RACE CAR DRIVER VERENA MEI, WHO LED THE FIRST ALL-FEMALE TEAM TO EVER WIN A NATIONAL CHAMPIONSHIP IN THE HISTORY OF RALLY AMERICA, IS CURRENTLY COMPETING FOR HER SECOND TITLE. Story by Ada Tseng, photo by Pinky Yoshimoto, pinkyphotography.com.
Growing up in Hawaii, Verena Mei says her mother always told her that as long as she worked hard, she could accomplish anything.
Mei laughs. “But I know she wasn’t talking about racing.”
Raised in a family of engineers, Mei did not know anything about race car driving until she started modeling for Toyo Tires after graduating college. After attending races consistently for three years, she grew such a passion for motor sports that she was dying to see what it was like behind the wheel.
“I just knew that I could do it,” says Mei, who is ethnically Chinese. “I always had that attitude. I would see something and think, ‘I could do that!’ In my head, there was no doubt.”
In 2002, she was referred to a stunt driving school by Indy- Car legend Bobby Unser Jr., and only a month later, she earned her pro competition drag racing license, making her the fastest Asian American woman in the United States.
She then trained to be a race car driver at the Bob Bon- durant School of High Performance Driving, and it was there that she found her passion for drifting, a racing technique that began in Japan that involves the driver intentionally over-steer- ing and sliding around corners.
“Even back in 2000, they were calling me ‘Drift Girl,’” says Mei. “They’d say, ‘I could see the fire in your eyes.’ [Two- thousand-four] was the year that drifting came to the U.S. as a professional series, and it was the start of something huge.” The discipline crossed into the mainstream with Justin Lin’s Fast and Furious: Tokyo Drift, the 2006 film in which Mei has a cameo.
After competing in Formula Drift for five years and becoming the first female to win a championship in the Redline Time Attack auto racing series, Mei decided to pursue rally racing. Rallying takes place on real roads through all types of surfaces and weather conditions, and events can last for multiple days.
In 2012, Mei and her co-driver, Leanna Junnila, were the track’s only all-female driving team that was going for the na- tional championship in Rally America, which has been oper- ating since 2005.
“[Junnila] leads me, so I can drive with my ears instead of my eyes,” Mei explains. “We’re going so fast, the roads are so narrow, and you can’t see all the turns, so she gives me notes, and I have to visualize it in my head. It takes a huge amount of trust in each other.”
When they won the Rally America B-Spec National Championship in their first year of competition, they made history as the first all-female team to ever win a national title in the history of Rally America.
“She’s created so many milestones for women in racing,” says Julianna Barker, a representative for tokidoki, the Japanese- inspired pop culture brand created by Italian artist Simone Legno that sponsors Mei’s #335 True Car/Star Girl Racing rally team. In addition to a custom tokidoki helmet and a Porcino vinyl toy she keeps in her car for good luck, Legno has created a new cartoon character based on Mei called “Star Girl,” inspired by Mei’s passion for racing.
“I can totally relate to what tokidoki, [which means ‘some- times’ in Japanese] is all about,” says Mei. “Sometimes … dreams come true. And for me, I’m living the hugest dream. Throughout my whole racing career, I’ve always wanted to rally.”
Seeing that rallying is often considered the most dangerous motor sport, Mei knows that her worried mother waits for the day she stops racing. But her parents have their own way of supporting their record-breaking daughter.
“It’s funny, my dad will say ‘Be careful! Drive slow!” says Mei. She reacts in mock horror. “Drive slow?!”
Looks like Mei will not be slowing down any time soon.
WHAT WERE YOU DOING 10 YEARS AGO?
“I had just earned my pro drag racing license and was tirelessly (no pun intended) searching for sponsors, but no one took me seriously. It was only at the end of that year that I met Greg Fresquez from the Bondurant High Performance Driving School who believed in me and gave me a chance. It was a life changing moment. I took the opportunity and ran with it and never stopped.” — Verena Mei
This story was originally published in Audrey‘s Summer 2013 issue. Buy the issue here.