If you don't think a girl raised in New York City and educated at Stanford would have the moxie to stick a stock car in a tight spot at a breakneck speed, you haven't met Julia Landauer.
Landauer, 24, is so tough she made it halfway through "Survivor: Caramoan" in 2013. She's so confident she has set a goal of "winning at every level of NASCAR and eventually be competing for wins and championships in the Sprint Cup series."
She's impressive enough that NASCAR recently named her to its 2016 NASCAR Next class, a roster of potential future stars. This year's class also includes Harrison Burton, son of Sprint Cup 21-race winner Jeff Burton, and Todd Gilliland, son of former NASCAR regular David Gilliland.
"Racing in the Sprint Cup series is what I really want to do," Landauer said. "I also want to continue to use my platform to dive into the world of making the racing industry more environmentally friendly. I'm a huge advocate for STEM [science, technology, engineering and math] education for everybody. STEM can apply to whatever your passion is; it's not just being a software engineer in a dark basement."
Landauer has won two championships. At 14, she became the youngest and first female champion of the Skip Barber Racing series. And last year, she won the Limited Late Model division at Motor Mile Speedway in Radford, Virginia.
She's competing this season in the televised K&N Pro Series West, a notch below NASCAR's national divisions, for Bill McAnally Racing with backing from Toyota and coaching from three-time series champion Eric Holmes. She's fifth in the standings with a pair of top-5 finishes in four starts.
And she has been very racy.
"At Tucson [May 7], she got up to second and ran strong contending for a win," said McAnally, who also fields Toyota race cars for points leader Gilliland and two other top drivers. "There's no doubt in my mind she can win at this level, and if the dominoes fall in the right direction, she could be the gal that makes it up there with Danica [Patrick] in the Cup series."
Landauer grew up in New York's Upper West Side, near Central Park and the Lincoln Center, which isn't exactly the typical breeding ground for a stock car driver. Her parents, a doctor and a lawyer, had certain criteria in mind when they went looking for a sport for Julia, a younger sister and eventually a younger brother.
"They really wanted to find an activity where their kids could do something together on the weekends and, specifically, that their girls could compete with boys," Landauer said. "And there are very few sports, obviously, where that can happen. Because of their interest in cars, they researched how to get kids into racing. And they found go-karts."
And a very good track. Oakland Valley Race Park in Cuddebackville, New York attracts some of the best young talent in the country, and helped launch the careers of Patrick, Marco Andretti and other professionals. Landauer won early and quickly learned, she said, that racing is what she wanted to do as a profession.
"Being able to express myself in a go-kart and having that human-machine interaction was something I loved," she said. "Here I was as a 10-year-old and I was manhandling this machine that was really fast, and communicating with my team. It was really cool to be able to work with adults. To be held to a high standard was an incredible amount of responsibility, but it was an incredible payoff as well, being able to race."
Go-kart racing is where Landauer received a defining piece of advice she would take with her as she climbed the ranks through Ford Focus Midgets, Legends cars and Late Models.
"My go-kart coach told me something I actually found really powerful that helped me break out of the nice girl mode that society imposes on us," Landauer recalled. "He told me: 'Julia, your behavior on the racetrack would put you in jail in real life. And you need to drive like that every time you're on the track. And turn it off right away when you get off.'
"Hearing something so different from what popular society had been telling me or what my teachers had been telling me made it so clear that I don't have to be nice when I'm trying to win. So that was really a game-changer for me mentally, and I really appreciate being told straight up this is what it takes."
Landauer earned a bachelor's degree at Stanford in Science, Technology and Society. Along the way, she soaked up all the knowledge she could to help her prepare for a side of her career that has become almost as important as driving: marketing and self-promotion.
"I take my education very seriously and I wanted to be in an environment in which I would be pushed a lot," she says. "I also knew that the business courses that were offered would help me with my brand development for racing. So Stanford had all the things. ... It was definitely a reach school, but I made the best case I could and it worked out."
McAnally first worked with Landauer in 2009, before she started Stanford, and said he was impressed then. He said the college-educated Landauer came to the K&N Series with two gifts not usually seen with young drivers in the lower ranks: the ability to communicate to the crew what she needs in her race car and a polished approach with sponsors and media.
"She's phenomenal," he said. "She's a professional public speaker with her education, and she does an amazing job with the sponsors. At this level, to have somebody be able to interact with the corporate sponsors like she does is huge. She does that as well as they do on the national level."
McAnally worked with other prominent female drivers, including Allison Duncan, who became the first female Late Model winner at Stockton 99 Speedway in Stockton, California, and former Indy car driver Sarah Fisher, who had a flirtation with stock cars in the mid-2000s as part of a developmental program with team owner Richard Childress.
McAnally said Fisher, coming from Indy cars, couldn't always tell her crew what she needed to make her stock cars fast. Landauer, he said, "is so smart smart she can go to a track she's never been to, learn what she needs out of the car very quick, communicate that to the crew."
"The thing about K&N versus the national touring series is we'll run a lot of 150-lap races with no pit stops," he said. "We go into a lot of smaller venues where they try to keep things affordable, and by doing that, we don't do pit stops. So what you've got, you've got for 150 laps. So if you don't get it right during practice, you have your hands full during the race."
The team owner said his challenge is to help Landauer find the boundaries between not driving aggressively enough and driving too aggressively -- he says she crossed the latter in her most recent race when she triggered a crash involving teammates Gilliland and Riley Herbst.
"She's got four or five major corporate sponsors that are behind her, and she knows this is her shot," McAnally said. "So at times she's a little too aggressive. Right now we're trying to develop her to know where that fine line is where you're not too aggressive, but you're not giving anything away."
Landauer was voted off on Day 19 of "Survivor: Caramoan," an opportunity she was presented with after "applying like everyone else." She says she's better for the experience.
"I was able to use a lot of skills and education that I had gotten from racing to help me," she said. "Everything, from knowing who your competitors are to giving up information, but not too much, to being a team player, to knowing how to lead a team and motivate them. The social game was really hard, but a great experience overall."
The game is ready now, and Julia Landauer said she's ready to do what it takes. Even if she has to drive her Toyota like she hot-wired it.