At Project-ST we very much support furthering the cause for women in motorsports. After all, our own Ken Block and his co-driver Alex Gelsomino are both married to talented rally competitors.
As you can imagine, in such a male-dominated category as professional motorsports, it’s extra-hard sometimes for a talented female driver to get a foot in the door. Fortunately, in motorsports results matter more than chromosomes, so once in the door a truly talented driver can make a name for herself. Such is the path of former Formula Drift and current Rally America driver, Verena Mei.
We recently had the chance to sit down with Verena for a round of 20 Questions…
Let’s get the expected stuff out of the way: where are you from and where do you live now?
– I’m originally from Hawaii, and live in Littleton, New Hampshire now.
Clearly, you’re a car geek – how’d that happen?
– Haha! I initially majored in mechanical engineering, so that’s how the geek part happened. The car part happened when I bought my first drift car (a Nissan 240sx) in 2004. I couldn’t afford to hire someone to build it for me, but luckily I had some friends with a shop who were willing to teach me step-by-step how to do it myself. I still love working on my car, and am always learning something new!
What made you want to drive competitively?
– I was actually talked into competing in the first year of Formula Drift in 2004, by James Bondurant, who taught me to drift at the Bondurant School. I didn’t think I was good enough, but he said I had what it took to compete. So I went for it!
How did you get your first sponsor?
– [Laughs] People always ask me this. I told Formula Drift that I was going to compete that year, and I got to know a bunch of the drivers. Ken Gushi actually recommended me to his sponsor (Rotora). I still remember getting my first sponsorship call: SPONSOR: “We’d like to sponsor you, Verena, what car do you have?” ME: (OMG! What?!) “Uh, I don’t have a drift car yet, but I’m currently drifting the Bondurant Cobra Crown Victoria . . .but I’m going to get a car as soon as I find the perfect 240sx.” SPONSOR: “Well give us a call when you get one.” I bought a car two months later. They were my first sponsor, and the top drift team at the time, so other sponsors jumped on board.
How did you get involved in rally racing?
– I competed in Formula Drift for awhile, then Time Attack, but rally has always been my ultimate dream. It was 2009, and it was now or never for me to pursue my rally dream. I called Rally America to get some advice on how to get started, and they pointed me to Team O’Neil Rally School.
We work with someone else who’s a pretty decent rally driver – his name is Ken Block. Ever heard of him?
– DUH! I’ve known of Ken since around 2007 from the X-Games rally. Funny story . . . in 2012 I was lined up for the shakedown of 100 Acre Wood Rally, and was so nervous since it was my first gravel rally with my co-driver Leanne Junnila. I looked in my rear-view mirror and said “Oh crap!”, she looked back and was dead serious when she said “I want you to take a long hard look in the rear-view mirror … because that’s the ONLY time you’ll see Ken Block lined up behind you!” And we cracked up laughing. I told the starter to wait a LONG TIME before he let Ken go. He caught up to me on transit and I let him pass. And Leanne got this pic . . .
How did you get involved in working with Ford?
– In the summer of 2010 I’d been talking to Team O’Neil about taking their 5-day rally school so I could get my Rally America license, and trying to figure out how I could afford to pull it off. They were trying to get Ford to help out, so I could attend the school, but didn’t get much of a response. At the time Ken Block had a gymkhana test day in LA, so I went to check it out. It was the only day I wish I still owned my drift car, because I hated having to watch the guy I sold it to, tear around the track, in my old car. I approached Ken’s manager, Brian Scotto, (who looked like the guy in charge), and told him my background in motorsports & what I was trying to accomplish with Team O’Neil. He gave me the name of person I needed to talk to at Ford, and said “tell him Brian from Ken’s team told you to talk to him.” Team O’Neil contacted that person, and three days later, I got the news that Ford Racing had agreed to partially sponsor me for the rally school! I’ll never forget that day, and how it changed my life. I was just a girl in a pink Hello Kitty t-shirt asking for advice, and he took a few minutes to listen and help. I also met Ken that day and got a picture taken with him [laughs]. I’ve never had a chance to thank Brian in person, as it’s craziness at rallies, so I don’t even know if he realized how he played a big part in my getting into rally. My relationship with Ford continued to grow when I started rallying a Fiesta.
Who are your idols – past and present?
