Women In Racing Series - Michelle Miller
D’Laina: “Please introduce yourself”
D’Laina: “How did you get into racing?”
Michelle: “I have always been into cars, and my husband and I started building some cool cars and going to a lot of car shows. We had a Mazda Rx7 and would go to monthly club meets where we met our friend, Jeb, who constantly invited us out to novice racing schools. At first, I was very hesitant to go, because it seemed scary, I didn’t know what to expect, and wasn't positive I would hold back the rest of the class. I didn’t want to let down my gender by being the slow girl. Once I got over myself and finally went through the novice classes at Bremerton Sports Car Club, I saw how cool driving was. I said to myself ‘why have I been hanging out at meets when I could have been driving cars’. I was immediately hooked and within two years I volunteered to run their novice program. It was a fantastic experience and I formed key relationships with more people and engaged with the sport even more. I was able to bring structure to the Bremerton Sport’s Club program.
This led me to some other positions and I eventually became the president of the BMW Club local chapter, and then volunteered with the Sports Club of America and the Porsche Club of America. I ended up doing a lot of volunteer coaching which led me to where I am today. The opportunity at Dirt Fish came along from Don Wooten, the lead instructor at the time, who was someone that I raced with at the Bremerton Sports Car Club. I took a leap of faith and came on board at DirtFish, leaving a professional job. I started as part-time front desk and part-time instructor. It was a risky move, but without a doubt it was the best decision that I’ve ever made. Since starting I have grown tremendously with the company both in my position and also as a driver and a coach.
On the racing side of things, in 2012 I won my first SCCA Solo National Championship in a Mitsubishi Evo 9. However, the next year, I ended up in last place, which was very humbling. I just couldn’t get out of my head and perform like I wanted to. In 2014 we switched drivetrains and built up our naturally aspirated Mini Cooper, with which I took two more national championships before turning my focus to rally.
It was interesting to go from the Evo, which is 3200 pounds, very powerful and fast, to the Mini Cooper. It’s only around 2200 pounds, has front-wheel drive, and well, slow. It was a very good challenge to move between these two chassis and platforms. With the Evo – if you made a mistake, the power would help you to mask it, but with the mini-Cooper – one mistake and you were done. The lack of power would prevent you from gaining back the momentum. It is a very, very challenging car to drive quickly. It sounds backwards. But driving a slow car fast, is one of the best things for a driver.
D’Laina: “You were able to win with the Mini-Cooper twice, so what are some of the advantages of the car?”
Michelle: “In Solo you compete in classes of similar cars, so I wasn’t up against something link an Evo. The MINI handled phenomenally well, it danced and would go where you wanted it to go if you “told” it the right thing to do. The lightness and nimbleness allowed you to put the car where you wanted it to go.
D’Laina: “Can you describe your transition from racing into instructing?”
Michelle: “I started instructing part-time at DirtFish in October 2013. I’m so fortunate to work with such a great group of people and they did a lot of work getting me up to speed with the techniques that you need in rally, because they are significantly different than from other types of racing. I had so much support from the other instructors and felt very welcomed. I still doubted myself and questioned whether I could do this and whether anyone would want to have the woman as their instructor. It turns out I had worried myself for no reason. After 6 months, I went to full-time teaching. There is nothing like being with a student, when they have their first ‘ah ha moment’. You get a little bit of piece of that every time it happens, which is very rewarding. Getting to share that improvement with them, seeing their confidence raise and their skill improve is second to none. Obviously, I like to make people go fast and I like to challenge people to do something they never thought possible and pushing the edge of their comfort zone. It’s what is so great about driving competitively. Can I go a little faster, brake a little deeper, can I get a little bit more out of this driver? Teaching people how to do this, to me, is the most amazing thing in the world.
DirtFIsh School is based in stage rally fundamentals, which is mostly gravel, but we also rally cross – gravel and tarmac together, so we teach both. The road is constantly changing and we slide on purpose to get the car placement that we need, which is not what you want to do on tarmac. These skills help anyone with a racing background and also street driving, creating an instinct to fix a loose situation rather than commit to it.
D’Laina: “What do you love about racing?
Michelle: “What first hooked me was the adrenaline rush and the feeling of ‘I’m actually doing this’. As you do this more and more the adrenaline rush becomes something a bit different and its more of a rush about the competition. I don’t shake as much as I did the first time I competed. Its almost like a freedom, because when you are in your car before a race –that’s all there is around you – its your 100% complete focus!”
The other part is that the community is really, really amazing. We love what we do and we want other people to love what we do. The show of support for one another, its pretty amazing.”
