When you meet Collete Davis — all 5’3”, 105 pounds of her with blond hair and a big smile — you may think “cheerleader” (used to be) or “sorority girl” (accurate!). And if you let looks trigger stereotypes, you may also be tempted to use small words and keep your conversation simple.
Keep your words small if you like, but you’ll be talking to someone who is fluent in such things as calculus, linear algebra and differential geometry. Oh and feel free to work in some chit-chat about kinematics, physics, pneumatics and micrometers as well.
Collete Davis, the 21st Woman of pressdog®, has some eyebrow-raising academic bone fides. She skipped sixth grade entirely, graduated from high school two years early and won a $40,000 National Science Foundation scholarship to attend renowned Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University — is all. At age 18, Collete is already a sophomore at Embry-Riddle.
Clearly, this petite blond teenager can deliver a serious and sustained beat down in the science classroom. Not only that, but she’s also urging other girls to plunge full-throttle into math and sciences.
More Estrogen in Engineering
If you think females race car drivers are rare, check out the nearest college of engineering. There are eight male students for every one female student at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, a lopsided ratio that plays out repeatedly at similar universities.
In an effort to address the disparity, Embry-Riddle helped sponsor Collete last season and made her a student ambassador who went to middle schools and urged female students to embrace their brain power.
“The biggest thing is kids having the whole ‘you’re a nerd’ perception or ‘Oh my gosh. You like math? You’re so smart. That’s not cool,’ ” said Collete. “So I was letting them know it’s OK. You’re not weird. A ‘look-at-me’ type thing, and that really helps them.”
Collete says there are a lot of similarities between the “women can’t race cars” and “women can’t be scientists” stereotypes. And since so much of racing is science and engineering, her combination of science brain and racing passion gives Collete an opportunity to blow up two stereotypes at once.
“I spoke to middle school girls obviously about my racing, but also how that ties in to engineering” she said. “I think the biggest thing is that there are always misconceptions about engineering. When you think of an engineer — at least for me when I was younger — the first thing that came to my mind was a guy in a white lab coat sitting at a computer. Just boring, or ‘nerds,’ basically. The biggest thing for me is breaking that mental image and being like, ‘look, no, it’s not true.’ What I love about engineering is you can make it what you want it to be. If you want to sit at home and look at a computer and design a car part, that’s fine. But if you want to be at the race track and working on a car, engineering applies there too.
“There’s engineering in every aspect of life. Showing them that it’s OK to be smart and to like math and science as a female, I think that’s important. A lot of girls would come up to me afterwards and say ‘Wow I didn’t know girls could like this’ and they were so cute. Most people don’t realize it’s an issue, but it really is.”
Collete’s version of engineering has been very hands-on so far. Credit her natural curiosity and high school vocational technology teacher.
“I was a weird child,” she said with a laugh. “I wanted to know how they (engines) worked so I took a vo-tech (vocational technology) class where they taught us about cars and basic maintenance on cars (she was the only female student). They told us that a lawn mower engine is pretty much a replica of a car engine but with just with one piston. So I started taking apart a lawn mower engine and rebuilding it and eventually moved on to car engines.”
Karting, the Gateway Racing Drug
At age 13 while living with her grandmother and grandfather, Susan and Shannon Davis, in Colorado Springs, Collete discovered karting. Soon they had a acquired a kart with Shannon serving as crew chief.
“Even in go-karting nobody wants to tell you their secrets,” she said, “so it was just me and my grandpa trying to work on my kart and learning everything right out of the box. But it was a really good time.”
Races wins and a championship followed and the hook was set. As Collete’s passion for racing hit the rev limiter, she dramatically accelerated her academic career.
“During my last year of high school, I went to school (at Fountain-Fort Carson High School) half a day, and then my school actually paid for me to take credits for my associates degree in automotive service technology (at nearby Pikes Peak Community College). So I would leave high school at noon and go the local community college and work on cars for four hours straight Monday through Thursday. It was fantastic,” Collete said.
Collete said she was driven to graduate from high school early primary by a passion to get on with her racing career, which started with a same-place-at-the-same-time brush with the most famous woman in racing.
