Impostor syndrome and women in motorsports – How I overcame feeling like a fraud on the race track

pink helmet

This is a difficult topic to write about, which is probably why I couldn’t find anyone else who’d written about it when I went looking for information. And that’s why I’m writing about it, because I know I’m not the first woman to have gotten behind the wheel of a race car and felt like a total fraud. Or the first person, because some of the things that made me feel like an impostor have nothing to do with my gender.

Spoiler alert: this story has a happy ending! After I figured out I was experiencing impostor syndrome, I did my homework on it and got to the root of my fear that “I don’t have what it takes to be a ‘real deal’ race car driver.” As it turned out, I was holding a few inaccurate beliefs about talent and abilities that were getting in my way.

Feeling like a phony  behind the wheel

“Impostor Syndrome” the feeling you get when you think you’ve fooled everyone into believing you’re skilled or successful, but  don’t believe in your abilities yourself and are terrified of everyone finding out you’re just faking it. I’ve mostly commonly heard impostor syndrome discussed by women in male-dominated technology fields, although I’ve never experienced it in own tech career.  Growing up I was regularly told I was “good with computers,” and that identity inoculated me against the effects of impostor syndrome even when I was the only women in my computer science classroom or on my team at work.

However, I was much more vulnerable to impostor syndrome behind the wheel of a race car.  Last year, my impostor syndrome came to a head. As I moved up through the HPDE ranks, I started to doubt myself more and more. When I passed a car in practice on track, I would think, “That driver must be on a cool down lap,” or, “Maybe that car is broken.” When I passed a car in iRacing, I figured the other driver had seen how bad my driving was in the mirror and let me by, figuring I’d crash soon anyway. I was really hard on myself and really sensitive to criticism. I knew I was book smart when it came to racing, but I didn’t want anyone to observe my driving too closely and see that my abilities didn’t match my knowledge. When I got stuck in the turn 1 gravel trap in the rain at Road Atlanta, I heard race control radio to the wrecker crew pulling me out, “Have him go counter-race back to the pits.” My first thought was, “They said him. They don’t know it’s the girl that got stuck!”

My hobby had gradually become less fun and more stressful. My wake up call was when Brad told me I was getting so stressed out about racing that I was stressing him out. I realized I needed to figure how how I had gotten in this mindset and what I needed to do to get out.

The curse of self-consciousness

It’s taken me a long time to sort out how I ended up feeling like such a fraud. Driving a race car isn’t the first new skill I’ve picked up in my lifetime. I’ve mastered other skills I didn’t think I was “naturally” good at – like public speaking and negotiating – without feeling like an imposter.  What made racing different?

After several months of searching, I finally found the answer in the book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, (the classic book on getting in the zone):

“A less drastic obstacle to experiencing flow is excessive self-consciousness. A person who is constantly worried about how others will perceive her, who is afraid of creating the wrong impression or doing something inappropriate, is also condemned to permanent exclusion from enjoyment.”

Yep, that was me. I was worried about being in someone’s way; that Brad would be disappointed in my progress; that the powers that be would observe my driving and think I was unfit for a competition license; or one of a million other worries my creative brain came up with. And I was “excluded from enjoyment.” The more I worried, the less progress I made, and not making progress made me worry even more.

When I read the quote above, it dawned on me that driving a race car is different than public speaking or negotiating because there is simply no time to doubt yourself. When I first started doing presentations in front of large groups, I could pause for a half second and question in my head whether I had just said something stupid. I might not have given the world’s best presentation, but it would still be an okay presentation. It’s exhausting and takes a tremendous amount of energy to give a presentation while questioning every word you say and still maintain a calm exterior, but it can be done. After giving a few okay presentations, I started to doubt myself less and less, and after time I stopped doubting myself all together and was able to give some really great presentations.

But a half a second is an eternity on the race track. Driving a race car is too mentally demanding to leave any spare mental energy to berate yourself for mistakes. Ironically, it was this very quality that got me addicted to racing to begin with. On my very first track day, it took all my mental bandwidth just to get around the track. I didn’t know what I didn’t know, so I couldn’t be self-conscious, and I got in the zone in a way I never had been able to before. That first track day, my inner monologue was quiet for the first time in my life and I got addicted to that feeling. As I improved my skills enough to free up a little bit of my brain, I started to worry about all the things I’d learned I was doing wrong. I still improved, but I hit a plateau and could progress no further with the portion of my brain that wasn’t worrying. (For the record, the fastest you can drive a Spec Miata around Road Atlanta while beating yourself up is 2:01.)

How impostor syndrome takes over

My self-consciousness and lack of progress was frustrating, but it was only a part of my impostor syndrome. The beliefs I held about myself fueled my fear of being found out as a fraud.

