The Fast Lane: NASCAR Driver Renee Dupuis

 

Jim Cune

(page 1 of 4)

The first time I meet Renee Dupuis, she’s driving a black Buick—a Carbon Black Metallic 2011 Buick Enclave, to be precise. It’s the sort of SUV you’d expect a mom to drive to soccer practice—nothing fast, nothing sexy. Inside her perfectly normal car, Renee seems like a perfectly normal driver. She’s following road signs, she’s stopping when the lights are red, and she’s accelerating, very gently, when they turn green. She seems bored. She drives with one hand, the other fiddling with the radio knobs or holding her cell phone or drumming on her right knee.

Renee is not, in fact, a perfectly normal driver. You wouldn’t know unless you happen to catch her daydreaming, her dark blue eyes glazing over as she kicks into autopilot, the arrow on the speedometer climbing steadily rightward, hitting 30 mph, then 40… 50… 65... This is Renee in her element, speeding smoothly along the curvy back roads of Glastonbury, the small river town where she has spent her life. When there are no other cars on the road, Renee could coast like this forever (or at least until the next stop sign). That’s why she hates big cities: too many drivers, too much traffic, and too much time stuck behind people who drive too frickin’ slow.

Renee was not built to drive a boring black Buick on the back roads of Glastonbury or anywhere else. But the NASCAR racing season starts in late March, which means her two racecars are hibernating in her garage-cum-workshop, one taken apart so thoroughly that only the skeleton of its frame remains until she rebuilds it in the spring. She is stuck with the Buick for the long winter, so she makes do with a few moments of reverie, those few moments she allows herself to accelerate, imagining, perhaps, that she’s crossing the finish line on a banked track to jubilant cheers.

This sort of daydream is not fantastical. Renee, now 41, has raced cars for almost as long as she’s been alive. When she was just a year old, her father placed a tiny electric ladybug-shaped car under the family’s Christmas tree. Reasonably certain that a baby who had just learned to walk wouldn’t know how to steer the wheel or operate the vehicle, her parents turned their attention elsewhere. A few moments later, they heard a crash and found Renee covered in tinsel and ornaments: she’d driven the ladybug straight into the tree. By age 5, she had graduated from her toy bug to a miniature blue and gray racecar, competing in the Quarter Midget racing division for kids up to age 15. Her best friend on the circuit was another little girl named Jennifer and, for a while, they were so close they refused to pass each other on the track. That phase didn’t last long: over the next few years, Renee accumulated enough trophies to line a full wall of her garage.

After graduating from UConn, Renee began focusing on her racing career full-time, competing on the NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour and, during a regular season, running anywhere from five to 14 races on tracks along the East Coast. In 1999, she became the first woman to win a NASCAR race at the now-defunct Riverside Park Speedway in Agawam, Mass. Her remarkable victory was chronicled the following year in two sports exhibits at The Women’s Museum, a Smithsonian affiliate in Dallas. That was her favorite race; she keeps a fragment of the Riverside track in a glass case on the left wall of her garage, alongside tickets, receipts, and other memorabilia from that day.

As we round the curves en route to Renee’s garage, I joke that she must have had an easy time passing her road test. She laughs sheepishly and offers a surprising confession: she actually came this close to failing. The driving instructor who administered her test in Wethersfield said she was cutting her left turns too sharply—the sort of move that speeds you up on the track but can be dangerous on the road. "Another sharp left and you’ll fail," her proctor warned her, lips pursed. At that point, Renee had been driving on back roads with her dad for almost four years and in racecars for almost 12.

Renee still cuts her lefts a little too sharply; she can’t help it. She was built to race. “It gets in your blood,” she says, “and you just can’t get away from it.”

 

The Fast Lane: NASCAR Driver Renee Dupuis

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