The Fast Lane: NASCAR Driver Renee Dupuis

 

Jim Cune

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 only thing I fear more than driving is driving fast. I remember the first time I sat behind the wheel to drive around town with my dad. We drove in a circle: down Greenacres, across Walworth, and back up Brayton. My hands were sweaty, tingling, and my heart beat so thunderously I thought I must have been nearing 50 mph. The speedometer revealed I was flirting with 15. I stayed away from driving after that, in part because pushing down the accelerator made me feel like I was riding some runaway roller coaster. (I don’t ride those either.)

I am, in other words, exactly the sort of driver Renee hates. She doesn’t understand bad drivers the same way she doesn’t understand people who grip the wheel with two hands. She’s willing to forgive old grandmothers and young students, but for the rest, she has little patience: “Oh my God,” I’ve heard her mutter, “Where did you learn to drive?” When she gets on a highway, she immediately flicks the left turn signal so she can get into the fast lane, where she won't be held back more than she has to. I avoid highways at all costs.

Once, shortly after acquiring my license, I found myself, quite accidentally, on Interstate 376. I’d missed a left turn at an intersection, the road had suddenly widened, and the cars around me had picked up speed. I started talking to myself. Everything will be okay, I said. Everythingwillbeokay everythingwillbeokay.

I pulled over onto the shoulder and put my car into park, watching as cars whizzed by. That’s when I remembered something I’d learned in driver’s ed: the shoulder is the deadliest part of a highway, deadlier than the fast lane. Then another thought: Would I die here, another faceless victim of the little-known deadliness of shoulders? Would I be stuck forever beside this multicolored river of Toyotas and Volvos and Nissans, never to return home to my family?

After five minutes or maybe twenty (I lost count along with my sanity), I took a deep breath, counted back from ten, and re-entered the right lane, driving as slowly as I could until, finally, I saw an exit and took it. My hands didn’t stop shaking until I got home.  

Incidentally, I aced my road test. My examiner had only one negative thing to say: “Ease up on the brakes, darling.”

*

Renee’s garage smells of gasoline, metal, must, horses, and hay, the last two because the garage is attached to a stable of seven horses. (General Granite, alias “Gnat,” a stately bay Hanoverian, is a favorite.) The stable and the garage are nestled at the bottom of the driveway, part of the family-owned farm operated by Renee’s parents, David and Kathe. They named it Race Hill Farm, appropriate because despite the horses and the occasional llama, the heart of the farm has long been Renee’s garage, her home for sixty hours every week of the season.

Renee shares the racing gene with her father, who gave up competing at Connecticut's Stafford Motor Speedway to support her career, and her brother, Jason, who serves now as her crew chief. They feature prominently in the photos that line the garage walls; her favorite is a faded one in the right corner, taken at the old family gas station—she's about 6, lanky and blonde, perched on the trunk of her father’s racecar in shorts and a striped tank top. She’s smiling up at David, who’s leaning on the car beside her, hands clasped across his waist, head tilted toward his daughter. In the foreground is Renee’s own tiny pink racecar, less than one-quarter the size of her father’s behemoth. Both cars bear the same number, 90, which Renee keeps to this day.

In photos and outside of them, Renee is one of the guys. She’s most comfortable in jeans, a gray sweatshirt, and, when it’s cold, a black-and-blue windbreaker. She’s pretty, with deep-set blue eyes and a dimpled smile, but she doesn’t flaunt it. Tonight, she has tied her dirty blonde hair in a ponytail and under a men’s sports cap. She never wears dresses, and she hates heels (“I’d rather be in my racing shoes,” she says). It comes as no surprise that most of Renee’s friends are men. She just feels more comfortable around them.

Renee likes to say she was born without the gene that makes you want children, but it seems to me she already has two, and they sit in the center of the garage, pampered and well-groomed. One has been stripped to its chassis and covered with a beige sheet, but the car that bears her father’s number is in the open—palatinate blue with a solid red frame, and covered with dozens of corporate stickers —Mobil, Coors Light, Mechanix Wear. Her cars are sleek, light, and fast, clocking up to about 160 mph.

Renee knows everything about her cars—how to change a tire, how to adjust the shocks and springs, how to dismantle the rear with a ¾-inch wrench. This wasn’t always the case. One night in high school, she was watching Jason fix up his car in the garage when he asked for her help. She balked. He looked at her in disbelief and said just because you’re a girl doesn’t mean you can’t learn how to work with cars. And from then on, she did. She likes to say that even though she has a crew of six or seven guys who are trained engineers, she has never asked them to do anything she couldn’t do herself.

