What Drives Her: Sarah Robinson Burns Rubber as a Michelin Test Driver

Sarah Robinson

Michelin’s first female test driver for now leads Michelin Motorsports.

It can be hard to catch up to Sarah Robinson because she moves fast, whether behind the wheel or through life. Sarah, the Motorsports Marketing Manager at Michelin North America, was a test driver for Michelin tires and she works in her ‘spare’ time as a instructor for race tracks and driving schools.

Being a spectator wasn’t enough. Sarah wanted to be on the track

Some kids watch sports and are content to be a fan, wearing a football jersey and screaming at a television each Sunday. But Sarah, who said she “grew up sitting on the floor of the family room watching sports car racing, Formula 1, World Rally, and Motorweek,” remembers when she realized, “I don’t have to spectate… I can DO this.” She credits her older brother, Lee, who introduced her to autocross at Talladega Gran Prix Raceway when they were students at Auburn University, for igniting her passion.

Learning to drive a stick forged her career–and saved her life

It was Lee who taught Sarah how to drive a stick “going so far as letting me learn in his brand new Infiniti G20 before giving me his old SAAB with a 5-speed.” But Sarah’s parents were also influential. Sarah said they “recognized the value in advanced car control and situational awareness, and sent me to an intensive two day car control class at Road Atlanta when I was 15. That early intervention to teach my brain and hands what to do at the threshold of traction saved me a couple of times as a youngster, and laid a deeply rooted foundation for my love of performance driving. I believe EVERY young driver should be exposed to the same training and opportunity.”

Sarah Robinson

Sarah working with future drivers. Photo: Michelin Motorsports

One of the hardest lessons: Learning to be more confident and less critical

The biggest challenge Sarah faced as the first female test driver had nothing to do with safety equipment, the cars, or the other drivers; she “had to learn how to be a confident and unwavering force behind the wheel.” When she started “I definitely had the driving skills, but as a flawed perfectionist, I was always hypercritical of my performance – this is a positive trait for the job, but I was often so hard on myself, I’d dwell on a little blip of a mistake and dash my confidence. Early in my training, it was actually two men on my team that made me realize this was self limiting.”

Sarah noted a critical difference between the male and female drivers; “when a woman has a blip on track, she thinks, ‘Argh!  That was my fault – I can’t believe I did that,’ and when a man makes a similar blip, he thinks, ‘Stupid car.’”

Sarah said she no longer blames herself when something goes wrong when she is behind the wheel. “When I have a ‘blip’ on track, I mentally log the moment, analyze what happened on the fly, and put it where it belongs: behind me. Next corner!”

Sarah Robinson

Suited up and ready for the track. Photo: EllCie Photography

Sarah’s advantage on the track? Women are faster learners

Sarah find its disappointing that very few women ever pursue the position. Surprising, because male and female driving coaches both say, “female students will often pick up skills and speed quicker than males, due to the fact that they listen intently, feeling they have much to learn and gain. But as a whole, the number of women pursuing performance driving or racing careers is an infinitesimal fraction of the number of men pursuing those options.”

She uses these skills as a certified instructor for National Auto Sport Association for teen driving clinics focusing on personal driver development and making sure that students are well versed in the fundamentals of driving.

Sarah Robinson

This is one time when the men have to take notes. Photo: Michelin Motorsports

Dressing for the job just became easier (and more comfortable)

When Sarah started as a Michelin test driver a decade ago, there were not a lot of options for women in safety gear, so she “just wore the men’s suit, and it worked just fine.” Now there are some women’s options out there for driving suits, along with fire retardant underwear for women. “I saved up and retired my men’s suit a couple of years ago in favor of a women’s-fit suit,” Sarah said. “It does the job the same way, but fits quite nicely, thankyouverymuch!”

Falling in love every day: Not a bad job to have

Sarah admits she falls in love with a lot of cars. She gets to drive everything and for Sarah, that’s one of the greatest joys of being a Michelin test driver. “I could have been testing a Mustang one day, and a Freightliner the next.” But surprisingly keeps her own car for a long time. “Our household is currently heavily populated by BMWs, with my M235i daily driver and an E36 3 series that we’re building as a GTS or IP class race car with the S52 M3 engine.  My boyfriend races a similar vintage 3-series, so we joke that we bring each others’ parts cars to the track. To tow all this madness to the track, we have a white 2000 F-350, which I lovingly call the Polar Bear.”

And her most important job? Being Michelin’s toughest customer

A Michelin test driver is “the first and most critical customer of Michelin’s tires,” Sarah said. So she had to take an intensive, year long program to become fully certified. Then, as a Michelin test driver, her job is to “get in any vehicle, on any tires, on any test track, and almost immediately be poised to extract and exploit the best performance of that combination.” But that’s where she found her passion for teaching kids, drivers and others to share her love of driving on the track.

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Judy Antell, who is TravelingMom.com's Free in 50 States editor, lives in Park Slope, Brooklyn, with her husband and... More about Judy Antell