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As a woman trying to break into big-time motorsport, 20-year-old Ashley Freiberg is very aware of the challenges she faces.
She already knows how she plans to go about it, though — and how she won’t. Exploiting sexuality through racy television ads and swimsuit magazine spreads has been established as a quick way for women to reach the top, but it’s not how Freiberg intends to get there.
“People look at Danica (Patrick),” she muses, “and they think she’s not friendly with the fans and she’s marketing herself in the complete wrong way.
“I don’t agree with the way that she’s been acting, but I understand some of the things that she’s been going through and I understand why she’s taken paths the way she has. I think every one of us has gone through the same basic things as far as proving to the world that we can drive.
“Does that mean I’m going to do that? No, and I think that goes the same for all women.”
By this last point, Freiberg means that every woman makes a choice about how to set herself apart, and she has made the choice to market her abilities over her gender.
“OK, we’re women,” she concedes. “Pretty soon that’s not going to be that different, so now we’re going to have to find something else special about us.
“Now that I’ve experienced things and I’m looking toward the future, I realize that I need to prove myself because I am different and not a lot of women have been able to prove that they can race and can race well.”
Native to Illinois and currently residing in Vermont, Freiberg has a good, focused head on her shoulders. She’s known what she wants out of life from an early age.
When she was 12, she watched longingly as her brothers raced go-karts, but she believed at the time that the sport was exclusively a man’s domain.
“Eventually I did see some other girls out there, and I was like, ‘Well, why am I not out there? I think I would love this,’” she recalls. “So, I asked my dad if I could try it, and basically I sat in a go-kart and fell in love with the sport.”
Her passion outlasted that of her brothers, and she began raking in results early.
“The last year I was in Skip Barber, I had a lot of success,” Freiberg recalls. “I won two championships — I was the first woman to do that — I won all these races, and I was doing a really good job.”
But then — as is so often heard in motorsport these days — the funding ran out.
“I spent all of last year doing nothing but going to racetracks and telling people I wanted to drive for them. But obviously I didn’t have a cheque in my hand, so nothing really worked out.”
When TrueCar came along with its Women Empowered initiative, Freiberg’s career prospects came off life support.
“The TrueCar racing program is pretty groundbreaking,” she says. “I’ve never heard of another program like this, to be fully sponsoring six women in six different series, giving us full-funded support to go to the best teams, to have the best equipment.
“That’s pretty awesome, and the support they have for all of us has been so incredible. Even my TrueCar teammates, the way we’re all supporting each other, it’s been an awesome experience.”
In the TrueCar Women Empowered initiative, Freiberg is in esteemed company. The figurehead of the program is Katherine Legge, a driver at the top level of North American open-wheel racing, the IZOD IndyCar Series.
The initiative also supports Shannon McIntosh, who is racing in USF2000, one rung below Freiberg in the Mazda Road to Indy driver development program. Other drivers in the program include SCCA World Challenge driver Shea Holbrook, Rally America racer Verena Mei, and Playboy Mazda MX-5 Cup pilot Emilee Tominovich.
Now that Freiberg is racing in her first full Star Mazda season, she is encountering challenges she hadn’t expected.
“These cars are quite different than what I’m used to,” she admits. “This is my first time experiencing wings, and this is my first time experiencing slicks because we drove on street tires. Even though those two things sound pretty simple, it’s been quite a big learning curve for me.
“I’m finding myself having to do a lot of catching up because all my competitors have all this experience on me. It’s been challenging for me because I had this expectation to at least be finishing top fives, and now I’m fighting like crazy to finish top tens.
“It’s been fun, though. I feel like I’ve made some really good progress, and I’m seriously looking forward to Toronto because we haven’t been on a street course in a while.”
Freiberg’s preference is for road and street courses that are more on the technical side.
“I like to be forced to think about stuff and try different things. That way, it doesn’t so much rely on the race car but rather the driver because you’re constantly adapting to the track and trying to figure out the best way to go through corners.”
On the subject of whether women are getting preferential treatment by sponsors these days, Freiberg is philosophical.
“It has two sides to it,” she observes. “We’re easier for marketing, but because not many women have made it all the way to the top, you have that question: Is this person worth investing in? So, it’s kind of a two-edged sword. They have to still believe in you and your talent.”
One thing is certain about Ashley Freiberg: she knows what she wants and is determined to get it.
“I definitely want to end up in IndyCar,” she states. “Right now, it’s not so much a timeline thing for me. I just want to be able to develop myself as a driver as well as I can before I get to IndyCar because I don’t want to be a midpack runner.
“I don’t want to be just finishing in the top 10. I want to be winning races. I want to be like Will Power or Dario Franchitti, qualifying on pole every single race. I don’t feel satisfied with just being a good driver. I want to be something great.
“My ultimate goal is to win an IndyCar championship.”
And the risks of open-wheel racing don’t deter her in the least.
“When the wheels are out in the open, you just feel so much more at the limit,” Freiberg observes. “There’s that level of adrenalin that you get from knowing that danger is there. I know it sounds wrong, but it’s a feeling I can’t really describe and I love it.”
This girl is intelligent, passionate, tenacious, and determined. Guys: watch your mirrors.