Women and Driving: Innovation, Engineering and the Rolex 24 Hours at Daytona

Ladies and gentlemen, last weekend marked the 52nd running of the Rolex 24 Hours at Daytona. The first major race of the 2014 season roared on for 24 hours, with 67 cars, in 4 different divisions, to complete 695 laps.

This is my favorite race to watch every year. I designate a spot on the couch (or my dorm room, for the past four years) and set up camp where I can always keep an eye on the race and an ear on the commentators. I listen for the names of racers I know, for the names of legendary heroes and for the off-track stories about how the crewmembers sleep in reclining leather chairs for a 20-minute nap in the middle of the night.

This year I was thrilled to hear the name Leena Gade on air. She's an engineer at Audi Sport, and the broadcast was giving her a featurette. (I mentioned Leena a previous post, right after she became the first woman to be part of the winning team in the 24 Hours of Le Mans in 2011).

I applaud and thank all supporters of women in tech -- the women themselves, advocates, enablers and those who cheer us on. So when Leena was recently named the new ambassador of the FIA Commission for Women in Motorsport to promote young aspiring female engineers in racing, she became an even bigger hero of mine, as did Audi and the FIA.

Leena is a particularly interesting role model for me because she operates at the exhilarating intersection of academic technology and the rush of racing. I wish more people were exposed to that field so that they could feel the excitement as well.

We're clearly underway in the movement to get more women working in tech sectors. And in order to get more women into racing engineering, specifically, I see three things that need to happen:
1) As a society we need to continue de-stigmatizing women engineers and encouraging young women and girls to pursue STEM fields if they show interest
2) We need to stop demonizing the automobile and incorporate it, and racing, into an academic focus. Stanford's REVS Program began doing this at the university level, but we need to do it at the K-12 levels as well
3) We need the women already involved, such as Andrea Mueller, Lisa Lilley and Alba Colon, to get publicity and share their stories, advocating for other women to get involved

And we can never quit!

Engineering projects are about problem solving. They require insight, innovation, knowledge, and an undying desire to find an answer. Combine this problem solving with speeds exceeding 200 mph, a 3,400 lb machine, and a driver with specific driving styles and needs, and you have a thrilling project. Everyone should be able to see himself or herself in that experience.

Because at the end of the day, as Leena said in a promotional video, "you have to have total commitment to the project...whether you're male or female."