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Peter Cheney's daughter Catie with instructor Gerry Low at Cayuga raceway. (Peter Cheney/The Globe and Mail)
Peter Cheney's daughter Catie with instructor Gerry Low at Cayuga raceway. (Peter Cheney/The Globe and Mail)

Road Rush

Girl power: My mild-mannered daughter releases her inner driver Add to ...

Since I grew up rebuilding engines and dreaming about Formula One, I assumed that my kids would, too. Wrong. My wife’s genes apparently prevailed, yielding two non-gearhead offspring.

My son’s interest in cars is limited to driving them (and not that well, considering the time he launched a Porsche through our garage door). But compared to our daughter Catie, he was an all-out enthusiast – she didn’t even want to drive. She was perfectly happy with her bicycle and the bus.

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Many kids count down the days until their 16th birthday, like prisoners awaiting release. Not Catie. Only this spring (after turning 25 and earning two university degrees) did she decide that it was time to get her licence.

I found it amazing that she didn’t care about driving. But Catie had different priorities – she focused on her education, her friends and her work life. (She’s a swimming instructor, a lifeguard, and now, a newly minted elementary teacher). It was the last part that got her interested in driving – if she got job at a far-flung school, she’d be like an astronaut without a rocket.

It was time for an accelerated learning program that would turn my urban daughter into a driver. I sent Catie to driving school, then spent several weeks coaching her in the car. But Catie still wasn’t very interested in driving – if she had her choice, she’d take a bicycle or get a ride from her boyfriend.

And yet she knew that she had to get interested. Driving is a serious business that should be done well or not at all. (In 2008, more than 2,700 people died on Canada’s roads.) Then I ran into Anna He, a young racer and driving instructor who runs an operation called Sweetie Girl Racing. Anna had a race car with pink logos, and she wasn’t much older than my daughter. Maybe she could turn my daughter on to the world of driving. “Bring her out to the track,” Anna said. “We’ll get her going.”

It was time for some girl power.

Looking back at the development of my two children, I realized that there had been a distinct, gender-based divide when it came to driving: My son wanted to get his licence as soon as he turned 16, and took to driving with the same enthusiasm that he brought to sports (but maybe not with quite the same skill). My daughter could care less – her interest in driving was approximately equal to my interest in crocheting (i.e. nil).

Although I know some excellent women drivers, the vast majority of car enthusiasts are male. I wondered why. Unlike football or hockey, driving is an activity where men and women should be on an equal footing – it’s about skill, not strength, and women often learn new skills better than men. Plus, they fit in racecar cockpits better. Despite all this, there's only a handful of successful women racers.

But it wasn’t hard to see why my daughter had never been attracted to racing. Almost everyone in the sport was male, the engines were loud, and Catie was a true girly-girl. When she was little, I tried to get her to play with toy dump trucks and slot cars, but she ignored them and went straight to Barbie dolls. (By the time she was 10, our family room was a Barbie shrine, with enough dolls, outfits and accessories to fill a trailer.) As she grew older, her disinterest in machinery continued. When I gave her a Lego set to build a dune buggy, she used the parts to make a princess castle instead.

As Catie entered her late teens, only a handful of her female friends knew how to drive. Growing up in downtown Toronto, these girls could get around without driving, and vehicles weren’t part of their social circle. (There are several families in our neighbourhood who don’t even own a car.)

Catie’s first session with Sweetie Girl was this spring. (She didn’t even have her full licence yet.) Anna picked her up and drove her to Cayuga raceway, in the farm country south of Hamilton. When she came back, I could see a difference. Catie had more confidence, and she was smoother. But more than anything, she realized that you don’t have to be male to be a great driver. Anna was a girlie-girl, and she liked cars. Catie had seen that the two were not exclusive.

For the first time, I saw a glimmer of excitement about driving. This was good. Driving is a risky activity, and training improves your chances of survival. I wanted my daughter to be an excellent driver, not just someone who could pass the ministry test.

This past weekend, Catie returned to Cayuga with Sweetie Girl for round two of her training – classroom sessions and fast lapping that would teach her the fundamentals of performance driving. I watched Catie as the instructors taught her the optimum line through corners and showed her how to balance the car with throttle, steering and brakes.

For the first hour or so, she struggled. But by lunchtime she was doing much better. And by the afternoon, she was driving the track really well, making smooth, instinctive corrections. Then it was time for something new – a ride with a really fast female driver. Catie went out for some laps with Dr. Louisa Gembora, a psychologist and racecar driver.

This was the fastest my daughter had ever gone in a car, and she watched in amazement as Louisa blasted through the corners, calmly working the controls as the car slid toward the edge of the track. Catie did some more laps with Gerry Low, one of Sweetie Girl’s head instructors, and she was faster than before – Louisa had shown her just how far a car could be pushed.

At the end of the day, my daughter was tired but happy. She’d driven fast and survived, and she knew a lot more about handling a car than before. It was time for the ultimate test – driving home on the Gardiner Expressway.

Until now, my daughter had always turned the wheel over to someone else for highway driving. She asked what it would be like. “No big deal,” I said.

The Gardiner was at its worst. There were speeders. There were weavers. There were tailgaters. Traffic was heavy. But my daughter handled it perfectly. “It doesn’t feel fast any more,” she said.

Mission accomplished. My urban girl is a driver now.

For more from Peter Cheney, go to facebook.com/cheneydrive (No login required!)

Twitter: Peter Cheney@cheneydrive

E-mail: pcheney@globeandmail.com

Globe and Mail Road Rush archive: http://www.theglobeandmail.com/globe-drive/car-life/cheney/

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