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'The track doesn't know gender, the car doesn't know gender, so gender is irrelevant'

Arab-American female NASCAR race driver Toni Breidinger [Toni Breidinger]
Arab-American female NASCAR race driver Toni Breidinger [Toni Breidinger]

Female racing drivers are rare, but they do exist. This is disappointing, said Toni Breidinger, who has broken through in the male-dominated sport.

"My first reaction to being the first Arab-American female driver to race in the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing (NASCAR) series was honestly disappointing," she explained. "Someone should have been able to have the opportunity before me."

In February, the 21-year-old Lebanese American made history when she raced in the Automobile Racing Club of America (ARCA) Menards Series at the Daytona International Speedway. She finished in 18th place out of 33, ahead of the two other women taking part.

The motor racing establishment in America has undergone many changes in recent years as a surge of talented female drivers are taking to the tracks for the first time. There are ten women, and more than 150 men, racing in NASCAR's various series this year.

Growing up in Hillsborough, California, Breidinger discovered the thrill of racing at the early age of 9 when she was taken to a go-kart track at Sonoma Raceway by her racing enthusiast father. Since then, she has been hooked, encouraged by her family and the people around her, especially her father, who was a mechanical engineer at the time.

"When I was 9 my dad took my sister and I go-karting just for fun and I got hooked on it on day 1. I just wanted to keep going back. Go-karting became a huge part of my life and we travelled all over the country. It was an amazing experience that really laid the foundation for my passion for driving."

When she began racing competitively, her father became her crew chief. She competed in three ARCA races and finished 10th, a career best, at Madison International Speedway in 2018. She went on to win 19 ARCA races, the most ever won by a woman.

Breidinger is part of NASCAR's Drive for Diversity programme, an initiative that creates more inclusive racing teams. It has created many opportunities for others, including Brehanna Daniels who was NASCAR's first Black woman to hold the crucial role as a tyre changer.

Ultimately, Breidinger's goal is to make it to the top level. She wants to participate in the NASCAR Cup Series. In a male-dominated sport, however, this is not easy.

"The sport lacks diversity," she told me. "NASCAR is still a white male-dominated sport so I think it's exciting for people to see a new face and someone who's outside the 'norm' coming up through the ranks."

Despite recent advances, there is still much more that can be done. "There are more and more women getting into the sport. Not just as drivers; there are more female pit crew members, engineers and mechanics. It's really exciting to see so many women's faces in the pits at races, but we need to see more."

She is aware that for young women and girls watching the races on TV, her presence could spark their imagination and ambition. "There's something for everyone: the maths, engineering and mechanics of racing; the competition; the athleticism."

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Nevertheless, the young driver insisted that the race track doesn't recognise gender or ethnicity. Once their helmets are on, she and the male competitors are all simply drivers.

"I've never singled myself out at the track as a female surrounded by males. The track doesn't know gender, the car doesn't know gender, so gender is irrelevant." She has, though, been treated differently. "Every race weekend I get some kind of comment or am treated differently in some way, but it's something that I brush off, because I know what I'm there to do and I know I'm a driver just like anybody else. So I never let it get to me."

Financial backing is crucial for success, so any attention the drivers receive is likely to be beneficial in terms of attracting sponsors and investors. In the past, she has been the face of a number of commercial campaigns with brands such as Kim Kardashian's SKIMS, Tory Burch and Head & Shoulders, to name but a few. She has also appeared in magazines and on TV shows.

In the latest of her many exciting brand partnerships, the NASCAR driver will be working in close collaboration with Huda Beauty, owned by US-Iraqi beauty mogul Huda Kattan. It's a bid to highlight the importance of cultural recognition and representation as well as female empowerment.

"Having Huda Beauty on my car is something I'll never forget. She's really big on breaking barriers and female empowerment. I used to watch Huda's YouTube videos as a teenager and I would try to follow along and do my makeup like hers."

She has achieved a lot already with steely determination and fearlessness. Such attributes have helped her keep her head high when it comes to advocating the presence of women in motorsport. Off the track, she is also focusing on building her self-confidence, with which she has always struggled.

"I've learned that the best way to gain self-confidence is to do what you're afraid to do. Sometimes we can be our own worst enemies, whether it's from fear or anxiety or both. Whether your dream is to race or to do something that's out of the norm, be confident in yourself and know that you can do it."

She is keen to encourage more women to take part in this journey. As she blazes a trail, she anticipates that more women will follow. "It's great to be the first, but I don't want to be the last. I really hope to pave the way for others." Such is Toni Breidinger's career to date, I have no doubt that she will.

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