D’Laina: “What do you think prevents people from getting into driving?”
Michelle: “A lot of people don’t even know it’s an option for them and that there are easy ways to get into it. Sure, competing at the very top level and getting that driver contract is only going to happen to a few drivers, but there are a lot of ways to get into the sport. It’s how/why I started in autocross. As you become more competitive, and want more, you usually spend more and work hard on the pieces you can control to get the most out of every race weekend.”
D'Laina: “What are your goals this year?”
Michelle: “My goals are simple, I would love to be on a national podium in stage rally this year. I have at least three more races. It will be a lot of work, but it is achievable. I have my eye on Pacific Forest Rally in Canada as a good opportunity to do that. I always want to continue to build and develop my race craft as well.”
D’Laina: “What do you consider your secrets to success?”
Michelle: “I consider the secrets to success is a lot of hard work and training. I know that there is a point where people would like to feel as if they no longer need a coach. However, everyone can see something in the passenger seat, that they won’t as a driver. Any chance I get to be in a car - I’ll take it. Even at DirtFish, on a course I have run a thousand times, there is always something to learn.
I personally learn a lot by coaching, because I am reiterating lessons I know to improve others. These include; look ahead, be smooth with your inputs, be patient with the car. Sometimes I’ll event discover a random thing that actually works. I might not add it to the curriculum at the school but I will put it in the back of my mind. The next time I go out I will try them out. Reviewing data and looking at footage is also really important as well. On my way home from my last race I spent nearly ½ of the time reviewing video and looking at notes and inspecting the sections where I was off on my timing. The next time I go out hopefully I can improve these sections.
D’Laina: “To that note, one of the things we are developing in the new Track Attack Service is ‘Your Best Lap’. This feature divides the track into 8 or so sections and stiches together your best section times to show you what your top lap would be. The driver completed those sections, but not in that sequence, and by pairing the video and data together – it provides a blueprint for drivers on what to focus on to achieve that best lap time the next time they drive.
Michelle: “That’s awesome to hear. I can see why this would be a valuable feature.”
D’Laina: “How do you work on your skills and improve your driving?”
Michelle: “You’ll never know the true edge unless you make some mistakes. When it doesn’t work, assessing why that was and reciprocally when something does work, assessing why you had success. From a teaching standpoint when someone is learning something new – if you never let them find that spot where it is too much you will never get the most success out of them. When it is safe, if a student over rotates in a corner, I am not going to stop them. I am going to let them experience it for themselves and discover how to fix it. Racing is about who makes the fewest mistakes and who fixes them the best, not about who is perfect. As the mistakes become smaller and minimize them over time, then you can start build confidence and speed.
D’Laina: “What is it like for you to be one of the few women drivers?”
Michelle: “I never know how to answer this question, because I have never been a male driver. Anyone who goes into motorsports, if you work hard, if you are humble and confident you will gain people’s respect. I am sure there might have been some preconceived notions but you just try to prove to people with my actions and skills to prove gender doesn’t matter. I am just another driver out there trying to go fast and win races and trying to inspire others to do the same.”
D’Laina: “When I interviewed Cindi Lux – she mentioned ‘The car doesn’t care whether I am male or female’, it’s us who places these prejudices on gender”.
Michelle: “Yeah, the car doesn’t care. I see it as an opportunity to help change people’s minds. I have had a few people not want me to be in the car with them, so I just made other people fast. The men in this industry that I am around respect me, they know my skill set and have my back all the time.
D’Laina: “What do you wish other women knew about racing?”
Michelle: “I wish women knew that they would be accepted. It comes back to the hurdle of ourselves. No one is going to make fun of you, everyone started out as a novice. Also that it isn’t scary, it is very exhilarating. You come away with new found confidence and empowerment and it’s a pretty amazing thing.
D’Laina: “What else do you want to share about racing and/or your career?”
Michelle: “As well as instructing at DirtFish, I also took on the role of managing our motorsports team in 2016. We run two cars in the RedBull Global Rally Cross and have a 2 driver team along with 7 technicians that travel North America competing in the series. It has been a huge learning experience working on this side of racing. As I have moved into this role, my racing has become more focused on stage rally where I compete mostly as a co-driver/navigator, but will also be finding the driver’s seat every once in a while.
Michelle, thanks for sharing your driving story! Your achievements showcase the power of jumping in and that hard work pays off.
The following videos highlights Michelle's driving and co-driving skills. When the hood comes up mid-stage Michelle and Sam Albert just keep driving.