Few college graduates can say they have a job waiting for them in this economy, or that they run their own company. Even fewer can say they are breaking barriers in a male-dominated sport.
But then again, Shea Holbrook is anything but ordinary.
The 22 –year-old is a full-time professional race car driver, runs her own career and actively works with a charity that’s fighting a disease close to her heart.
In between that she managed to squeeze in a college education, and on Saturday, May 5, at 9 a.m. she’ll collect her bachelor’s degree from the University of Central Florida.
Some of her racing buddies questioned her commitment to the sport, especially when they observed her spending hours on buses and planes doing homework and studying for exams.
“A lot of race car drivers, when they transition to pro, don’t choose school,” Holbrook said. “But school has always been a priority for me. I was determined to earn a four-year degree in four years.”
At UCF, many of her colleagues didn’t believe her when she talked about her history-making racing career. In 2011, she became the first woman to win a Long Beach Touring Car Race at the Long Beach Grand Prix. She’s only the fourth woman to have ever won a professional race on that track.
Now with a degree in Interpersonal/Organizational Communication and a minor in Marketing, she’ll be even better equipped to run her company — Shea Racing – and stay in control of her own career.
“Racing started as a passion, but became my career,” said the self-proclaimed adrenaline-junkie. “I love it.”
Blame Her Dad
A “life-changing” trip to the Richard Petty Experience in Daytona Beach with her dad in 2007 inspired Holbrook’s racing career. Too young to drive the car at the time, the experience of being a passenger was exciting enough to spark an interest.
A natural competitor, she previously fulfilled her craving for adventure as a water-skier. When she was old enough to drive she found something she was naturally good at that required a similar sense of fearlessness.
“If I was scared, I wouldn’t be doing this,” Holbrook said.
Although 15 is considered a late age to begin thinking about professional racing, her greatest challenge didn’t lie behind the wheel of her Honda Civic Si. It was trying to keep up with schoolwork while also balancing what had become a full-time job.
A competitor in the Pirelli World Challenge Touring Car Division, Holbrook typically races once a month from March to August, when the pro races run. She practices, or “tests,” bimonthly.
Despite the hectic schedule, the Central Florida native graduated from Montverde Academy in Lake County, earned her Associate’s Degree at Valencia Community College and arrived at UCF in 2010 through the DirectConnect program.
“Shea is a remarkable student and professional athlete,” said Bill Steiger, a visiting instructor in the College of Business. “She manages to balance both roles while maintaining a fantastic attitude and focus. She’s bright, driven—no pun intended—and loaded with entrepreneurial traits.”
Finding A Sponsor
The process of finding a sponsor had been a long one for Holbrook. Several “too-good-to-be-true” deals fell through.
“There were times I thought, ‘This is never going to happen for me,’” Holbrook said.
But her career has taken off since joining the TrueCar Racing team in 2011. The sponsor hosts a “Women Empowered” initiative, which guides female racers in their careers and raises awareness of women’s roles as serious competitors in a male-dominated sport.
She is grateful for the TrueCar opportunity, which helps fund her racing while also giving her a platform as a woman at the forefront of the sport.
“Racing is dominated by males and there are few role models for young girls,” said Holbrook.
On and off the track, Holbrook is constantly striving to be one of those role models. As part owner of Shea Racing, she oversees five employees, in addition to managing her social media profiles, race and practice calendars and sponsorship duties.
“I’m constantly trying to sell myself and look for new opportunities,” Holbrook said. “Even though you’re not in the car every day, there’s a lot of stuff that needs to be done off the track. That’s why I decided to study communications and marketing.”
More than Just Driving
In 2008, Holbrook lost her 18-year-old cousin, Matthew to a fatal genetic disorder called Duchenne muscular dystrophy. It affects mostly boys, and although medicine can slow its progression, there is no cure for Duchenne. The life expectancy for people with the disease is about 25.
Matthew’s loss, as well as the battle with Duchenne being fought by another cousin, Jordan, inspired Holbrook’s advocacy.
“I drive for selfish reasons, but I also realize I’m in a position to help people,” she explained.
So for the past three years, Holbrook has worked to raise funds and awareness for Parent Project Muscular Dystrophy, which benefits the fight against Duchenne.
As part of her outreach on behalf of Duchenne, Holbrook regularly invites young boys with the disease and their families out to her races.
“Working with Duchenne families is extremely humbling,” Holbrook explained. “They are the strongest people I’ve ever met, and they deserve some fun every once in a while. What little boy doesn’t like race cars?”
As for her future, the road ahead is wide open for Holbrook. With support from TrueCar and her Shea Racing team, she says she hopes to draw more attention to females in motorsports.
After commencement, she’ll travel to California to compete in the Monterey Grand Prix. When it comes to the actual races, Holbrook says winning is important, but not everything. She’s already living her dream, fueled by the rush of rounding tracks at 140 miles per hour. And from the race track, Holbrook says she’s got the best view in the house.
“When my fans show up—I live for that.”
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