Seeing Renee in charge rubs some men the wrong way. When Renee talks about these men—like a mechanic she hired in 2010—she grimaces. She remembers one night in her garage, watching him reconfigure the car’s rear hub assembly. He’d forgotten to screw one of the parts tightly in place, but when she confronted him, he was belligerent, yelling that he’d done nothing wrong. “I could’ve told him anything, nice as pie, and there would’ve been resistance just because I’m not a guy,” she says. “As soon as Jason stepped in and told him he was wrong, he was okay with that.

“It’s my frickin’ ass in that racecar, my safety on the line,” she says, her voice rising over the hum of the radiator. “If I want to double-check someone’s work because I’m concerned for my own safety, you bet I’ll do that. Whether I’m right or I’m wrong, you’ve got to give me some respect. I don’t care how tough it is on a guy’s ego.”

 

 

Renee has said some men can be assholes. If the history of female drivers is any indication, she may have a point.

In 1914, Motor magazine sponsored an essay contest to answer the question: “Do Women Make Good Drivers?” In response, one S.P. Foster, of Elmer, New Jersey, wrote that women were no more fit to operate automobiles than they were to pilot ships or command armies. At least it wasn’t their fault. “They were born that way,” he wrote. Chivalrously, he continued:

Believing them to be unfitted mentally and physically to operate motor cars safely under varying conditions of traffic, we would use our good offices to persuade them to keep away from the steering-wheel and, instead, to sit in the machine where they can tell us how to operate the car. They enjoy that better than running a car themselves, and we want them to have the biggest share of the pleasure of automobiling.

Men even had some women convinced. Female Motor columnist Margaret R. Burlingame wrote in 1913 that the average woman’s mind was not “trained to quick action,” unable to deal with speed or to make snap decisions to avoid a crash. (I want to be outraged, and I am, but these descriptions are a little too close for comfort.)

Automobile producers began to realize they couldn’t afford to ignore women forever and began marketing their cars to the fairer sex, but only the models deemed slower and more ladylike. Around 1910, the Anderson Electric Car Company advertised their slow and clunky Detroit electric car as the perfect choice for the well-bred woman. Who needs speed when you can have elegance and comeliness and, as one ad suggested, a car that allows you to keep your “toilet immaculate” and your “coiffure intact”?

Needless to say, female racecar drivers were a rare species. The best-known woman speedster of the early 1900s was the wealthy Joan Newton Cuneo of Long Island. Driving a gasoline-powered touring car, Joan won multiple track races between 1905 and 1909 and then broke several speed records at the Mardi Gras races in New Orleans. But when the American Automobile Association banned women from competing in their races, effectively ending her career, Joan did nothing. “Would that I could cultivate some suffragette tendencies and fight for my rights,” she said. “But I can’t, having instead always tried to keep the woman’s end in automobiling sweet, clean, and refined. I drive and race just for the love of it.”

Fast-forward about a hundred years. Women can drive, vote, and compete in the Indy 500. There have been a whole slew of successful female racers—Janet Guthrie, Shawna Robinson, Danica Patrick—though it seems troubling that a quick Google search for “female racecar drivers” mainly turns up hits like “The Top 15 Hottest Female Racecar Drivers” and “The 20 Sexiest Women of the Racing World.” Women seem to inhabit a liminal space on the track, sometimes legitimate competitors but often sex symbols—or cute props.

In the 1960s, CBS aired a television show called “Wacky Races,” in which cartoon racers competed to become the World’s Wackiest Racer. The lone female, Penelope Pitstop, was a Southern belle who drove a fancy pink convertible—the Compact Pussycat—that doubled as a beauty parlor. She would stop during races to primp her hair or touch-up her mascara, but the men, being gallant, usually allowed her to win anyway.

Renee has not found all NASCAR men to be as courteous. Some offer their help only because they want to ask her out (she usually says no). Others hate that she’s good enough to beat them. Once, she was qualifying for a race at Thompson International Speedway in Thompson, finishing up two solo laps against the clock that would determine her starting spot. When she stepped out of her car, she saw that she was ranked first. The next competitor, an alpha male, turned to his crew chief and said, “If I don’t beat her score, you can take the seat out of my car.” Two laps later, he was seatless—and pissed.

“The funny thing is this sort of stuff happens all the time,” she says. “The attitude really gets to me.”

