On Wednesday, February 28th, roughly thirty middle school girls from the Detroit International Academy for Young Women, assembled in their school’s auditorium for a surprise they won’t soon forget.

I got into racing when I was about 13-years-old. It started because I went to a random rental go-kart place … and I absolutely fell in love with it. I thought it was the best feeling in the whole entire world aved the competition.
Christina Nielsen

They had been told they were going to interact with a panel consisting of Comerica Bank senior vice president Monica Martinez, chairman of the Chevrolet Detroit Grand Prix presented by Lear Bud Denker, and International Motor Sports Association champion race car driver Christina Nielsen. The students were not aware, however, that they were also being invited on an exclusive field trip to the Grand Prix in June to see STEM lessons applied to racing.

The girls were also told that while they are at Belle Isle they will also visit Nielsen’s garage. “You’re gonna come to my team, and you’re gonna spend some time seeing what goes on behind the scenes, what our team does. I don’t want you to get discouraged by all the men because there’s a lot of men there,” said Nielsen, who knows firsthand how male-dominated this industry is having just become the first woman to win a major full-season sportscar championship in North America in 2016.

Nielsen expressed how important STEM is to racing, and encouraged the girls to focus on their education. “It can actually determine a race win. So yes, a lot of people on my team are men, but that doesn’t mean that couldn’t be you guys in the future.” But Nielsen isn’t all talk; she practices what she preaches and received a bachelor’s degree in Marketing and Communication’s Management. “I decided to go for that because I thought it was interesting, plus to be a racecar driver, to be the full package it’s not enough to just go fast in a car. Nowadays you wanna be a good brand representative… and being educated has definitely helped me in that department of what I do. And I think we can learn from every situation…so, always be open to taking in new knowledge.”

When the conversation steered to the importance of having role models, Nielsen wanted to impress upon the students that they have another strong female role model in Martinez. “You guys could also be in the future…representing a company that’s going to be so kind to sponsor this event. So, you’re going to bring this kind of representation [to] girls in the future,” said Nielsen.

Martinez, who explained that being able to provide this opportunity to the girls is important to Comerica because of their dedication to investing in the future, told them that when she was their age she had no clue what she wanted to be. “I didn’t know, and originally I was going to be a teacher. And it was through opportunities like this where people came and spoke at my school that I decided I was going to go into international business,” said Martinez. She told the girls that people discouraged her because of the dangers of international travel for women. “But that didn’t stop me or deter me,” she said. As Denker puts it, having role models like Nielsen and Martinez proves how effort and perseverance pay off, “We call it at Pensky: effort equals results,” he said. Neilsen adds, “Be your own role model. Set expectations that you want to live up to, not just what you see other people do.”

To shake things up a, the girls were also fired a few quiz questions by Denker such as, “If Christina’s racecar goes five miles-per-gallon and she has one and a half gallons in her tank, how many miles will she go?” After some hushed whispering and a few wrong answers, seven and a half was called and the girl who answered, as well as a few other girls who answered other questions correctly, was rewarded with a Verizon IndyCar Series die-cast model car.

When the conversation returned to serious talk, Nielsen told the girls about her start in racing. “I got into racing when I was about 13-years-old,” very close to these girls age. “It started because I went to a random rental go-kart place. I went and drove one of those, and I absolutely fell in love with it. I thought it was the best feeling in the whole entire world and I loved the competition.” Nielsen also said, even though her parents didn’t introduce her to racing, they were her biggest supporters and raised her with the mentality that ‘there’s nothing you can’t do.’ “So, racing was no different for me. Even though it was filled with boys, it didn’t matter. I wanted to do it, so I did it.”

To drive the point home, Neilsen asked the group if they have ever been told there’s something they can’t do. When one girl said dace and another said rap, Neilsen replied, “Do you like to rap? Does it influence you when people tell you can’t do it? Yeah? You should do it anyway. See I drive racecars because I think it’s fun. I don’t do it because someone told me I should or because someone told me I couldn’t. It’s because I like to do it. And you like to dance, you like to rap, so do it.”

When they opened the discussion for questions, several students raised their hands. They asked questions like, what kind of training does Nielsen do to get ready for the racing season, what kind of safety features are in her car, and does she feel any added pressure being a woman in a male-dominated sport? To the last question, Nielsen responded that she does, but not as much as from other sources. “Social media puts a lot more pressure on young girls.” She also talked about the power of words and the mentality behind the way you say something, “When you say to do something like a girl…it actually means that you do it bad because you do it like a girl. It’s not nice to say that just because you’re bad at something it’s because you’re a girl you must be bad at it. Are you more of a boy or a man if you do well at it? I don’t think so; I think we can be good at it and be women.”

The assembly concluded with several girls from the robotics team, the Pink Panthers, presenting and demonstrating the award-winning robot they built from scratch, Ms. Packwoman. As they wrapped up with some final group photos, everyone was looking forward to June 1st when they would see Nielsen again, this time on her turf.