Ingrid Steffensen’s bright yellow Lotus
Elise is a little fancier and a lot faster than the Volkswagen Beetle
she drove when she first got behind the wheel of a car as a 16-year-old,
but both cars are an integral part of Steffensen’s “auto biography.”
With the Lotus parked on the bricks outside the Roselle Center for
the Arts, Steffensen chronicled her journey from college professor to
“speed freak” as part of the President’s Leadership Series at the University of Delaware.
After earning a Ph.D. in art history at UD in 1994, Steffensen went on to teach at Princeton, Rutgers and Bryn Mawr.
But, as UD President Patrick Harker said in introducing her,
“Something interesting happened to this highly trained academic, beloved
by her students. She traded in the academy for the race track.”
Harker called Steffensen’s 2012 book, Fast Girl: Don’t Brake Until You See the Face of God and Other Good Advice from the Racetrack,
“a story of reinvention and liberation that contains some of the best
advice you’re ever going to get from a high-performance race car
Steffensen shared some of that story in her lecture, “This Is Your
Brain at 135 Miles per Hour: Lessons in Learning from the Racetrack,”
which was followed by a question and answer session moderated by Nancy
Karibjanian, adjunct professor of communication and member of Delaware First Media’s board of directors.
Referring to the automobile as one of the most powerful
transformative factors of the past century, Steffensen said, “We’re
emotional about our cars — our grandmother’s car, the car we learned to
drive in, the one we went to the prom in, the one we brought the baby
home from the hospital in…. The succession of cars in our lives is as
unique as a fingerprint.”
Steffensen’s life was organized around teaching and her family until
the day her husband talked her into joining him at Watkins Glen
racetrack in 2008.
“Before that, the biggest excitement in my life was doing The New York Times crossword and trying out the latest sushi restaurant,” she said. “I was terrified.”
Although she breathed a huge sigh of relief when her first try at
navigating the frighteningly twisty course was over, she found herself
reliving the “movie” of her Mini Cooper going around the track.
“I can’t express how it feels to your body,” she said. “I felt like I
was going to go right off the edge, and I thought, ‘I’m going to die.’”
But on the drive from New York back to her home in New Jersey, she
knew she wanted to do it again. She wanted to learn about this whole new
world that was defined by “racing lines,” “slip angles,” “hitting the
apex,” and “throttle steering.”
So, what was it that pulled this respected art historian away from the classroom and onto the racetrack?
“I realized that I had reached the point in my life where I was very
competent at what I did,” she said. “By mid-life, you’ve crystallized
what you know and what you do, so it was an absolute revelation to me to
come to a place where I was learning and engaging my brain in a whole
Steffensen soon learned that being a novice in your mid-40s is
humbling. “I saw myself as a good driver, and then I came to the race
track and realized, ‘I don’t know a damn thing about this.’”
After awhile, though, she became skilled enough to become an instructor, and that’s when the real revelation hit her.
She was teaching a man in his 50s a tricky technique called “tail braking.”
“When he finally got it, he was like a kid on Christmas morning,”
Steffensen said. “He was so excited I could practically see the sparks
coming out of his helmet. He was high on his own brain. Dopamine is
really good stuff.”
“That was when I saw that this could happen to us at any time in our
lives,” she added. “Learning a new skill invigorates your life.”
During the Q&A after the talk, Steffensen said that the whole
process of learning to drive a race car and teaching others to do it has
made her more courageous and more likely to try other new things — from
eating snails to skiing.
Steffensen hopes that she’s setting a good example for her
15-year-old daughter in terms of “pushing her boundaries,” but when it
comes to teaching the teenager how to drive, that’s another story.
“We’re going to leave that to a professional,” she said.