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I’m Never Really Thinking About Being Scared

We Take Professional Driver Collete Davis out for a Spin
By Ned Doyle|
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At twenty-four years old, Collete Davis has already worn more professional hats than most people twice her age. She’s raced monster trucks, rally cars, and open-wheeled race cars, among other machines, racking up a spectacular number of wins along the way; she’s hosted the TLC reality show Girl Starter; and she’s joined forces with Microsoft to encourage women in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and math. Oh, and all that’s on top of heading off to college at the age of sixteen.

We sat down to chat with Davis about her remarkable career, her 149 thousand Instagram followers (and counting), and her passion for science and technology. 

You have this amazing resumé; let’s go back to the beginning. How did you get into driving competitively?

I kind of got into racing a little differently than most. I’m a first generation racer; my dad was in the army, so I was a military kid, moving around every year. I was just really competitive—I wanted to play whatever sport was in season, and at the same time, I was also just very curious about the world around me. I liked science, and how things works; that kind of lead me to start taking lawnmowers apart. Eventually, I started working on cars and taking engines apart. 

I didn’t know that karting was a sport [at the time], but I saw someone go-kart racing one day, and I was like, “That is so cool!” I convinced my parents to let me try, went to the kart track for the first time, did a few laps, and just knew that was my sport. I was completely hooked. It [spoke to] that hyper-competitive side of myself, but also my curious side and my mechanical side—how you can work on your car, take it apart, make it faster? Plus, you get a shot of adrenaline.

How long was it before you went from there to the next level of racing?

I did one full year of competitive kart racing when I was fifteen. We found a used go-kart, a used race suit, and did a full season—just me and my dad kind of figuring it out. By about mid-season, I was able to start being competitive, then I ended up winning [the championship] that first season. 

I knew I wanted to race professionally, that was the goal. By time I was sixteen, I had graduated high school and was going to Florida for college; I ended up getting a scholarship to Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University for mechanical engineering. The whole point was specifically to move to Florida—make the parents happy by starting college, but also go to a school that’s in Daytona Beach, which kind of a hub for racing, and take my chance at pursuing a racing career at the same time.

I signed my first major sponsor when I was sixteen. It was actually my university. I ended up putting together a program at Embry-Riddle, and [they gave] me a chance to put me in a car full time. The pitch was: Hey, I’m a driver and I want to bring students that are mechanical engineers that are not getting any hands-on learning experience to the track. 

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That means that, while you were doing all of this, you were going to college, too.

Yeah, I was sixteen when I started my freshman year for mechanical engineering, I was such a hustler! I could talk my way into anything. I convinced them as a freshman that I should be taking senior-level engineering classes because of my racing experience—which, at the time, was a year in go-karts, which I just laugh at [now]. So freshman year, I was able to take the classes focused on high-performance vehicles, which was awesome. 

So after college, what was the next step?

The first few years, I was starting at ground zero. I had no family, money, or contacts in racing—which, if you don’t have any of those, it’s very hard to do anything. I was at least within range of [race tracks like] Daytona Speedway and Sebring and Homestead. Every time there was an event or a race weekend, I was at that track, networking and trying to get rides when I could. I definitely had my fair share of jumping into a bunch of random open-wheel cars: I did Formula 500, I did Formula Continental, I did Formula Atlanta. It wasn’t until 2011 or 2012 that I made my pro racing debut on the Mazda Road to Indy. [Until then,] I kind of just had to wing it and learn during the race weekends during the one or two practice sessions that I got. It forced me to adapt really fast. 

That’s an important skill to have, certainly in racing where, if you’re not fast, you’re kind of in trouble.

Yeah. There’s not having the practice everyone had, and then also—being a girl, you get attention. Even if you’re just starting out, everyone is looking at your times, [because] you’re the girl at the track. I think that growing up with that pressure and having to adapt fast, it definitely helped. 

After my open-wheel racing days, I started to transition more into sports cars and rallycross. I went full time into rallycross with Red Bull Global Rallycross in 2015. That series is amazing—being able to compete with some of the best drivers in the world in such an intense form of racing. You’re sending it off 100-foot tabletop jumps, and having [the course] be dirt, than asphalt again—it’s some of the craziest racing I’ve ever been a part of. And really aggressive. If you’re not defending yourself, you’re going to get pushed off the track. 

Could you go into a little more detail about how those different types of racing differ, as a driver?

So, open-wheel racing, that’s where I learned a lot of my technical foundation. You can’t touch tires with another driver; you have to be very precise, and you have to be very committed. Going into Rallycross, I would say the biggest change is the mindset of going flat-out on lap one. Most other racing, you’re not flat out [right away]; you work up to it. In Rallycross racing, if you’re not sending it lap one, you’re done—your race is over. You don’t have time to get comfortable and the elements are constantly changing. There’s dirt being thrown around; the next lap, it might be completely covered in dirt. There might be a car wreck in front of you. The elements change every single lap, so you adapt even faster. And you’re also totally elbows up [driving defensively], going in three, four cars wide into corners; you’re touching through the dirt, you’re touching in the air. My first ever race in global Rallycross, I got pushed off an eleven-foot-tall ramp and wedged between it and the side wall. 