It is not until much later that Renee reveals she once dated a fellow NASCAR competitor—a long and mostly happy relationship that lasted 12 years. They were engaged to be married for four of those, but he always put off discussing the wedding. One night, he collected all her things from his place and brought them to hers, and that was it.

Now Renee is with Ed Bennett, a 53-year-old man who owns racecars she drives. He lets her take care of the cars as she sees fit; he doesn’t question her expertise. And he knows his stuff, too. The first time they met, he offered her some advice: set up your chassis differently, he said, and your car will run faster. At first Renee was skeptical, she barely knew him, but she took his advice, and her car immediately picked up speed. Months later, they began to date.

 

 

The funny thing about speed in a racecar is that you don’t feel it when you’re racing around the track. Racecars are built without speedometers; the only speed that matters is how fast you get to the finish line. The only time you feel how fast you’ve been going is when you come to a sudden stop, usually an accident, with massive inertia propelling you forward.

Every driver has an accident story, and Renee’s is from 2001, at the Stafford Motor Speedway. She’d just come off a turn when the car nearest her drifted to the right, tires colliding with Renee’s and launching her car straight into the air. Seconds later, it landed on its nose at the base of the track wall, teetering for a moment before falling atop another vehicle. The next thing Renee remembers is that she was barely conscious, trying to escape from a crushed car that was on fire—flames dancing around the wheels and smoke billowing into the clear April sky.

She broke nearly every bone in her left foot and lost significant amounts of tissue in her left knee and femur, but after four surgeries and months of recovery, she headed straight back to the track.

Renee appears to belong to that strange breed of person who is not afraid of anything, not even death. You can’t be afraid of dying if you want to be a racecar driver, she says, just as you can’t be afraid of water if you want to be a swimmer. Almost every racetrack has known death, some more than others. Renee has seen two racers die firsthand, both at the same track in Thompson. The first was August 19, 2004, when Tom Baldwin’s car crashed into a concrete block in the infield; the second was August 16, 2007, when John Blewett III’s car crashed into another. Renee continued to race.

If I had to guess, though, I’d say there is something Renee fears, something like the absence of speed. She is happiest when she is moving, striving, achieving—when she’s setting and exceeding what once seemed like impossible goals. What motivates her is simpler than a desire to prove herself in a man’s world, although that’s part of it; it’s a desire to become the best possible version of herself. It explains why she’s so uncomfortable in the off-season, so unwilling to take time off, and why this winter instead of relaxing she’s took up dressage and formulated more rigorous workouts at a local Gold’s gym.

It may also explain why Renee has been unhappy recently in her other job at the Boilermakers Northeast Area Apprenticeship Program in East Hartford. She’s been working there since high school, but has remained a sort of glorified secretary. It’s a field, like racing, dominated by men. For now, she’s stuck where she is.

Her schedule, perhaps fortunately, leaves little time for thoughts like these. She wakes up, drives to work, goes to the gym during lunch, finishes work, drives home, rides Gnat, and completes an hour of cardio before bed. If there’s leftover time, which there usually isn’t, she’ll do her laundry or make lunch for the next day. Then she’ll try to sleep—she suffers from chronic insomnia—and do it all again come morning.

At 41 (though she looks 30), Renee would be washed up if she were a basketball player or an Olympic swimmer. Racecar drivers last a long time. Still, she’ll have to retire from racing within ten years. This is a sobering thought, but not one to which she gives much time. She’ll probably stick around the racing world in some form, but she’s not making plans just yet. She’ll keep on moving until she gets there.

*

At times, talking to Renee, I wonder if I should try harder to overcome my fear of driving. Until now, I’ve never wondered whether something was wrong with the fact that my younger brother got his driver’s license before I did or that when we go on family trips, my father’s always the one to drive. There probably isn’t. My dad and brother just happen to be the better drivers.

Still.

The next time I’m in the car, I quietly offer to take the wheel. I can feel my hands start to shake, small tremors that make my fingers light and tingly. I think of Tom Baldwin and John Blewett III and consider rescinding my offer, but we’re in the merging lane now and it’s too late and I have to push down, harder, on the accelerator—and cars are everywhere and everything is happening at once. I want to stop but this time I remember the shoulder is unsafe and so I stay on the road.

Then I remember Renee’s mantra—"There’s no room for fear in the car"—and for a moment, I think that might be true. I feel myself breathe more deeply and the cars around me seem to slow. In that moment, just for that moment, I let myself go. The speedometer climbs steadily rightward.

 

The Fast Lane: NASCAR Driver Renee Dupuis

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