Women have been making inroads in sports car racing for decades, and finally, a female driver has won a major full-season North American championship.
Christina Nielsen did it this past weekend at Road Atlanta, where she and co-driver Alessandro Balzan captured the IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar GT Daytona (GTD) title in the No. 63 Scuderia Corsa Ferrari. The pair entered the season-ending Petite LeMans with a 32-point lead, and Nielsen, a 24-year-old from Denmark, clinched her share of the title when she completed her mandatory three-hour drive time.
Since IMSA's birth in 1969, several women have competed in and won races in the series, and Melanie Snow won the abridged, five-race American Le Mans Series GT Challenge (GTC) title in 1969. Other women who have won North America road racing titles in lesser series than Nielsen's include Amy Ruman in the SCCA Trans Am Series in 2015 and Margie Smith-Haas in the SCCA Pro American Cities Racing League in 1994.
Nielsen's title is the first over a full season in a major series. The IMSA WeatherTech SportsCar Championship and its four professional classes represent the premier form of sports car racing in North America.
One of two women who competed full-time in IMSA this year, along with DeltaWing Prototype driver Katherine Legge, Nielsen won two races this season: the historic Mobil 1 Twelve Hours of Sebring in March and the Sahlen's Six Hours of The Glen in July. On Monday, she spoke with espnW about her historic racing accomplishment.
You missed the title by two points last year, while driving for The Racers Group (TRG). How much of a focus was it for you to get it done this year with Scuderia Corsa?
Christina Nielsen: "Let's just say we finished last season on the third of October, and it was on my mind the fourth of October. I wanted to go and have another shot at it. In 2015, honestly, I wasn't thinking about the championship. It was my third full season, and I just wanted to see what we could do, and then, suddenly, with a couple of rounds left, we were leading. This year, I knew we were going to be one of the contenders."
Your Twitter feed is full of congratulatory posts. What has the reaction been like?
CN: "The fans have really been great. I really feel like people over here are positive and supportive. Secondly, this has been an amazing paddock to be part of. Like, [competitor] Andy Lally brought me a pair of Ferrari socks. It was a silly thing, but the fact he thought of me, like, 'Oh, I'm going to give these to Christina as a little congrats for the championship' meant a lot. And Andrew Davis, whom I've been racing all year. I often qualified around the same spot as Andrew, so we started together a lot. We've always had good, clean racing. And he messaged me and said, 'Congrats, and well done all season, and it's been a pleasure to race you -- always hard but fair.' It was a great bunch of guys to be surrounded by."
What does this title mean for how far women have come in sports car racing?
CN: "I'm not always crazy about how much attention there is about the fact I'm a female, even though -- I'm not going to lie -- I do also use it because it allows me to get publicity for our sponsors and the people we work with. I do want to spread the message and say, 'Hey, women can compete with men on an equal level.' We can compete with them and against them, and we can do well in a male-dominated world. I'm not trying to get more females into racing in the sense of [recruiting] them because it's either in your DNA or it isn't. But I do hope that if there are girls who want to do it, they can look at me and say, 'If she can do it, I can do it.'"
Sebring was a great win. Was that your biggest accomplishment this season, prior to capturing the championship?
CN: "Yeah, I would say so. I was in the car when a thunderstorm hit, so I was the one out there when they kept saying, 'You need to come in and change tires,' and I'm like, 'No, I'm fine. I'm fine.' But March seems so long ago. I really like some of these last races we've had because in March I still didn't know the guys as well, and as the season went by, I got to know them better, and everything meant more because I became very close to them and cared a lot for them. Wins are amazing, but we had seven podium [top-three] finishes. There are so many good memories to take away."
You stepped it up with fitness this year. How and why?
CN: "I really worked hard the last couple of months because if they said to me over the radio, 'Christina, can you do three hours?' I wanted to be like, 'Yup, you got it, boss.' I've been swimming a lot lately. I like it because I don't have the best knees, and it allows you to work with the same muscle groups that you use in the car. We recently started using the stairs in Santa Monica. I live in L.A., and it's opened my mind to a lot of new ways to work out because there are so many possibilities with outdoor activities. I also work with a trainer at the gym in the building I live in. We work both the small muscle groups -- like the fingers and wrists -- and the larger muscle groups."
What's next for you? What are your racing aspirations?
CN: "I think, as with most drivers, the dream, the goal, would be to get a factory contract one day. I'm aiming for something like [IMSA] GT Le Mans. I think there's a pretty good chance I'll stick with Scuderia Corsa next year. We're working out some details, working hard to close the budget gap. I was very happy with them this year. They've done a great job, and they're great people to hang out with. [Co-drivers] Jeff Segal and Alessandro Balzan are just not only good behind the wheel but also good people with good hearts. And so is our team owner, Giacomo Mattioli. I would like to be back in IMSA. I really like racing over here."