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Meet Collete, who is building a racing career on belief, passion, and sheer drive

Article originally posted on MICROSOFT.COM

At 23, Collete Davis has raced for Red Bull, negotiated major endorsements, and hosted a TV show. As she climbs to the top of the podium, she says success comes down to one thing: believing in yourself.

When she was a freshman, Collete Davis walked into the dean’s office at her college (Florida’s Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University) to pitch him on a sponsorship from the school. She introduced herself as a race car driver, made her case, and walked out with a contract. Next step? Learn how to drive a race car.  

Like many drivers working their way towards racing cars, Collete had started with go-karts to learn the fundamentals. Confidence propelled her to introduce herself as a driver that day, although she’d never raced a full-sized car: “The first person who has to believe in you is you,” she says, thinking back on that time. “Even then, I truly believed that I was a race car driver.”

Confidence and curiosity have defined Collete’s life. She was 13 when she took apart her first engine—she dismantled her family’s lawn mower in the backyard of their home—and her parents encouraged her by buying engineering and robotics kits to fuel her curiosity and focus her interests.

She’s 23 now, and she’s graduated to more sophisticated projects, like the drift car she’s currently building at the shop Garage Life in Los Angeles. But even after two years on the Red Bull Global Rallycross circuit, a series of endorsements, and a season as the host of TLC’s Girl Starter, she still itches to keep her hands dirty. That’s because, for Collete, success has always started with how much you’re willing to work for it yourself: “No one else is going to make things happen for you,” she says. “Your future is dependent upon the actions and the hard work that you put in now.”

Collete was 15 when she sat in a rental go-kart for the first time and felt the rush of adrenaline she’d end up chasing single-mindedly for the next eight years. From the first lap around a track, that was it—she knew she wanted to be a professional race car driver. She persuaded her parents to buy her a used go-kart instead of a graduation gift, and she and her father—a United States Army Aviation Colonel—spent their free time fixing it up and driving it to race tracks around Colorado for competitions. While most of the other kids had fully-loaded trailers, extra engines and chassis—even their own mechanics—Collete had a used go-kart, a used racing suit, and a pair of sawhorses. She made it all her own, and she made up the difference by learning everything she could about the vehicles.

Before long, she was hungry to make the jump into cars. Her first hurdle was getting high school done and out of the way. She started taking classes at the community college for a degree in automotive tech services, persuaded her principal to let her skip a grade and graduate early, and at 16, was awarded a scholarship to Embry-Riddle’s school of mechanical engineering in Daytona Beach, Florida. She started that fall with a focus on high-performance vehicles and entrepreneurship. So, that fall, her family retired from the military and the entire family packed up and moved to Florida.

Collete knew that understanding the technology inside the car could be a critical competitive advantage, especially as a teenage girl breaking into the notoriously exclusive (and male-dominated) racing industry. It’s also one of the most financially intensive sports in the world, and most athletes are grandfathered in through family connections. From the beginning, Collete knew it would be a challenge to become a professional driver: “There wasn’t a book I could read that said, ‘here’s the path to becoming a race car driver.’ I had to do it from scratch.”

“From scratch” meant raising money—after all, racing is a money sport. When you’re paying for gas, tires, and track time, even a single race practice can cost tens of thousands of dollars. That means many drivers come from families that are able to pour millions into launching a fledgling career. Alternatively, drivers negotiate corporate sponsors who pay for portions of their racing costs in exchange for advertising. To fund her racing, Collete needed support. She says that’s when her “entrepreneurial switch” turned on: If she wanted to be a race car driver, she had to know business. Over time, Collete taught herself business basics, negotiated more sponsors, and created a brand: Collete Racing.

“In the beginning, my passion for motorsports is what made me passionate about entrepreneurship. If I wanted to do one, I had to do the other.”

Collete tried every avenue she could think of: she found female racing legend Lyn St. James’ cell phone number online and cold-called her asking for advice; she contacted hundreds of companies and asked for sponsorships; she even sent an email to Mark Cuban, who—to her surprise—responded with advice that would help mold her future in entrepreneurship. Most importantly, she “put in the miles,” driving track-to-track and walking around on race days meeting team owners and sponsors, trying to persuade someone to put her in a car.

