Sometimes the phone does ring and dreams do "literally come true." Take the Curious Case of Ashley Freiberg, for example.
After six years of rampaging through karts and Skip Barber open-wheel competition, at the dawn of 2011 Freiberg (pronounced Fry-berg) found herself "living off gardening" and out of a ride, unable to take the step from Skip Barber onto the Road to Indy ladder.
Winning a total of 25 Skip Barber races and two Skip Barber Series Championships, Ashley made history multiple times when she became the first woman to win a Skip Barber Championship and the first woman to win a BFGoodrich Skip Barber National Series race at New Jersey Motorsports Park. Ashley also expanded her driving experiences into sedans, the Skip Barber MX-5 Cup Series, where she became the first woman to win a Skip Barber MX-5 cup race, winning four of the six races she entered. Ashley finished 5th overall in the National Series, and was also awarded the prestigious Coach’s Choice Award as the best all-around driver in the series. In a one-off race in the Star Mazda Championship presented by Goodyear, Ashley recorded an impressive top-five finish at the Autobahn Country Club. She also become only the second female, other than Danica Patrick, to be nominated as a candidate for the prestigious Team USA Scholarship. At the end of the season, Ashley was invited by Andretti Autosport to test their USF2000 car, but she did not have enough funding to progress to the next level.
“It was really really weird,” said Freiberg, the 19th Woman of pressdog®. “I had no funding. My whole living was being made off gardening. I could hardly even travel anywhere. So yeah, it was tough. I'd be talking to teams and they’d say 'Do you have a check?' No. I’m seeing these other kids I had just been racing against and they were moving up the ladder and I was not, so it was just an interesting feeling.”
Freiberg said she never got to a point of considering quitting. “I thought, OK if that time comes I’m going to have to deal with it, but right now I’m not going to even put that on my radar. Because I have so much time in front of me, there’s no way I can just give it up.”
Then came a call that Freiberg described as "dropping out of the sky." A prince charming sponsor showed up with the glass racing boot. Cue the Disney-esque score, complete with soaring violins. Freiberg's garden pumpkin was about to turn into fully funded Star Mazda carriage.
TrueCar®, a website (truecar.com) that answers the question "What should I pay for a new car?", decided to get into the racing business. They further decided that as part of an aggressive push to reach female car buyers, they would focus on supporting female drivers. A few weeks ago TrueCar announced sponsorship of five women -- including Freiberg and her fellow Women of pressdog Shannon MacIntosh and Shea Holbrook -- in various forms of racing as part of its “Women Empowered" initiative.
It was a serious Lifetime Channel made-for-TV movie moment. “The TrueCar sponsorship was literally a dream come true,” she said. “Everything they are giving me is exactly what what my dream was to have happen for this year, so it’s been really cool.”
Freiberg said she knew Charles Kim, Director of Motorsports for TrueCar, from her early years in Barber. He had been one of the many Freiberg called earlier in the year as she looked for sponsorship. About one month after Kim contacted her, Freiberg was signing a contract for funding to race the full 2012 season in Star Mazda. She’s plans to announce a deal with a “top team” very soon.
“Part of me does have some disbelief because it is so surreal,” she said. “When I am actually in the seat of a car, it will finally hit me what’s actually going on.”
Love at First Seat
It remains to be seen if Freiberg's first moment in a 2012 Star Mazda car is as magical as the first day she sat in a go kart. She was 13 and it happened at the Jim Hall Karting School in California.
“Literally the second I sat in a go kart for the first time I was like, 'YES, there’s no way you are getting me out of this,' ” said Freiberg, a native of Homer Glen, Ill., who now lives in Vermont. “I remember my first lap in this little go kart on this tiny sprint track and I was smiling from ear to ear. I couldn’t even see out of my helmet I was smiling so big. I remember coming in after just that one lap and I was 'OH MY GOD, this is so AWESOME.' ”
She plunged right in, racing at a karting event in Daytona shortly thereafter. It took a while for her first win to come, and when it did it turned out to be bitter sweet — to the extreme.