“I didn’t see the point of having another year of high school when I could get a head start on my degree and move to a state where my racing career could grow,” she said. “Colorado was great for karting, but I wanted to take steps towards car racing and knew my chances of success were much greater if I moved to Florida. In order to do that, I needed to graduate from high school.
“My grandpa showed me Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach that had a degree for Mechanical Engineering on High Performance Vehicles. I visited the campus February 2010, the weekend another Woman of pressdog, Danica Patrick, made her debut in ARCA at Daytona Speedway. I went to the races, visited campus and knew I had to go here. Not to mention the campus is right next to the speedway. Racing motivated me and has inspired so many choices and decisions in my life. I wouldn’t have it any other way. I love what I do and have the passion and tenacity to keep pursuing it in full force.”
Pro Debut and Woman of pressdog Bonding
Davis continued to work her racing career with a savvy array of marketing tools while taking her brain-bending load of engineering classes at Embry-Riddle. Eventually she got noticed by Glass Hammer Racing, which sponsored Collete in her professional debut with USF2000 at Sebring and then St. Petersburg on March 24.
Collete worked her way to P5 in the National class in the first race at St. Pete before getting punted by a faster Championship class car. A rookie mistake under yellow during her second led to a DNF.
At St. Pete, Collete also got an assist from another Woman of pressdog, Pippa Mann, who offered advice and support throughout the weekend.
“Pippa helped out so much. I absolutely loved working with her,” said Collete. “Everything just clicked and it was just awesome. It was both on and off track. On the first day, when we first met, I was flying around like crazy. I had to do all these interviews and she could just tell that I was unorganized. She made me sit down and was like ‘No, before you do anything you come here and sit down and we’re going to write out a time management sheet.’ I said, ‘Oh my gosh, I love you right now.’ It was just what I needed.”
Pippa said she saw both improvement and potential during the weekend.
“St Pete was actually my first time coaching another driver,” said Pippa. “Collete listened, worked hard, and made sizable gains out on track. Her braking improved in the areas I could see, and she improved when around the championship class traffic dramatically. Seeing the times come down on the watch, and literally, visually seeing her improving lap after lap in front of me was extremely rewarding.
“Right now I would love go see Collete get some more testing and seat time. Trying to get enough track time on a race weekend to really learn a car, on new tracks and under that much pressure is incredibly difficult. I would love to see her really get the chance to dig into her potential, and come back out fighting for more races later this year.”
Collete says her strengths are being able to be “aggressive and smart at the same time.”
“The biggest thing that hit home for me with what Pippa told me was that while I’m learning a new car I need to not so much focus on trusting the car, but trusting myself,” said Collete. “Mainly trusting myself to be able to push the car and test my own limits. Especially in racing, you have to be able to continuously test yourself both mentally and physically.”
Finding The Next Ride
So far acing mental tests hasn’t been an issue for Collete Davis, nor has a lack of tenacity in chasing her goals. So what’s next?
“That is always the golden question isn’t it? I’m trying to put together what the rest of my schedule looks like now.” Collete said she’s exploring various options in the USF2000-level cars. “It really could go any direction right now. I’m trying to figure that out myself.”
Until then she’ll continue working at racing and engineering while being walking stereotype destroyer.
“At first (when people hear she’s a race car driver) people give me a weird look and they are like ‘ohhhh no, no,’” said Davis. “But I get the same reaction when people hear I go to school for engineering. I think it’s cool that if you looked at me or met me, it probably wouldn’t be the first thing you thought of. But once they realize how much of my life revolves round racing — which is like 110% — then they are like ‘OK, I can see it now.’”
To meet all 21 Women of pressdog, click here. For more on Collete, visit www.ColleteDavisRacing.com. Collete thanks Glass Hammer Racing (BeatByAGirl.org) and Tom Keiser from Global Emergency Products for their support, as well as the One Formula Racing team — Steve Stadel, Dennis, Bryan, and Kevin — and Pippa Mann for “her time, advice, motivation as a driver coach, mentor, and ‘official big sister.'”