Toni Breidinger: NASCAR's first Arab-American female driver on shattering stereotypes
Making history as NASCAR's first Arab female driver, Toni Breidinger talks about breaking records and shattering stereotypes, high-speed car chase style
It’s 2021 but chances are, if you’re a female, you’ve come across the passing comment, “Women can’t drive” at least once in your life. And regardless of whether you do choose to drive or not, it may have angered you at least a little. But you know what they say. When someone says you can’t do it, do it twice. And take pictures. Toni Breidinger, the first Arab female NASCAR driver, has not only done it multiple times over, with pictures alright, but has also dismantled the single most clichéd gender stereotype. Making history, the 21-year-old Lebanese American has pierced through the male-dominated sporting industry, with 19 US Auto Club wins by her side, making an all-time record as a female race car driver. And while she surprisingly admits that she struggles with directions, Toni seems to have found her calm amidst the chaos and solace in lightning speed car chases.
In a conversation with wknd., the race car champion speaks to us about what shaped her early interests as a child, leading to her unprecedented stardom on the race track.
How did you get into car racing?
I started racing with go-karts when I was nine years old. It started as something we did just for fun. My dad thought my sister and I would enjoy it. Of course, he didn’t have any intentions of me actually becoming a race car driver at the time. Both of us immediately fell in love with it. We got super competitive and started go-kart racing all over the country. And I just knew from that day that I wanted to become a race car driver. Ever since then, I started working towards it and climbed up the racing ladder.
So, you were nine when your interest in cars took root. When kids are that young, they’re sometimes told that girls should play with dolls and boys ought to play with trucks and cars. Growing up, did you pick the toy cars?
It’s a funny story because when I was at the race track, I had these little toy cars from the movie Cars that I would play with. And then I’d go home and play with my Barbie dolls. So, I always felt that I was living two lives. I loved to go home and play with my Barbie dolls, being a ‘girly’ girl, but at the race track, I acted like I only loved the cars, and that I never really cared about the girly stuff. So, I guess I never picked one, I played with both. I got the best of both worlds!
Did your parents ever try to give you a more ‘girly’ toy to play with?
My parents have always been so supportive of anything I wanted to pursue. As a kid, I used to go for gymnastics, cheerleading, soccer, piano and my parents always had my back. They never limited me by telling me to follow a certain norm or to fit in. They always said, be who you want to be and don’t ever feel like you have to put a label on yourself or put yourself in a box. Stereotypes don’t matter. They’re made up. So, that has had a massive impact on me being able to follow my passion so freely.
Congrats on being NASCAR’s first Arab female driver. You also competed at the Daytona International Speedway. How did it feel?
It truly feels amazing! It was never something I set out to do. It just happened. But now, I feel like it can help pave the way for others. So, it’s exciting to be the first, but especially for the purpose of opening doors for others to join in. Honestly, I didn’t expect myself to be the first. I would have thought that somebody would have come up before me. Competing at Daytona was crazy. I remember being so nervous on the day because it’s something that I always dreamt of doing. And it was a whole new experience, being on TV. The entire day felt like a blur, it happened so fast. I just couldn’t process anything. I was so focused on the race.
What’s your favourite part about race car driving? Is it the thrill?
So, a lot of people will say that they love the adrenaline aspect of it. But I’m not an adrenaline junkie — I’m scared of roller coasters. And I wouldn’t like to do the typical adrenaline junkie stuff. I am scared of heights. So, for me, I think it’s more like the spirit of competition. I’m a competitive person. So, I think that’s what draws me to it. And, of course, I like to go fast!
Do you experience fear while being on tracks?
No, I’ve never been scared for myself on a race track. If you’re ever scared in a race car, you probably shouldn’t be in it. But it’s funny because I’ll watch my sister be in one and I’ll get nervous for her if she’s racing, even though it’s the same type of car that I drive. So, if I see somebody else racing, I get nervous for them. But I’ve never been scared for myself. If I ever get into a crash, I’m just worried about how my car is.
You are 19-time US Auto Club Race Champion, which is the most for any woman. Do you like breaking records?
Breaking records is great. But I never intentionally set out to break any records. When I go to the race track, I want to win and that’s always on my mind. And if I achieve other things along the way, then that’s great too. My goal is always just to win. I don’t ever have a bigger plan.
Does that take some pressure off?
Yeah, when I was younger, I used to look at the big picture, all the time. And that’s overwhelming. When you set out for a big goal, there are so many small steps in between. If you’re focusing too far ahead, you can get anxious about what’s happening in the here and now and you don’t see things clearly. So, I like to be present in the moment. Every morning, I write down my goals for the day. I think it’s just as important to chase smaller goals as it is to spell out the bigger ones.
The territory of NASCAR has historically been male-dominated, or so it is perceived. Have you felt that as insider?
I think there are always going to be some people that don’t think females belong in a sport, and they like it being male-dominated. But at the same time, there will always be those people that don’t see me as any different and these are the ones I gravitate towards. I make it a point to just surround myself with people that treat me as an equal and treat me like a driver. As soon as I hit the race track, I’m a driver just like anyone else. So, it’s important for me to be around people who treat me that way.
Have you faced any discrimination?
I feel a lot of the discrimination comes through social media, for the most part. A lot of people can be judgemental once they’re behind a screen, typing away from their keyboard. I’ve had people bombard me with comments saying I’m going to get into a car crash and they’ve probably never even seen me drive before. But I just brush it aside. You have to know what you’re there to do and know your worth. And just be confident. I don’t think I’m the best driver out there but I know my worth. I’m working hard to get better every day.
How did you feel when Huda Kattan wanted to collaborate and sponsor your stint?
It felt surreal. When I was a teenager, I used to watch Huda Beauty tutorials on YouTube and do my makeup. I’d buy all her makeup products and film fake makeup tutorial videos. That was like the other side of me. Besides racing, I just loved makeup and fashion. So, having Huda Beauty on my race car was a dream come true. If I told my 15-year-old self that this was going to happen, I would not have believed it. When I first found this out, I was in tears. And I don’t really know if a lot of beauty brands have been on a race car before, so it felt amazing that the two worlds came together.
How important is it for women to support other women?
I think it’s so important for women to stand up for each other. Let’s say, in racing, if all the female drivers were mean to each other, another girl wouldn’t want to come and join us. We’d just be holding other women back. It’s absolutely necessary that we empower each other, especially in such a competitive environment. Women should lift other women up.
When you’re on the race track, does the pressure of being a female driver go away?
When I’m in the race car and as soon as the engine turns on, I just turn into a different person. This switch kind of flips in my mind and I’m not really thinking about anything else going on in my life, besides the race. This is another thing that I love about racing. It’s this outlet where you feel like you’re not even part of real life. And nothing goes through my mind, except communicating to my team and doing well in the race.
With all the records you’ve been breaking, what does the rest of 2021 look like for you?
This year, I’ll be in a new series. I’ll be racing on a lot of new tracks. The biggest thing for me is that I want to learn and improve. I want to look back, even just in two weeks from now, and be able to say, “I’m a better driver, I’m a better person and I’m more confident.” I want 2021 to be all about progress and just being happy. I want to work on being even more confident on and off the race track.