The Fast Lane: NASCAR Driver Renee Dupuis
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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.
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.