Once I realized I needed to do something about my impostor syndrome, I read the book The Secret Thoughts of Successful Women by Valerie Young. I couldn’t find anything written on impostor syndrome for women in motorsports, or even for anyone in any sport, so I chose this book because it seemed to address impostor syndrome in a variety of environments. The book is a do-it-yourself guide to identifying why you’re experiencing impostor syndrome feelings and what to do about it. With that guidance, I was able to identify three reasons why my impostor feelings had taken over. They’re listed here in ascending order of importance:

I’m one of very few women driving at the track. This one really exacerbated my impostor syndrome rather than caused it. It was my subconscious’s lazy excuse for my perceived poor performance. When men talked about how racing “takes balls” and mistook me for a non-driving supportive wife, it was easy to think maybe gender did matter when it came to on track performance. Maybe some women had what it takes to overcome that, but maybe I didn’t. I also started to feel like, because there were so few women racing, everyone would be judging all women based on my performance and I would fall short (as so eloquently illustrated here by XKCD.)

To be clear, very few people have actually been sexist in their behavior towards me. In fact, you can experience the “I don’t see anyone like me being successful here, so I might not be either” feeling even when your difference is invisible to everyone else. For example, in her book Valerie Young talks about how people raised in blue collar families can experience impostor syndrome when they go to work as professionals in a white collar environment.

I have never seen myself as an athlete or competitor. Growing up, I was the kid picking dandelions in the outfield at t-ball games and making up ridiculous excuses to get out of gym class. I have asthma and no matter how hard I train, can’t run for more than a few minutes before it gets hard to breathe. This meant I sucked at pretty much every sport. I saw myself as the artsy, nerdy smart girl who wasn’t coordinated or competitive, and just wanted to be left alone to draw. It wasn’t until I passed a car at my first track day that I realized that I am, in fact, competitive.

It’s been a huge shift to see myself as a very competitive race car driver who is an athlete whether she likes it or not. This is so different from how I’d seen myself my entire life that it’s not surprising that taking on this new identity made me feel like I was faking it.

I believed that natural ability was required for success. This was, by far, the biggest contributor to my impostor syndrome. I believed that it took some inborn ability to be good at driving a race car, and I was deeply terrified that I didn’t have it. I was afraid of finding that out myself, and even more afraid of having someone else find out.

Instead of looking at my self-conscious behavior and thinking, “I’ve got to stop overthinking this, it requires more focus than anything else I’ve ever done,” I thought, “I’m not getting better at this they way I’ve gotten better at other things, so I must not have what it takes.”

The truth that set me free – Natural ability doesn’t matter

My biggest takeaway from The Secret Thoughts of Successful Women was “effort trumps ability.” The book proposed that if you keep working at something, you will improve – and even be great – even if it doesn’t come quickly and easily right away.

The Secret Thoughts of Successful Women recommended the “acting as if” approach to getting past impostor syndrome. In this case, “acting as if” your deepest impostor syndrome fear wasn’t true. I decided that for me, this meant “acting as if I have what it takes to get to the front of the field.”

I decided to put this approach to work at my next event, which happened to be my very first Spec Miata race. When I found myself making mistakes and beating myself up for them, I asked myself, “What would a driver who knows she has what it takes to make it to the front of the field do?” I instantly remembered Ross Bentley’s words of wisdom from the Speed Secrets clinic I’d taken the previous year, “The difference between you and a top level professional driver is that the pro driver has made a lot more mistakes.” And then I had my answer. A driver who knows she can get to the front of the field would relish the chance to be out here making these mistakes, because she knows she has to make them to get to where she wants to go. And then, for the first time that year, I started getting faster again!

The progress I made on track that day told me that there had to be something to this “effort trumps ability” thing. After that race, I read two books on the topic; Mindset by Carol S. Dweck and Peak by Anders Ericsson and Robert Pool. Both books discuss scientific research on what makes people successful and excel in their fields. It turns out it’s definitively not talent, even when it comes to things like intelligence and athletic ability. In fact, the only thing you can’t improve about yourself is your height and body type. Researchers have found that there’s no preset limit on the amount humans can improve at any ability. Success and skill come from deliberate practice and trying different strategies to improve when you hit a road block – not any inborn trait. 

That new knowledge helped me form new beliefs about myself. Suddenly, how good or bad I was today had no bearing on how good I would become. I could accept my current skills and abilities without fear. This freed up my mental bandwidth for driving, and this additional brainpower alone dropped several seconds off my lap times. Now, armed with the knowledge that there’s no limit on how much I can improve my performance, I’ve started to work on finding strategies to improve that work for me and my background.

In the last six months, my performance has improved double or triple what it had in the previous six months. I’ve fallen in love with racing all over again, and I’m now hopeful and excited to see where my racing journey will take me. If you’ve ever felt like a fraud on the race track, or anywhere else, I want you know you don’t have to live like that forever. You don’t have to fear “not having what it takes,” because there is no “what it takes.” You’re not a fraud, because no one is the real deal. We all have to work for it.