espnW Feature: Shea Holbrook’s cool sports job: Race car driver

May 06, 2016
Lafayette Britto

Shea Holbrook can say something a lot of people can’t: She loves her job. Once an elite competitive water skier, Holbrook made the unusual crossover to auto racing at age 16. She has since become a six-race winner in road racing’s Pirelli World Challenge Touring Car class and a team owner, running Shea Racing with her parents, Jeff and Erin Holbrook, from a 1,200-square-foot shop next to their rural Groveland, Florida, home.

Now 26, Shea has a bachelor’s degree from the University of Central Florida in interpersonal and organizational communication, with a minor in marketing, and she’s a driver coach for the Sports Car Club of America’s Track Night America, a program that gives everyday drivers in regular cars access to race circuits across the country.

Shea spoke about her career path recently with espnW.

How I got hooked

I was born into a water-skiing family, so for the first 16 years of my life, I was completely immersed in that. Along the way, two things happened. The first is that I had a bad wreck in the jump competition at the Water Ski National Championships in Texas in 2003. It didn’t stop me from water skiing, but it put me a step back because I had a tremendous amount of pain in my lower back.

The second is that my dad had a buddy from the Navy who was an amateur race car driver. We went to Daytona to support him in a club event and the Richard Petty Driving Experience was going on. I was 15 and my dad got me a ride in that. I got to ride shotgun in a NASCAR car, and that experience changed my life.

I knew nothing about cars or racing, but I was an adrenaline junkie, and I was in awe with the whole thing. I mean, as soon as you go up into the high banking, your field of vision narrows. I’m thinking, “How in the world is the driver controlling the car, and how could he do it with 40 other cars on the track?”

That’s the day I decided I didn’t want to focus on water skiing anymore, and I turned to my dad and told him.

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My first car

I had to learn how to drive a stick. My dad and I bought this Mitsubishi, which was like a $500 junkyard car. He brought it home and goes, “OK, before we put you on the track, you have to at least start running through some gears.”

There were some great driving roads around our house in Groveland because we had some developments that were never developed. We would rip around the streets, hitting the apexes of the turns and figuring things out. The car would overheat, and we’d have to stop and wait 15 or 20 minutes and put water in it. We’d hop between two neighborhoods because we were getting the cops called on us — in fact, there were times when we would have to call my mom and ditch the car. We weren’t worried about it; it was a $500 car and it wasn’t registered.

“I’ll never really forget what it was like to start one of those things up for the first time. You’re like a fighter jet pilot without the wings.”
Shea Holbrook

From there, we picked up a 1998 Acura Integra track car for $6,500. We did a bunch of high-performance events to get my feet wet before going to SCCA school to get my racing license. We made our racing debut at the Grand Prix of St. Petersburg in 2010, which we made work by partnering with Parent Project Muscular Dystrophy. PPMD benefits Duchenne muscular dystrophy, which has affected my own family. I have two cousins stricken by the disease and one had passed away by this time.

A really big break

I’d met a guy named Charles Kim in 2009 while he was working for Skip Barber Driving School, and in 2011, he called me out of the blue. I thought it was a butt dial because we hadn’t had any communication. But by then, we had won our World Challenge Touring Car race at the Long Beach Grand Prix and had gotten established. Charles said he wanted to talk to me as soon as he could about an opportunity.

As it turned out, he was working for a new kind of automotive sales company called TrueCar and they were putting together a “Women Empowered” racing initiative. He said the CEO of the company, Scott Painter, was big into motorsports and they were going to market TrueCar with an all-female racing team.

In the matter of two weeks, we had a 28-page contract and our first full-season sponsorship. I was chosen along with Katherine Legge from IndyCar, Ashley Freiberg from the Star Mazda Series, Shannon McIntosh from USF 2000, Verena Mei from Rally America and Emilee Tominovich from Pro SCCA. Some people in the motorsports industry felt bad for us the following year when TrueCar had to back down on its commitment, but we were very grateful. If it wasn’t for TrueCar, we wouldn’t have our race shop, I wouldn’t have a career and we wouldn’t have a business.

Driving a Jet Car

I didn’t have a budget to race going into 2015, even though we had just missed winning the championship in 2014 in the TCA class, which is just below Touring Car. And then I randomly got a call from an IHRA drag racing Jet Car team. They were looking for a new driver and thought I could add another tool to their toolbox, so to speak, being a female driver.

The only hitch was that I had to pay for my own licensing. So I did a crowd-funding campaign through Dark Horse Pros. We ended up doing very well and raised just over $32,000, which paid for everything. IHRA is the only place where you can actually compete for a championship driving a Jet Car, although the four cars in the class are owned by the same team.

It was an unbelievable experience. To do a quarter-mile pass under 5 1/2 seconds at 280 mph is unreal. These things are pretty much a bomb on wheels. They pierce your eardrums, they shake buildings, they make kids cry, they’re highly flammable and they’re very hot. They are an amazing car to drive, respect, conquer, and I’ll never really forget what it was like to start one of those things up for the first time. You’re like a fighter jet pilot without the wings.

Shea Racing now

This is the best year to date for Shea Racing as a business. We’re running two V-6 Honda Accords in the Pirelli World Challenge Touring Car class. We have a young customer driver in Jason Fichter, who comes from a good family and is a true teammate. We have sponsorships or partnerships with Honda Racing HPD, Bubba Burgers out of my hometown of Jacksonville, Florida, Koni Shocks, Lucas Oil and CCW Custom Wheels and Rims, among others, and we had a car donated to us from Hendrick Honda of Charlotte.

I don’t really make anything from driving the car. Everybody else gets something, even if it’s small. All of my work comes from the OEM side and Track Night America. But I feel so very fortunate, because I’m in an industry I’m truly in love with.

I’ve been working with Jaguar since November, and they’ve talked about bringing me over to the UK. I might try to extend my stay and do some racing over there. A lot of times I can use my real work to advance the racing. Who wouldn’t want to do that?