NASCAR's First Arab-American Female Pro is Giving the Sport a Much-Needed Makeover
As the daughter of a Lebanese war refugee who moved to America in search of a better life, Toni Breidinger is no stranger to (fearlessly) breaking new ground. In addition to being one of the winningest female race car drivers in the country, at just 21 years old, she became the first female Arab-American female pro to compete in a major NASCAR race this past February.
"[My mom] is my biggest inspiration," explains Breidinger. "Despite everything that happened to her in her childhood, she worked hard to move to America and create her own life out here." (Related: World Champion Gymnast Morgan Hurd is the Definition of Determination and Resilience)
That perseverance played a key role in shaping Breidinger's particularly ambitious nature, she explains — a trait apparent from a young age. Breidinger, who first set her sights on going pro at only 9 years old, started racing competitively in her early teens in her hometown of Hillsborough, Calif. She began on short tracks with open-wheel cars (where the wheels lie outside of the car's body), quickly graduating to stock cars (where the wheels fall inside the car's body) at local racing tracks. (Stock cars are what you typically see in professional NASCAR races, FYI.)
Then, at just 21 years old, Breidinger suited up for one of the most coveted events for racing pros across the country: the ARCA Menards Series season-opener at Daytona International Speedway in Florida.
"Daytona didn't feel real," Breidinger recalls, noting that there was a significant amount of media coverage and fanfare surrounding the race, factors that added to her already-high nerves. "It was a surreal experience."
Despite what a high-pressure situation Daytona was, Breidinger showed up to compete, placing 18th out of 34 drivers. "I wanted to get [in] the top 20, which we did." she explains.
That impressive placement also meant that Breidinger would make history as the first-ever Arab-American female driver to compete in a NASCAR event — a fact that brought forth mixed feelings for the (now) 22-year-old. "It was cool to be the first, but I don't want to be the last," Breidinger adds. (Related: Arab-Owned Beauty Brands That Are Innovative AF)
Breidinger hopes that her competing in a traditionally white, male-dominated sport (with a particularly controversial past) will help change the face of NASCAR. "When people see someone like them [competing], it helps the sport progress and have more diversity," she says. "You need to bring awareness to force change."
Despite understanding the significance that her background brings to NASCAR, Breidinger doesn't want to be seen as different once the helmet slides on and she steps into her car. "I don't want to be treated differently because I'm a female," she notes.
Another misconception surrounding racing that Breidinger is bent on breaking? The skill and athleticism required to maneuver a (sometimes unbearably hot) vehicle moving at lightning-fast speeds.
"Racing is intense," she emphasizes. "The cars are heavy, so you need good cardio and strength to react fast. If there's a split-second where you're unfocused, that'll be you going into a wall or wrecking."
As for Breidinger's future in racing, her goals are two-fold. First, she's got her sights set on the NASCAR Cup Series (the top-level racing event for pros, according to Breidinger).
The second goal? Drive even more diversity in her sport. "NASCAR is changing a lot," Breidinger explains. "If I can help inspire anyone, or help them go through the ranks of NASCAR, I want to help. I want people to know that females can dominate in this sport and do well."
This story originally appeared on shape.com