Going from Rallycross racing to monster trucks [was easier], because I had that dirt experience. I was familiar with what that throttle control feels like: how to pivot a car in the dirt and feel everything kind of through your butt. When I got into the truck, it felt familiar. It’s definitely 10,000 more pounds and 1,000 more horsepower, but the basics are still there. One of the biggest differences, though, is that there are so many more things you have to think about with the weight transfer. In any other type of racing, you’re going forward, left, or right. But in a monster truck you’re going forward, left, right—and you’re also going vertical, thirty feet in the air and down. And sideways! Sometimes you’re cartwheeling. It’s just a whole next level, all these different dimensions you have to think about. 

The stunt part of monster trucks was new. That was my favorite part—where you’re doing a handstand with the front two tires of the truck. trying to walk that handstand out. Or standing the truck up on the back tires, and all you see is sky. You’re just looking straight up, and you have to know what those two tires are doing underneath you. You don’t do that in literally any other vehicle.

“I’m never really thinking about being scared. I think that if that comes into your head, you probably shouldn’t be racing at a certain point”

What do you think the coolest thing you’ve done so far in your career is, then?

I think Rallycross—you know, being able to just be the first female to lead laps and be competitive in the history of that series is awesome. And being able to compete the same weekend as people I look up to in my career: Ken Block, Tanner Foust, Scott Speed. Being around those guys, it’s just amazing to me. 

Also, last year, being the only driver for the Wonder Woman monster truck. Normally, there’s a bunch of different drivers, but they kind of gave that truck to me last year, let me own it. And to win in Monster Jam Championship at the top level of that sport was amazing too. 

On the flip side, what would you say the scariest thing to happen so far in your career is?

You know, it’s funny—I’ve been in a few pretty gnarly wrecks, but I’m never really thinking about being scared. I think that if that comes into your head, you probably shouldn’t be racing at a certain point. 

I was definitely nervous the first time I did a sky wheelie in a monster truck. Because nothing in the world can prepare you for that. You just have to trust in what they’re telling you to do: slam on the gas in a 1,500-horsepower machine at a vertical walk. To slam on the gas and send it 30 feet in the air, the moment leading up to that was a little scary. 

Probably the scariest was the Kia stunt I did last year for the commercial for the new Forte. I was jumping over another car, probably jumping sixty feet through the air, maybe fourteen feet [off the ground]. But I was in a completely stock 2019 Kia Forte. I’ve jumped a bunch of vehicles, but never on tire ramps. They’re basically each the width of two tires, twice as wide as each tire you’re aiming at them. And I landed into boxes! I’d never done a jump where I landed into cardboard boxes. 

And there’s no way you can practice before this jump. The stunt coordinators calculate the angles; we put weight in the trunk of the car to even it out. And I have to hit it at exactly forty miles per hour, and just hope that I make it—I couldn’t see anyone do it first and just had to go for it. That was the trickiest thing I’ve ever done. I don’t think I’ve ever had butterflies except for right before I hit that ramp. Because once you’re on it, you’re just along for the ride.

You’ve cultivated a pretty solid social media following. Do you think it’s important for drivers to engage with their fans through Instagram and other social media platforms?

Yeah, you know—athletes only exists because of the fans. If it wasn’t for the people that watch racing, the people that buy tickets—I wouldn’t get all the partnerships that I do, and I wouldn’t be able to be in a position to do what I’m doing now. 

I’ve noticed too the more I’ve made [social media] a priority over the past couple of years, the more people care what I’m doing. I’ve had a lot of girls reach out too, especially since I started my YouTube channel, where I’m showing how I’m building a rally car for the very first time. Ever since I’ve been doing that sort of content, I’ve had tons of girls reach out and tell me they’re going to start working on cars with their dad, or that they didn’t want to try [something] until they saw my YouTube series. It’s crazy to me. 

 

To that point—you’re a really big advocate for women in STEM programs. What are some things we can be doing to encourage women to pursue science and technology, fields like that?

You know, I think more companies need to highlight the women already in STEM-related careers—the women that are already kicking ass and driving their own careers in these fields. Whether it’s being an engineer for a racing team, whether it’s developing biochemicals for fuel in the future—whatever it is, across all of STEM. I think the more the media highlights these women doing those careers and normalizing it, the more it makes younger girls grow up thinking it’s normal. I think the biggest problem right now is that, especially for young people, they look at a certain industry and all they see in textbooks or videos is men—that could be intimidating, or make them think it’s not something for young girls to be doing. Immediately, [when they see women in these industries] their brain cuts it off as something that they might be able to do themselves. 

For me, I always say I was lucky; I think I grew up oblivious to traditional stereotypes. I was in the military with my parents, we were always moving—I never was in one area [long enough] to let those stereotypes in. But when I talk to young girls, middle school girls, it’s absolutely something in their heads. I’ve done talks to young girls, and they talk to me afterwards saying: I didn’t even know girls could be good at math or science—like, they purposely tried not to be good, because they thought it was for boys. So, yeah, one of the best thing people can to do is highlight the women out there in STEM-related fields and normalize it for everyone. 

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