The Fast Lane: NASCAR Driver Renee Dupuis
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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.”