A proclaimed adrenaline junkie, Shea Holbrook began racing cars as a teenager. Born and raised in Florida, Shea’s racing career is a family business with her mom and dad supporting her every step of the way under their team, Shea Racing. In 2014, Shea was a recipient of the WSF Women in the Winner’s Circle Project Podium, a grant that serves female race car drivers from all forms of racing, including go kart, quarter midget, drag racing, sports car racing, oval track racing, etc. with financial support.
Shea lives by the quote “Fear is a state of mind; will is an action taken.” As a fierce competitor on the track, she genuinely shows that where there’s a will there’s a way. Shea recently took a detour from the asphalt to the Bonneville Salt Flats as a pace driver to help set a land speed bicycle record; WSF caught up with Shea to talk about her experience in Bonneville and why she so openly advocates for the WSF and its mission.
WSF: How did you get into race car driving?
Shea: I did not have the traditional story of getting into motorsports. I actually grew up a nationally ranked competitive water skier. The first 16 years of my life that is all I did. I lived, breathed, ate and slept waterskiing. One year at Nationals on my third jump I was cutting a lot harder than normal and I was very late coming into the ramp. I turned and hit the ramp and I had a really horrific accident and messed up my back.
My dad is an ex-Navy pilot and around that same time he was reconnected with one of his Navy buddies who is an amateur race car driver. We went to Daytona and I did a NASCAR experience. It’s called the Richard Petty Experience and I got to ride in that as a passenger and that was when I was like “holy cr*p, this is really cool.” I had never experienced anything like that before and I’ve always had a need for speed. I was really impressed with the driver’s intuitiveness. That’s how I got involved. It piqued my interest.
Before you knew it my dad and I are whispering in a corner about how this would be a lot of fun and we could race cars and it’d be like waterskiing except racing cars now. Not thinking we would do this professionally but really a hobby just for fun.
My dad bought himself a car and we were kind of tinkering around with that. He got his racing license before I did. Then one day another car shows up at the house. These were very beginner cars, nothing special about them other than the fact that they are race-equipped and safety-equipped. He told me that it was mine and that’s how I got my start in motorsports.
WSF: You recently were in Utah and drove the pace car that helped Denise Mueller set a women’s world record for fastest speed on a paced bicycle. How did you become a part of this endeavor?
Shea: Actually it’s kind of funny. I didn’t know anything about this until a friend of mine texted me saying I just met this individual who’s working with this woman who wants to set this land speed record on a bicycle, are you interested?
Denise and John Howard, her coach and the 1985 World Record holder, met way back bicycling on the beach somewhere. She was 14 and he was an Olympian at the time and he noticed she was drafting him and he saw something in her. He took her under his wing and she went on to become a downhill mountain bike champion.
Then years and years pass and she becomes a mother and she totally gets out of cycling. Then she decides to come back and she dominates again. One day, John asked Denise if she’d ever considered breaking his land speed record and says he thinks she could do it. So, that’s how it started.
Denise decided she wanted a female pacing driver and apparently my name came up on several occasions as they began to look for their driver. We eventually got connected and one day she called me. We just immediately connected the moment we spoke. It was like we had known each other for years and she asked me to be her pace driver. That’s how I got involved!
WSF: What did you find to be the biggest difference between driving the pace car and driving your race car when you compete?
Shea: There were a lot of differences. I knew getting into this that this was going to be unlike anything I had ever driven in the past. It was a Range Rover Sports SVR. The car was slightly modified for our purposes: exhaust pipes usually go out the back but that would have been right in her face so the exhaust pipe went out the side; the rev limiter was taken out and moved higher up so the car could obtain a higher rate of speed; the car was completely gutted so it was race car equipped to have a roll cage and a fire system; all the things necessary to make it a racing car, but really it’s still an SUV out in the Bonneville Salt Flats.
One of the biggest challenges really wasn’t the car, but that I’m an asphalt driver and we were driving on the Salt Flats, which can change by the minute. Factoring that in and preparing for that was a lot. I had to track a lot of different things from within the car, such as where Denise was, how fast did I need to be pulling her at certain points, what mile marker are we at and so much more. I was scanning six different instruments constantly to check everything. This was much more mentally draining and that’s what was primarily different from the world I’m used to of auto racing versus this kind of racing for a bicyclist’s land speed record.
WSF: How did you feel when you realized Denise had set that world record?
Shea: Without a doubt in my mind I knew that we were going to do something exceptional. I knew that we were going to reach a number that was going to be impressive. The first run was the best run and it went textbook perfect. We went 147mph flat and it was unbelievable. The emotions were really high and it felt very rewarding but then we just had low after low after low.
That same first day we had three aborted runs and on one I lost her at 135mph, which was terrifying because you’re flirting with a lot of risk. Then the second day the vehicle broke and the third day we had three terrible runs and then finally we had the hardest mental and physical run that we had had and we went 147.7mph. We looked at each other with just complete relief and it was very emotional for us because we were ‘we got it back.’
It was very rewarding because we worked so hard. It hit me before it hit her of what we had accomplished. The first run we did so well I was screaming. Also, I’m going to go ahead and say this, there is no reason why Guinness would not give us this record but it’s not official yet. The paperwork is still being filed. When it’s final we will let everyone know.
WSF: You have been traveling quite a bit lately, where has been your favorite place to visit these past few weeks?
Shea: Of course, Bonneville. My schedule is so crazy. I’ve been to a lot of different places in the last several weeks but Bonneville was one of those places that was very captivating and unique to me.
You’re driving in the middle of nowhere Utah and all of the sudden the environment and everything just starts to change color and now everything is white and it looks like snow. It’s like you are on a different planet. It’s just a very odd place visually.
For me, Bonneville is a place where you step foot on the salt and recognize there’s just so much history here. Being that I’m a motorsport junkie, the people that raced cars 75 years ago, and those types of cars, and the history that goes along with that is all so interesting.
Bonneville is known for its racing heritage. If you know the history going into it you can really appreciate that place. That is certainly the coolest place that I have gone to recently and I hope to be back next year.
WSF: Why is it important to you to support the Women’s Sports Foundation and to help give all girls and women access to sports and physical activity?
Shea: A lot of it goes back to me being a young woman in what is a very male-dominated industry. Ultimately, being a female in this industry helps from a media perspective and that’s about it. Otherwise, it’s actually harder because the microscope is on us a little bit more. I believe that women have come a long ways but I really have a problem with the way the media portrays things and we certainly still have further to go with women in sports.
With everyone at the Women’s Sports Foundation on the forefront and pushing this topic it stays relevant. I feel like even though people think, yes, women can succeed and go as far as men they don’t truly believe it. I don’t know when we are going to get to that point where everyone genuinely believes women can succeed just the same as men, but being a part of the WSF to help demonstrate to people how to walk the walk and talk the talk is so important. Women and girls need equal opportunities. I love the fact that the Women’s Sports Foundation does such a great job being a resource for people to come together and for being a support network. Being a part of something that’s bigger than me and bigger than my sport and something that represents women in sport worldwide, that is what I love about the WSF. It is so much bigger than your individual challenge.
Photo Credit: Cirrus Cycles Ranger Rob Photography