– Growing up, my grandmother was my idol. She was the sweetest person and strong willed at the same time, and a pioneer for women back in her day in Hawaii. She was the only person in my family who believed in me, and encouraged me to think creatively. I don’t have any particular idols. I really admire WRC and Formula One drivers – the their level of driving is insane! I respect and admire people who have an idea and make it happen. People who take the risk to accomplish what once was thought of as impossible, no matter what it is.
Describe your perfect career path.
– Is this a corporate interview? [Maybe – ed.] I don’t know if I have a so-called career path . . . I usually dream up things and make them happen. I have a list of things I’d love to check off my list if I have the opportunity or enough sponsors. In a nutshell . . . travel the world and race / drive. More stage rally, race a Fiesta R2 in at least one rally, GRC, train and race in Europe, travel the world for drift / driving exhibitions (somehow it’s always more fun when you’re putting on a show), more stunt driving in commercials, and be a voice in a cartoon [Trust us when we say this last one NEEDS to happen – ed.].
What’s up with the Star Girl Racing hat we saw the other day?
– I’ve been working with my racing sponsor tokidoki to come up with a fashion line for awhile, and we finally launched my tokidoki x Star Girl Racing shirts & New Era hats in March, for both guys & girls. I’m super excited!
What production cars – past and present – interest you most on a personal level?
– I used to be a RWD only fan, because of drifting, but rallying has given me a whole new appreciation for FWD vehicles. I love the “hot hatch” segment because they’re made to be quick and nimble, and the perfect size for me. I’m also a big fan of BMW E36 M3s, which I’ve owned and loved, and the E46 M3, which was on my next to-buy list, but I chose to buy a Fiesta ST instead because it’s so much more fun to drive. If I had the money, I’d buy a Porsche GT3 RS, which I haven’t driven yet, but it’s so sexy and would be an amazing street to track car for me! [laughs] Next on my list to buy is a Focus RS! Can’t wait to get my hands on one! [We might have one you can drive… – ed.]
Your chosen sport is basically overrun with men – how has that affected your opportunities?
– Being a female in motorsports has its advantages and disadvantages. In my experience, women have to prove themselves as drivers over and over again, to be taken seriously. When I meet someone who doesn’t know what I do, and I tell them that I’m a driver, they think I’m joking. A lot of people can’t wrap their head around the idea of a female racecar driver. However, we definitely stand out from the rest of the drivers so more progressive sponsors will use that to their advantage for marketing, like TrueCar did with their Women Empowered Initiative, which I was a part of. I think people forget that motorsports is one of the very few professional sports where women and men compete head to head.
Would you like to influence more women to enter competitive motorsports?
– Absolutely! I hope that by continuing to drive / race and share my stories of how I got into motorsports, I can empower other women to do it too. I like to remind people that I was never born into racing or had help from my family. One day I popped out of bed and said “I’m going to race” (this is really how it happened), and I figured out how to make it happen, so they can do it too! I love meeting other women racecar drivers and car enthusiasts. It’s so refreshing!
Rumor has it you had the keys to our project Fiesta STreets before we got it?
– Muahaha! Yes, I named her “Minxie”, because she’s a sexy little beast.
If we go looking under the seat cushions, are we going to find anything good?
– Probably not, it would’ve fallen through the hole under the seat by now [laughs].
Rumor also has it that because you did your best to kill the thing, and it survived, you bought your own?
– [Laughs] I took little Minxie on lots of adventures during the 5-months I had it. I loved every second of driving it, although I regret never properly hooning it. [Lucky us? – ed.] Thanks to Ford for my gas card, I drove it like a racecar for almost 10K miles, and only put it into 6th gear once just to see what it felt like. It survived recce at New England Forest Rally, where the rocky roads are known to punch holes in oil pans and radiators. I also drove through a car-sized hole in the top of a fallen tree on the highway during a storm that was unavoidable. So yes, after all that and having to give it back to Ford, I bought the exact same car.
Any project plans for your own FieSTa?
– YES! I’m waiting for winter here in NH to be over with before I start on any mods. Wheels – Turbomacs, not sure what color yet. KW’s ST suspension seems like a good idea because I’m planning on taking my ST to the track too. I want my ST to look meaner, so the fifteen52 flare kit is a must. I definitely want a Mountune short shifter as well. As far as the engine goes, originally I was thinking of getting the Mountune MP215 kit right away, but I’m really enjoy driving my ST without engine mods for now, so I’m going to think about my options for awhile. I REALLY want to see what you guys to Fiesta STreets!
Verena, thanks so much for sharing with us. Do you think anyone is going to notice we didn’t actually ask you 20 questions?
– Now they will!