Danish auto endurance driver Christina Nielsen enters this weekend's 10-hour Petit Le Mans in Atlanta, the final race of the TUDOR United SportsCar Championship season, ranked first in her class. If she can finish before the top four drivers ranked under her, she will become the first woman to win an International Motor Sports Association (IMSA) championship since the organization started handing out trophies in 1969.
Most drivers are scored as a pair, and they split driving time pretty much in half. Nielsen finds herself alone at the top of the driver class because her partner, James Davison, left halfway through the season. At the Petit Le Mans this weekend, Nielsen will split the ten hours behind the wheel with co-drivers Kuno Wittmer and Brandon Davis.
Nielsen's team, TRG-Aston Martin Racing, also leads the team standings. To win the team division of the championship circuit, they need to finish ahead of the second-ranked No. 48 Audi and the third-ranked 63 Ferrari. Team TRG-Aston Martin Racing will be driving the 007 Royal Purple/Orion/LaSalle Solutions/Passtime V12 Vantage Aston Martin.
Nielsen, who is 23, has reached the top of her field after a relatively short professional career. She began racing karts back in 2007, when she was 14 years old. By 2010, she was racing formula cars. After a few years of racing Porsches in Europe, she competed in the North American Endurance Cup last year, including the Petit Le Mans. She is the daughter of Lars Erik Nielsen, an auto endurance racer who competed at the famous 24-hour Le Mans in France and the 12-hour Sebring in Florida.
VICE Sports: What does it feel like to do an auto endurance race? What hurts on your body when you are finished driving a car after an hour or 90 minutes?
Nielsen: Neck, shoulders, core. What people don't realize, we're stupid. No, we're not stupid; we're crazy. Because we basically go, get into a car, and we're diving up over curbs and bumps and everything. We're moving around, we're being thrown around in the car, and our whole body is blue, and it hurts afterward. I bring my masseuse with me; she's an advanced neuromuscular therapist.
VS: Do you have trouble walking when you get out of the car?
Nielsen: No, never. Can't. We are out of the car in about 20 seconds. So when I park the car, it's explosion mode. I take off the seatbelt, put the belt up, pull the radio out, and I'm pulling myself out of the car, and I'm running around to get out of people's way so he can get in, they can change the tires, fuel the car.
VS: How do you determine how many legs each driver races and when you all should change?
Nielsen: For longer races like Petit Le Mans that's 10 hours, it very much depends on strategy. There's a lot of rules that affect how many times you change, for example. There's a set time the driver can be in the car. There's a limit. There's a certain way you want the rotation to go. It depends on when you have a safety car break. Does it make sense to bring someone in now? Did the other person get time to eat? A lot of elements come into play.
VS: What are some of the challenges of endurance racing? You sometimes race in very hot and humid places, right?
Nielsen: It's definitely hard. We have a drink bottle, but you can't drink too much because you're sharing it with your co-driver. We have to wear fireproof underwear. We have these t-shirts that have hoses sewn onto them, and there's cool water running through them. But it's only a cool box in the back of the car with ice in it. So when you run out of that, you've got no more. You've got to manage it; you can't normally run it the entire race. You normally lose a couple of pounds in water weight when it's this warm and this humid. I weighed a couple of pounds less after Sebring, a 12-hour race.
I also have so much dirt in my face because we don't have air conditioning in the car. All we have are two vents, and it's air from outside that's just going through them. When you're driving behind other drivers and they hit dirt, I sit like this and drive [Nielsen starts blinking her eyes rapidly to demonstrate]. Sometimes, when I see them going through dirt, I close my eyes completely and open up again, because that's more effective.
VS: What is it like, mentally, to race a car at top speed around a curving track over and over again for hours?
Nielsen: Racing is one of the toughest sports because you never get a second to look away. You can't look away because you are driving with such high speed. Plus, while we're driving, we are communicating on the radio, we are reading the fuel level, we are checking the engine and oil temperature. We have all of these extra tasks that are happening and at the same time, you are aware of traffic.
Plus, when you race a car for the long-distance races, like 10-hour races or 24-hour races, you have to find a happy medium. Mentally, you need to be prepared that the car is not going to be the same as at the beginning of the race as in the end. You don't have full fuel load. You've worn down the tires. You need to be aware that when you get in the car in the middle of the night compared to during the day, the car is not going to act the same.
And, you know, sometimes I'm in front of a guy, and the other team calls on the radio to the driver, "Get that bitch out of the way. Are you going to be beaten by a girl?" That's their way of trying to motivate, so you have to definitely be aware of that and just not think about what people call you. It's not important as long as you're in front of them.
VS: Do you expect to see more women in the sport moving forward?
Nielsen: I'd like to. That's not something I can predict. I hope that by doing so well in the championship and catching the attention of the media, I open the eyes of the young girls who are interested and get them to say, "Hey, we can go and do this."
If you are going into racing, though, you don't do it halfheartedly. You have to go in with your entire passion, with all of your energy, and you dedicate yourself. Because if you don't, you're going to get your ass kicked. And I've gotten my ass kicked for years. It's finally me starting to kick everybody else's ass.
This interview has been condensed and edited.