Shifting Gears

It didn’t take long for Straus—4’9, 13 years old, and a woman—to realize she didn’t fit into racing’s most common demographic. She says a comment from a well-meaning instructor almost made her quit.

Aurora E. Straus ’22 hears music from the engines of her race cars.

Straus—a folk musician, avid reader, physics enthusiast, and the only professional teenage female sports car racer in the country—was born with perfect pitch. “Literally, she came out of the womb, before she could even move her tongue, she would...” Her mother, Molly McCoy Straus, breaks off her sentence to hum the tune of the alphabet song, mimicking her infant daughter. “Before she could even roll over, she was humming.”

Thirteen years later, as she sat behind the wheel of a race car, Straus was humming again—this time, to a different tune. As a new racer, she memorized the notes that the engine of her car made, and then used the pitches of the engine’s sounds to know when to switch gears.

“I could tell you, for example, that shifting from third to fourth gear in an older Mazda is a C-sharp,” she says. “For a really long time, until I got comfortable in cars, I would hum a C-sharp to myself while I was waiting for the engine to reach that point, and then as it matched my pitch I would shift.”

When Straus walks into the café in Harvard Square where we’re meeting, she tells me she’s just driven three hours from her home in Cold Spring, N.Y., where she stayed for about 14 hours. “I did laundry, I slept in my own bed, I packed my bags, and then I came here,” she says. After visiting Cambridge for the weekend, she will fly straight to Virginia for her next race.

Though Straus is most famous today for her success in racing, becoming a race car driver was never part of the plan. As a child, her talents lay in school and music. She loved to read, citing as her favorites books the Harry Potter series and “The Handmaid’s Tale”—she read the same copy that her mother had annotated in college. She sang and played instruments, sticking to some (piano, guitar) and merely dabbling in others (flute, cello). Her first guitar teacher, Kathleen H. Pemble, says she was writing complete songs by age 12.

Then Straus tried racing.

“She was just this quiet little folk singer, good student person—and then she turned into a beast in the car,” Molly says. “It was completely unexpected.”

Straus attributes her success on the racetrack more to hard work than any freakish natural talent. She first sat in the driver’s seat of a sports car because she and her father, himself an amateur racer, wanted her to learn basic driving safety. She calls the first time she went over 100 miles per hour her “eureka moment.”

“I knew I was going to continue racing after I went out on the track that one time,” she says. “Just because you fall in love with the adrenaline of it, the speed of it, the power of having control of something that could kill you. It’s a huge adrenaline rush knowing that you have the power to manipulate machinery like that. It’s terrifying and exciting.”

But when Straus enrolled in racing school, she wasn’t top of her class for the first time in her life. She recalls being the slowest of the 30 students in the school. Her father, Ari Straus, explains that she lacked “instinct for the strategy of racing.”

It didn’t take long for Straus—4’9, 13 years old, and a woman—to realize she didn’t fit into racing’s most common demographic. She says a comment from a well-meaning instructor almost made her quit.

“He told me that he just doesn’t think I have it, and it might not be my fault—just because I’m a girl, and I may never be able to have the guts and the technical skillset and the physical strength that I need to excel in the race car,” she says.

Straus eventually did develop the strength and technique necessary for success by approaching racing, Molly says, “more cerebrally and less recklessly.” She memorized the notes of her engine. She used calculus to determine ideal lap times. She honed her strategy for what her father likens to a “game of chess,” and she learned how to keep her cool.

“The [cars] are very physical and it’s very tough on your body. It’s very hard to just even keep your focus of hanging onto the car. It sort of beats you up,” says her coach and manager Nicolas P. “Nick” Longhi. “She is very calm in that situation. In the middle of so many things going on that are so wild, I can talk to her on the radio, and while a lot of people are panicking and getting out of breath, she calmly answers, ‘Okay.’” He laughs.

Straus insists that the vast majority of people in the racing industry don’t treat her differently because of her gender. “I want no business in victimizing myself. I want to be treated and analyzed as any other racer would be. I won my first professional race a couple of weeks ago. That, to me, speaks way more about my career than the fact that that guy at one point five or six years ago told me that I couldn’t hack it because I was a girl,” she says.

Still, while she’s happy to brush off instances of sexism directed at her—fellow racers calling her names, a race owner once suggesting that she might get more press if she wore a tank top rather than a fireproof Nomex undersuit—she refuses to ignore many young girls’ preconceived notions.

“I’ve met at least 100 girls at this point who have come up to me and said, verbatim, ‘I didn’t know girls were allowed to race,’” Straus says. “The word ‘allowed’ terrifies me.”

She says part of the reason why she still races professionally is because “it’s fun as hell,” but she is primarily motivated by these girls. “If it’s not my responsibility to reach out to [them] and tell them they’re capable of doing this, then whose responsibility is it?”

When Straus won her first professional race a few weeks ago, 40 girl scouts sat in the audience watching her. They went on the podium with her, sprayed sparkling cider (non-alcoholic—she’s not yet 21), and took turns holding the trophy. “She’s like Cinderella: Small children and animals love to follow her around,” Molly says.

“That’s 90 percent of racing for me at this point,” Straus says. “How many girls can I reach out to, how many of them can get involved, so that 10 years from now, we’re not talking about how racing is a male-dominated sport. We’re just talking about how she is as a racer.”

–Magazine writer Nina H. Pasquini can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @nhpasquini.