“My very first national go kart win was at Barber Motorsports Park,” she recalled. “After I won I got out of the cart and was basically in tears of joy. Then I go to tech and get on the scale and I am one pound on too light. So they disqualified me. I was so upset. I was like, ‘Really? ONE POUND? Come on!’ "The first official win came a few races later.
By the time Freiberg was 15, she was in the Skip Barber Racing series while continuing to rack up hardware and championships in karting. The first Skip Barber series win came at the end of 2009.
“My first win in Skip Barber didn’t happen for a year, year-and-a-half (after she entered the series),” Freiberg said. “That win was even more exciting than any of the karting wins I ever had. Coming from the karting that I did, it didn’t require a ton of driving talent. It was more about who had the best equipment. When I got to Skip Barber, it was like everything is equal, so it’s really all mostly all on the driver.
“That was a massive learning curve for me. I would watch these kids come in from karting and they would be winning races immediately. I was wondering why I couldn’t do that. What was my delay here? It was quite frustrating for awhile. I kept asking myself what am I missing here? What am I not understanding? Finally it all clicked. It was at Sebring, the very last race of the season, and I won my first race. I was literally crying on my victory lap because I had worked so hard for that one win. It took me a while to understand the final piece that I was missing and when it all came together, it was a feeling I couldn’t even describe.”
Staying Patient ... and Tough
That win opened the floodgates to her 2010 festival of hardware. Freiberg said her strength on the track is using strategy and staying patient. Rather than dive bombing to gain some small advantage early in the race, Freiberg stays patient. “I’d be saying to myself if we stay in line here we can catch those cars in front of us and I should get myself into third place by this lap so I will be set up for this certain corner, that kind of thing.” The key is staying smooth and having the discipline to execute a strategy, she said.
Freiberg said male competitors seem more willing than ever to accept female racers, but women still have to prove they are both fast enough and tough enough to earn respect. “I definitely had to prove myself and earn the respect from the other drivers,” she said. “Not only that you are fast, but that you have the ability to not take crap from anybody either. Even if you are fast, guys are still going to make dumb moves to see if you don’t have the guts to be on the outside of a corner and still hold your position or something like that. They say ‘If I start moving over on the track she’ll eventually back off.’ You still have establish yourself and say, ‘You know what? I’m tough too.’”
Staying tough was never an issues for her, Freiberg said. “I said ‘you want to keep merging over, keep doing it. I’m not moving.’ I’ve had a lot of people just take me out trying to do that to me and I eventually made them realize OK she’s not going to move. We legit have to race her and not bully her.”
After seven years in racing, Freiberg is used to the "prove it" attitude from males. She still sometimes runs across it in her day job as a driving coach with arrive-and-drive Cadillac V-Series Performance Lab.
It's a program that travels around the contry offering the public a chance to drive a Cadillac V Series on various road courses. After taking customers on a "demonstration lap" at about 60% of full speed where she talks about how best to drive the car, Freiberg sits in the right seat and coaches customers as they drive the circuit.
Sometimes male drivers seem skeptical that a 5'-6", 118-pound, 20-year-old woman is qualified to give them tips on how to handle a Caddy. Until, that is, she takes them on a demonstration lap.
"Sometimes I get the guy who sits in my car and you know he's not listening to a word I'm saying. He's like 'yeah, I know, I know, I know' Those are the only times on my demonstration lap that I'm going maybe much faster than I should," Freiberg says with a laugh. "So then they are like, 'Ok, maybe I should listen to you now.' "
It's amazing how spending some time pinned by G forces against the door or praying the safety belts don't break as Freiberg slaloms the car through a fairly angry demonstration lap can cure a passenger's dismissive attitude.
pressdog: Maybe you just need to scare the shit out of them for a little bit to get them to listen to you.
Ashley: Yeah, exactly (laughter).
Freiberg hopes to announce a team soon and start testing for the Star Mazda season in January. For more on Ashley, visit her site at www.ashleyracing.com. For the entire Women of pressdog roster, go here.