunch and want to skip the next session, I skip. Ralph takes care of the cars; I coordinate with friends and pick out restaurants.

The best track events? Girls day out!

Girl Racer

Our Ladies Track Experience at Bondurant Racing School. Photo: Doris Gilles

This past spring I organized a Ladies Track Experience at Bondurant Racing School near Phoenix, driving Dodge Charger and Challenger 392s and Hellcats. There were five of us ladies – ranging from two very experienced friends who go to track days on their own, to one friend that had never been on a track or even put on a helmet. We all had a blast – and the newbie even came in second in the autocross, a short course outlined with cones and set up in a large parking lot. Of course, I organized dinners at great restaurants and a shopping/spa day. It was so much fun I am already working on the next Ladies Track Weekend.

A mom, executive and performance driving fan, Doris began her career at Chrysler in procurement & supply before working... More about Doris Gilles