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Julia Dawson, Mechanical Engineering senior, splits her time between school and racing.

Julia Dawson, Mechanical Engineering senior, splits her time between school and racing.

by Rebecca Fontenot
Originally printed in The Alcalde, May/June 2009

It's overcast and windy early on a March Saturday. At Texas World Speedway, on the southern edge of College Station, men in racing suits are everywhere, ranging in age from 16 to 60. They fiddle with Indy-style cars, Batmobile-type racers, and mini "spec" Miatas. About two dozen of these men sit in cars lined up on the racetrack, their heads poking out of cramped driver's seats. Some have their gloved fingers interlocked; others peer through the visor of their helmets. Second in the lineup is a blue-gray car, with the number "00." Julia Dawson sits in it, calm and collected. The lone female driver among a group of boys, she's not intimidated in the least – and perhaps she's not the one who should be.

Since enrolling at the University of Texas in 2005, Dawson has split her time between studying mechanical engineering and experiencing it firsthand by driving. Her rise in the sport has been a rush, and she hopes it won't slow down anytime soon. During the past two years in Legends car racing, Dawson was the top-ranked female driver in the world, won a 2007-08 winter series, and was the Texas state road course champion for the semi-pro class.

Julia Dawson preparing for her next race

Julia Dawson preparing for her next race

Beginnings

It all started when, as a high school senior in Highland Village, Dawson was driving from neighboring Dallas back to her parents' house. When red and blue lights flashed behind her, Dawson pulled her red Camaro over, knowing this wouldn't be good – she received a ticket for going 90 miles per hour in a 60 mph zone. With such an extreme second ticket, Dawson expected her father, Don, to be livid. But unlike the house arrest most speed-loving teen drivers would have been placed under, Don sent her to racing school. “He said, ‘If you're going to drive fast, you need to go somewhere safe and do it,’” Dawson says.

She brought her Camaro to a driving education class with others driving everything from Neons to Lamborghinis. They learned the basics of driving on a track – what path to follow on the track, where to use gas and brake, and how much of each the car could handle. “The very first time that I went out wasn't really that great,” she says. “But the second and third time, it just clicked. It not only became something that I really enjoyed, but it was something that I was able to pick up on really quick.” In less than one year, she progressed to the highest level driving class. The instructor encouraged her to try racing, so she spent her first college spring break in Monterrey, California at a racing school. Flying by the other students, she got the same response from the instructors: “You really need to be driving. You've definitely got some talent.” Dawson obtained an amateur racing license and began trying out different types of cars at races almost every weekend.

Studies

Working with the engineering advisors and professors, she reduced her course load and avoided classes that met on Fridays. She maintained a high GPA and discovered an interest in operations research – statistics and systems analysis – making it her concentration. In the entry-level course, Professor J. Wesley Barnes offered his students an extra credit assignment to analyze statistical data from their lives. Hoping for students to realize its importance and application in their daily activities, he was pleasantly surprised at Dawson's assignment. Barnes has since invited her back to his class each semester to discuss her project on racing times.

This summer she'll be taking one class at UT. She'll also be involved in an intense racing schedule.

Julia Dawson preparing for her next race

Julia Dawson preparing for her next race

Engineering on the racetrack

Although Dawson aspires to be a paid driver, engineering isn't just her back-up plan. She says more and more hired drivers have engineering backgrounds, and it's something she thinks puts her at an advantage, especially among novice drivers but even against the pros. Thinking like an engineer helps her to diagnose problems with the car and communicate with her crew chief, who performs all the necessary adjustments. With her engineering knowledge, she can more efficiently determine how to optimize the car. At each new track, adjustments are made to get the right settings on things like shocks, gears, and aerodynamics. During the races, her father and crew chief communicate with her through headsets and a microphone wired into her helmet. They help her keep track of any trouble ahead on the track, reasons to speed up or slow down, and which flag is out.

She originally started studying engineering because of her interest in cars and a desire to understand how they work, and design them. As her education progressed, she became more interested in operations research. She's proud to be completing her engineering degree at UT, and says about it, “[it] has not only helped me at the racetrack, but it has also shaped me into who I am today.”

The Race

Dawson came into the Texas World Speedway race pumped up. She'd driven fast times during practice on Friday and felt the car was optimized. After the qualifying race, she was placed in the sixth position overall and second in her class. In all, 32 types of cars were racing in six different groups during the day. Dawson's class had five total cars and her group, around 25. Yet she wasn't satisfied with her position.

Preparation

An hour before race time, her car's wheels and front end have been screwed back on after checks for anything suspicious. She's pulling on her racing suit and going through the elaborate routine of putting on knee pads, elbow pads, a neck protector, a "balaclava" or a fire-proof ski mask with a hole for the face, ear plugs connected to the mic in her helmet, and finally the helmet. Then it's another few minutes of cramming into the car, getting strapped in, re-connecting the steering wheel, and starting 'er up. “It's about 90 percent excitement and 20 percent nerves,” she says at some point during the process. “Yes, I'm at 110 percent right now.”

Lined up on the track, she again sits calmly in her car. “I try to visualize the course during that time, what I need to do on this curve and at that turn,” she said earlier. A 2.9-mile road course, the race will be 16 laps partly on the typical oval track and partly on a curvier area off the track, visible only to the people standing atop RVs on the opposite side of the infield as the start line. (Even at the amateur races, those fans show up, RVs and all.)

Julia Dawon in the midst of a race

Julia Dawon in the midst of a race

“And they're off”

With a point of a finger at the first car in line, they're off. After a few laps the distance between last and first blurs, and to the untrained spectator it's hard to keep track of where the pack begins and ends, who's doing well, who's not, even who's competing against whom with all the different classes of cars. Don Dawson offers frequent updates: “The first guy just spun out, so she's first in her class … Here she comes, she's fourth overall.” And then three-quarters of the way through, nothing. The Batmobile car has come around more than once now, and Dawson's blue-gray 00-car is not on his tail anymore. “Julia? Are you OK?” Don says into his headset … nothing. Eventually, she relays to Don she had engine trouble and can't finish the race.

Finish

It's another 20 minutes or so of waiting and speculating what happened to her. The race is over, and the wreckers have gone out to tow in anyone who didn't make it to the checkered flag. Two cars come in, but not Dawson's. Don keeps disappearing, trying to gather information from other drivers. Finally a truck drops her off at her garage, followed minutes behind by a tow-truck with her car dangling by chains and harnesses. “I got collected,” she says, clearly annoyed and meaning that another car hit her on the track. A car from a different class got in the way of her attempts at battling another car in her class for their lead spot. The third-party car spun out and hit her front end. She then lost voltage, and the other cars were forced to finish the race maneuvering around her. Her frustration hasn't faded, but before long the crowd around her car begins to disperse and all attentions have turned to readying the car for tomorrow's race. That race proved to be as futile as Saturday's. But as Don put it, “That's racing.”

When she's not racing, Julia studies hard

When she's not racing, Julia studies hard

The Future

And for Dawson, College Station was just another track with another series and another race. For the next few months she'll be racing on the East Coast against dozens more young hopefuls (including a few more girls) for a spot atop the NASCAR Whelen All-American series in Pro stock cars and hopefully, a paid position on a team at the next level. As for her mostly male competitors, Dawson doesn't let them get to her. “Guys either think it's the coolest thing that they've ever seen, or they're like, ‘What are you doing here?’” she says. “It definitely motivates me. I want to prove people wrong. And I want to be a positive role model, especially for young girls.”


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