Along the way, she let being the underdog fuel her drive: “I was going to keep poking people, and hopefully one of those people would show me the inside, get me connected to somebody, and educate me. It was a lot of learning; a lot of hearing no. It’s very easy to feel sorry for yourself because you don’t have hundreds of thousands of dollars to spend like all these other kids do. But if I just sit down and say that nothing’s going to happen, I’m not going to take steps forward. Believing in myself—that I could do this—really helped. In my head, I just never thought I couldn’t do it.”

On her journey, she noticed a trend: in her engineering classes at college she was one of two women, and at almost all the races in which she competed she was the only woman on the track.

“Eventually I looked around and thought, Where are all my girls at? Why am I the only girl here? Growing up in the military, I got used to always moving, and I think that contributed to never letting stereotypes sink in to my brain,” she says. “I always say, ‘I was lucky to be oblivious.’ I never thought I couldn’t do something [because I was a girl], and I had a family that supported my curiosity.”

Collete knew some of the boys had a problem with her being on the track; she’d encountered subtle hostility since she started racing. There’s a story she remembers often in which, during her first year go-kart racing, her father overheard another man telling his son, “Don’t let that girl beat you in this race.” (She went on to win the championship; the following year, she put a sticker on the back of her car: She says comments like that were motivation to learn more and be a more aggressive competitor.

“No one wants to be beaten by a girl, apparently.”

She’d been roughed up on the track by competitors at times. The most memorable was in her very first race with Red Bull Global Rallycross. The competition was airing live on NBC Sports and Red Bull TV and the speedway was sold out. All of it meant a lot of pressure—and she was getting her first experience “jumping” a car on the track that weekend.

When the green lights came on, Collete immediately shot out to the front of the pack, becoming the first woman to lead laps in Red Bull Global Rallycross history. Approaching one of the corners before a jump, another competitor angled his car and started pushing on the back of Collete’s as they went up the 10-foot ramp, shoving her completely off of the side and leaving her hanging, suspended sideways, caught between the ramp and the cement barriers. The race was stopped, rescue vehicles were brought in, and after her door was pried open Collete crawled out, turned towards the audience, raised her hand, and waved.

Back in the pit, her crew chief gave her a pep talk, strapped her back in the driver’s seat, and her team taped the doors back on the car and pushed her car out to the starting line so she could restart the race. She jumped to fifth place on the race start, but officials ended up pulling her from the race with two laps to go because the doors were falling off of her car whenever she came around a turn.  

She shrugs it off now, saying it was an important lesson. She laughs that the Global Rallycross tracks are built differently now as a result of her crash. As part of her deal from Embry-Riddle, Collete had embarked on a speaking tour of middle schools around Florida, encouraging girls to pursue their interests in STEM-related fields. As she listened to young women telling her they didn’t think it was okay for them to like math or science, she was astonished.

“People doubt you because they haven’t seen it before.”

“It really blew my mind … I had one girl tell me she did worse in math on purpose because she thought that’s what she was supposed to do. For me, that was a jaw-dropping moment. I had no idea how bad a problem this was … When I started getting in front of younger girls and realizing that was an issue, I was determined to keep sharing my story and trying to change that.”

Since then, she’s made it her personal mission to normalize the image of women in STEM industries, including racing. She says it comes down to one thing: teaching girls from a young age that their interests are valid and acceptable, whether they love Barbies or motorbikes—or both: “If we can just have more light on the women who are already in science, technology, engineering, and math—or in racing—and show [girls] this is normal, then they’ll grow up with a different perspective, thinking that those things are normal and that it’s okay to do whatever they want to do.”

As she continues to climb to the top of the racing podium, the exposure has offered a platform to spread that message to young women everywhere.

“I realized that racing … is a microphone to the world; a way to inspire girls to be confident and strong,” she said. “If I can pave the way for other women and girls to be inspired to go after their own dreams by watching me pursue my own … then that’s absolutely something I want to do.”

As Collete’s fan base grows, so does her microphone. When she speaks to young women now, she tells them the most important lesson she’s learned in her decade as a driver:

“You have to believe in yourself more than anybody else in the world in order to convince other people that you’re worth believing in. You’re the one who has to wake up every morning with the drive to keep going forward… It’s going to be hard, but if you keep pushing and don’t let a million “noes” get you down—if you hold out for those “yes” moments—it will all be worth it.”

Believe in yourself, she tells them—like, sometimes, saying you’re a professional race car driver just a few months after you get your driver’s license, because you might just walk out with the deal that makes you one.

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