IMSA Champion Christina Nielsen Talks with Young Women on Importance of STEM
Twelve years later, Danish-born Christina Nielsen, 26, has stamped herself as one of the world's finest young racers, capturing the past two IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championships in the GT Daytona (GTD) class and proving she can mix it up with the boys.
With a burning passion for motorsports handed down from her dad, Lars-Erik Nielsen, the driven and confident Nielsen shared her story and racing dreams on Wednesday with students from the Detroit International Academy for Young Women on Woodward Avenue.
At Wednesday's assembly, which included 10 members from the academy's robotics team, Nielsen answered and asked questions of the students, challenging them to overcome gender bias in their pursuit of a career, noting the importance of the STEM program being taught in schools.
Nielsen was on hand also to promote the Chevrolet Detroit Grand Prix presented by Lear on Belle Isle, June 1-3. She will compete in the Chevrolet Sports Car Classic race on Saturday, June 2, in the IMSA WeatherTech Championship. Nielsen will share the No. 58 Porsche 911 GT3 R car with Patrick Long for Wright Motorsports.
As part of Comerica Bank Free Prix Day at the Grand Prix on Friday, June 1, Nielsen on Wednesday invited the girls from the academy to join her at her team's hauler in the paddock "and meet my team and spend some time finding out what we do."
Nielsen, who was joined on stage at the academy by Grand Prix chairman Bud Denker and Comerica Bank senior vice present Monica Martinez, moved to America four years ago after driving in a number of sportscar series in Europe, mainly against male drivers. She was determined to make it to the top in IMSA and has already turned heads in the U.S. in winning consecutive series class titles in 2016 and 2017 and becoming the first official female driver in the championship for Porsche.
"I'm the first female (driver) to be officially connected with the manufacturer, and it's great," Nielsen told a packed academy auditorium. "It was a big step forward in my career."
When Nielsen asked the students if anyone had stood in their way of their pursuits, two young ladies replied that they were discouraged by male friends from rapping and taking karate classes because "they were girls and also too fragile."
"You go rap - you take karate," Nielsen shot back. "Give it your best."
When the girls said they did, Nielsen pumped her fist and shouted, "Good on you. You showed them."
Nielsen recalled racing karts mostly against boys and beating them.
When she moved to sportscars and won championships, she remembered it rubbed some male rivals the wrong way.
"I had plenty of boys who came up to me and make excuses why I won the two championships in the last two years," said Nielsen. "I don't need any excuses. I won them. Period."
Nielsen told the students, "I'm here to show women they can work, compete and be part of anything they want to be against men without having to believe otherwise because of gender."
"At Belle Isle, they will be able to see different types of jobs available to women in motorsports, for example, not only driving, but also as engineers, data engineers, mechanics and jobs in marketing and PR. I'm happy to show that none of them should be determined just by gender."
Martinez encouraged the academy students to live their dreams.
"We (Comerica Bank) really want to make sure we are investing in the future, which is all of you," said Martinez. "One of the things we are very passionate about is providing opportunities to our community. One of the reasons we are here today is to provide you with different options."
Martinez told the assembly, "I didn't know ... I wasn't sure" what she'd do after high school. "Originally, I was going to be a teacher," she added. "But after some people spoke at the school to us, I decided I wanted to go into international business.
"At that time, I was being told it was mainly male-dominated ... but it didn't stop me or deter me. "The racing industry - this is not a field that women have typically been part of. But Christina is really breaking the glass ceiling as it relates to that. She is holding the flag for women in this industry."
Denker, who is also a key member of IndyCar powerhouse Team Penske, agreed that all students live their dreams.
"We are very fortunate to be able to have partners like Comerica Bank to help us host events like these for the young people in our community," said Denker. "It is important to show students all of the options they have through STEM in the automotive and motorsports field and the Grand Prix provides a great platform for those opportunities."
While Nielsen believes the term "role model" in sports has become overused and that she certainly hasn't attained every goal yet in racing, she does see herself as a motivator on and off the track, especially to women and young girls now Danica Patrick is closing in on retirement.
"I don't see myself as a role model, I'm not a 100 percent in my career where I want to be yet," Nielsen explained to the students. "But I am aware I want to set a good example. I know my values and what I stand for. My social media very much represents that."
During her time at the academy on Wednesday, Nielsen watched the school's robotic team, known as "The Pink Panthers," demonstrate their "Ms. Packwoman" robot, which maneuvered deftly around the auditorium.
"I could never have done that at their age," said Nielsen. "That is so impressive and an example of how STEM works."
Nielsen told the academy students she was eager to return and race on Belle Isle. She switched from Ferrari to Porsche this season in IMSA.
"Belle Isle is bumpy; it's challenging," said Nielsen. "You must qualify well at Belle Isle. I really love the track."
On her chances of making it three championships in a row?
"I don't see why we shouldn't be able to do it again," said Nielsen. "It would be pretty cool if we won."
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