Erica Ortiz is a drag racer from the United States. She started racing as a teenager, and hasn't looked back since. She did, however grow tired of people commenting on how she dressed outside the racing arena and founded Horsepower & Heels, an organisation to support women in racing. Horsepower & Heels has been growing slowly over the past decade with her dedicated work to make women feel welcome in racing. Instead of burning bras for her feminism, she burns rubber.
BS What's your first memory of motorsport?
EO I didn't come from a racing family or background, so my first memory of motorsports came during high school. I always had this unexplained love and fascination with hot rods, and a few classmates had fathers and siblings who were into drag racing. I was dating a boy in high school who had a brother that raced, and when they talked about going to the races over the weekend, I really wanted to go. I think he thought I was just trying to be a clingy girlfriend, and wasn't really interested in the cars, so he never invited me along, but I did run into them a few years later as I pulled my car beside their at the track.
BS What made you pursue a career in motorsport?
EO I always have been drawn to automotive and motorsports, and poured myself into learning everything I could about them. I didn't just want to drive, I wanted to understand the cars, the technology and to be involved in pushing the limits of these mechanical marvels on the track. It has always been my love and passion, even when life pushed me to the sidelines.
BS When did you first start racing?
EO My first time on the track was shortly after graduating high school. I bought my first car, a 1990 Mustang GT, and took it to the local test and tune night. I was hooked instantly.
BS What do you love about the industry?
EO Everything. For me, the cars and technology are fascinating, and I love seeing the connection between (wo)man and machine. But the biggest part is the people, racing is a lifestyle and so much more than just a sport. You can be the most intense of rivals on the track, but the racing community as a whole is one big family that you travel across the country with from week to week, all sharing this one driving passion that fuels your soul (pun cheesily intended).
BS How do you deal with the sexism you encounter?
EO I've been around long enough to have run the full spectrum regarding sexism in motorsports, and through Horsepower & Heels, I've been able to talk to countless women who have shared a similar story about their own careers and experiences. What I've found, is that many of us go through cycles/stages in regards to this topic.
You start off as a young naive girl, with a big dream and lots of passion and fearless determination. Early on, you are met with the blatant sexist roadblocks of some really old school misogynistic men who will belittle you and try to undermine your confidence and resolve in motorsports. For me, I had comments thrown my way early on "Honey, do you even know where the gas pedal is on that thing?" and just really ridiculous statements that felt so unexpected in today's society. It was very surprising to learn that these type of opinions still existed, and that they were more prevalent that you'd ever think. Not only is your performance under a micro-scope that judges on a ruthless and unmatched benchmark, but so are your personal relationships, your dedication, your achievements - because they look for any reason to discredit your success as anything other than your own. "It must be her boyfriend's car"; "She must have slept her way into that driving position"; "She hasn't won a race yet as a rookie- she must not be able to cut it"
For many girls, this is the point where they develop a bit of a "Chip on the Shoulder" - or the overcompensating response that makes them feel they have to go out of their way to prove they are "one of the boys" and worthy of racing beside them. The tendency to denounce being a girl in favour of just being a racer, having to have this overly aggressive, tough-guy exterior all the time, and the general harsh attitude that many women adopt to be taken seriously in their sport.
I saw this in myself to a degree early in my career, and it led me to really stop and question what I was doing...because I really didn't understand why I felt this need all of a sudden to apologize for being a woman. And I certainly didn't feel like I should be forced to choose between being feminine and being a fierce competitor. Thus the idea: who says Horsepower & Heels don't mix?
When I stopped trying to be one of the boys just to compete with them, and instead embraced being a great racer AND being a proud woman - it really opened my doors to so much more. In racing and in life, too many women think that to succeed in a man's world, they have to become one of the boys. But embracing who I was - a powerful woman and competitive racer - and reaching out to other women sharing the unique experiences that being a woman in a male dominated sport, was much more rewarding and powerful than all of the time I wasted trying to "be one of the boys" to fit in. In business, they talk about the concept of "women leaning in" and I believe in motorsports, that same idea is key.
The long and hard-fought struggles are not without their battle scars though, as many of the women who have been in the sport for any length of time often cycle to a place of jadedness and burnout - myself included. Dealing with the public scrutiny, the very harsh catch-22 situations that don't afford women the opportunities they need to gain the experience necessary to compete with their male counterparts, and the ugly side that isn't discussed publicly - where people with bad intentions manipulate and prey on young ladies trying only to chase their dreams takes its toll. Much of it comes from the lack of a strong network of support for women- who could share their experiences and lessen the struggles for other young ladies entering the sport. That is the area I am so passionate about changing, because if the next young ladies can in any way benefit from my experiences and go father, then its a win for ALL women in motorsports.
BS Do you think the US is doing better than Europe in recruiting women racers?
EO I definitely think drag racing here in the US is, and I believe that may trump ALL other genres of motorsports in gender equality across the globe. Where other forms of motorsports are still awaiting their first female competitors in the top tier ranks, drag racing has elite women winning, and winning BIG in ALL of its ranks.
But, I have noticed more support and professionalism for women in motorsports internationally than I've seen or experienced here in the US at times. I've been really impressed with the organizations I've had the pleasure of connecting with and their initiatives to not just call for equality, but put measures in place to achieve it. The programs, the funding efforts, all seem to be more aligned with supporting women as a whole from the earliest stages. And that path, ultimately, may prove to be wildly more successful for the long term.
BS What can we expect to see from Horsepower Heels next year?
EO Horsepower & Heels is steadily growing, and working towards the ultimate mission of being a place that celebrates and promotes women in motorsports, and provides tools, education, opportunity and connections to help support females in the industry.
Next year, we hope to provide more and more coverage of the success of women in our sport, showcasing the talent and abilities of women. When you search "Women in Racing", my goal is to make stories like Erica Enders' dominant back-to-back championship season or Amy Ruman's record setting championship be the top results, and not all of the hottest women in racing lists that currently appear.
We plan to launch a Horsepower & Heels Power Hour webinar series that focuses on personal and professional development to help women in motorsports, where we bring in expert speakers to teach their best-practice strategies.
We also are working on a long-term plan to develop financial and sponsorship support for women in the sport, trusted services and providers that want to see and be a part of the success of women in racing.
BS Who will your workshops/webinars be open to?
EO Workshops and webinars will be open to female racers, crew members, and professionals in the industry or those aspiring to be in the industry.
BS What advice would you give to girls and women looking to pursue a career in motorsport?
EO Do one small thing, every day that gets you closer to your goal. Reach out to people you admire and ask them for their advice. The road to success isn't traveled alone, and enlisting the support of people you look up to will only help you better navigate your own path.