Written by Janece Shaffer Tuesday, October 16 2012
It was late afternoon, and PTA President Pattie Mayer was driving afternoon carpool when she got pulled over by an Atlanta police officer for going 10 miles over the speed limit. When the officer approached her “Mommy van,” the chorus of young boys in the back proudly announced to the officer, “My Mom’s a race car driver.” “She’s a race car driver!” Pattie quickly hushed the boys, but they continued in their excitement. Finally, the officer leaned in on one arm, lowered his glasses and explained, “Boys, my wife thinks she’s a race car driver, too.”
But the rub is Pattie Mayer is a professional driver, and you are just as likely to find her strapped into a Porsche 911 – Ray-Bans and Nomex fire suit in place – driving at speeds of 140 mph, as you are to find her in carpool line. In addition to participating in races throughout the country, Mayer is a driving instructor at the renowned Porsche Sport Driving School in Birmingham, Ala.
Mayer, the oldest of three and raised in Ohio, was part of a racing family.
“There was no Disneyland for us,” she explains. “We traveled all over the U.S. going to racetracks because my father was very involved with BMW.”
Mayer’s father was a professional racer, but he wasn’t the only one behind the wheel.
“My Mom used to do ice racing – when you drive on a track with the cones against the clock. She would compete against other women, and she was just fearless.” Fearless on and off the track, as Mayer's mother would load up the family’s Coachman van on her own and tow a race car across the U.S., over mountains and through snow.
“Her attitude was always, I got this. I don’t need your dad to do this. I got it.”
Mayer may have gotten her can-do attitude from her mother, but what got her behind the wheel was her father.
“I was so enamored with my father, so eager for his attention and approval that I was always in the garage with him working on cars. I got into motor racing because that was what my dad did. ”
Mayer was 16 when she entered her first autocross race.
“I was scared to death. My heart was pounding so loudly that I could hear it in my ears. My left foot was on the clutch, and it was shaking – the rest of me was steady but my foot…”
Three minutes later she completed the race and changed the course of her life.
“The rush, the sense of accomplishment that I felt when I got out of the car was unbelievable and then interacting with my mom and my dad. I thought, ‘That was impossible, and I just did it!’ That is what has kept me going all this time. The accomplishment is such a high.“
In addition to racing, Mayer went on to complete a degree in occupational therapy. After graduating and landing her first job, she bought her first race car.
“I bought a BMW, and we gutted it – tore everything out of it. Three of us, including my father, rebuilt the whole car. We painted it white with a classic motor-sport flag on the back, and I named the car Geronimo.”
She sold Geronimo a few years later when she moved up the ranks and “people paid me to drive other cars.”
Now in her late 30s and mother to Matthew (age 10) and Tyler (age 8), Mayer reflects on how racing has provided her the flexibility she’s needed to have “all the pieces.” Her mother gave up racing when Mayer was born, but Pattie raced until she could no longer zip the fire suit above her pregnant belly. Not long after delivery, Mayer was back racing with nanny in tow, breastfeeding in the port-a-potties along the track.
“Having children wasn’t going to stop me from racing. I knew I needed to be me, to have my own identity. Part of my identity was being a wife and mother, but it had to also include racing. It is all the pieces together that make me whole.”
Her career has included driving in tandem with her father on longer races, being part of an all-women racing team and driving the safety car in races around the country. When an accident occurs during a race, it is the safety car that speeds to the head of the pack to slow the race down so the course can be safely cleared, and the race can continue.
But perhaps what gives Mayer the greatest satisfaction is the chance to change the perceptions of women and their capabilities one curve at a time as a driving instructor at the Porsche Driving School in Birmingham – where most of her students are high-level corporate executive men.
“What’s nice about what I do as an instructor is that first I have the chance to share a unique experience with these men. I start by working to calm them down and build their trust, so they can truly enjoy the experience,” says Mayer.
After a day of instruction and driving a variety of Porsches along the course, Mayer then climbs into the drivers seat and takes the newbie for what is known as “hot laps,” where speeds reach more than 140 mph. How do her students respond?
“People don’t expect you to drive very well, and they’ll say things like, ‘You so don’t drive like my wife.’” She continues, “And at the end of the day they get out of my car and say, ‘This is the highlight of my life.’”
Mayer adds, “I just feel lucky that I have this chance to show men the race track and open up their eyes to that fact that I’m a woman doing this. I’m a woman with two kids, driving carpool Monday through Thursday and doing this every weekend.”
More on adventurous women:
Pattie Mayer helped 20 women push themselves at the first-ever "High Performance Women Corporate Challenge" presented by Porsche and Womenetics by teaching them to race some of the world's fastest cars.
Beverly Guy-Sheftall has been very successful in channeling her anger into a productive career as an academic a quality she likely inherited from her equally brave, outspoken mother.
The first African-American female fighter pilot, Vernice Armour knows a thing or two about fear. She shares insights on how we should respond to anxiety, whether it's in the cockpit or boardroom.
Janece Shaffer, senior editor of Womenetics, is also an award-winning, professionally produced playwright. Her plays have been produced in theatres across the country including the Asolo Repertory Theatre, Alliance Theatre, and Taproot Theatre. She also has more than two decades of experience in the communications field and has held communications positions at Emory University, The NAMES Project Foundation/AIDS Memorial Quilt and the Alliance Theatre. Shaffer holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Georgia and a master’s degree in communications from Georgia State University.