SCC: Susan Addison profile

60-Year-Old Woman Proves It's Never Too Late to Pursue a Dream More than 30 years after women's liberation, some women in mid-life are finally getting the chance to pursue passions that have always been on their back-burners. Many who muster...

60-Year-Old Woman Proves It's Never Too Late to Pursue a Dream

More than 30 years after women's liberation, some women in mid-life are finally getting the chance to pursue passions that have always been on their back-burners.

Many who muster up the courage to undertake these new challenges will never achieve success the way society measures it.

The wonderful thing is that won't matter. They'll be rewarded by even better things: the pride and self-confidence that comes from tackling something new, and the satisfaction of finally getting the chance to try.

Dr. Susan Addison understands this totally, and not just because she's a therapist. At 60, she's the oldest woman currently competing at the professional level in American motorsports.

The Seneca, S.C. counselor has overcome many obstacles in order to compete in the Grand-Am Cup professional endurance sports car series.

She's had to keep her sense of humor while doing so, too.

Driving race cars provides a euphoria that many people never have the opportunity to experience. The thrill of pushing a pure-bred race car gets in your blood; it's infectious and there's no known cure. Addison contracted the "disease" at an early age, yet she very nearly fell short of overcoming the obstacles that kept her from pursuing her dream. It wasn't because she lacked determination, but it was because of circumstances beyond her control.

To listen to Addison speak, it's hard to imagine she has ever faced an obstacle. With an effervescent smile and personality to match, she's not headstrong, nor does she come across as stubborn. Instead it's the pure joy she extracts from life and living every day to the fullest that keeps her focused. She believes obstacles are not impediments to reaching your dreams but rather learning modules, and once surpassed, a cause for celebration and levity.

The world was a bright and wonderful place in 1964, ready to welcome the 18-year-old young woman who was planning her life beyond high school graduation. It would be a rich, full life that would include racing and a special graduation trip to the Indianapolis 500. However, those dreams were temporarily put on hold when she was seriously injured in a prank on Senior Day.

Hopes of one day racing with the drivers that competed in that famous 500-mile race were seemingly put out of reach. "I spent a month flat on my back, numb from the waist down," she recalled. "Racing didn't seem like a reality at that time."

In addition to the physical challenges, social stigmas worked against her too. "I had no support from my dad," she recalled. "He worked on cars, but he wouldn't teach me anything. He felt that wasn't a role that women should be involved in."

After rehabilitation, Addison entered Texas Tech to study architecture, only to encounter yet another obstacle. After being told by a professor to change her degree program "because I was a woman," she switched her major to interior design. She spent five years with a prestigious design firm in Dallas. Several years later one of her past professors encouraged her to become a counselor. With support from Ray, her husband of 27 years, the couple both returned to school to earn doctorates in behavioral studies, and for 23 years the Addisons have enjoyed a rewarding career in mental health counseling.

Addison never lost her desire or passion for racing, however. "Although it seemed like something that was never going to happen, I kept racing in my heart; I always held onto my dream," she said. She followed the sport throughout her life, admiring the drivers' skill as they performed 200-mph ballet with fate as their master. Addison particularly admired a young driver from Finland, Mika Hakkinen, who would compete at the sport's highest level for eight years before earning back-to-back World Driving Championships in 1998 and 1999.

When the Formula 1 series returned to the United States in 2000 at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Addison was there to watch. She immediately felt a connection to Hakkinen. "I could get in the car with him in my mind, feel what he was feeling, and experience it. It was totally vicarious, but he renewed my dream."

While walking around the speedway grounds, Addition noticed a booth for the Skip Barber Racing School.

Wide-eyed young boys stood around the booth, dreaming of becoming the next world champion. Surely it was no place for a woman already in her fifties.

Addison couldn't bring herself to stop at the booth to inquire about the racing school. "I didn't have the courage to go over to talk to them," she said. "I figured I was too old, too heavy, and I wouldn't fit in the car. I thought they would laugh at me, so I didn't do anything about it."

It wasn't until the following year, at the same race, that she walked straight into the same booth to inquire about the school. Pointing at the sleek racer on display, she said, "If I can fit into that race car, I will sign up for the three-day course." She fit, and immediately kept her word.

Racing school is the first step many people take to become a professional race car driver. While Addison was taking her first step to realize her dream, she didn't realize the school would produce more obstacles. Racers start younger and younger every year, with the top professional teams looking for the next Jeff Gordon or Tony Stewart before their 20th birthday. Racing schools are tuned into this, and cater to the dreams and desires of the youngsters that fit the bill.

The first school was held in June at Virginia International Raceway (VIR), a challenging course for seasoned veterans. "Ambient temperature was 95 degrees and it was 120 degrees on the track, but it was fun," Addison recalled. But once at the school, it didn't take long for her to encounter her first obstacle. "They were introducing the students and they passed right over me," she remembered. "I had to raise my hand to ask if I was allowed to introduce myself, and they asked me if I was a student."

Her first thought was to provide a witty reply, explaining that she always donned a double-layer fire-retardant driving suit when the temperature exceeded 90 degrees.

In her first on-track session, Addison was pressing hard through a particularly difficult section of the circuit when she encountered dirt on the track. During an off-track excursion, someone's car had kicked dirt onto the track, causing a dangerous situation for the drivers that followed. When her car hit the dirt it lost traction, sending Addison spinning off course. When the car came to a stop her lap was full of dirt, but she hadn't hit anything. Except for the dirt, she was unscathed.

For some, spinning the first time you were up to speed might have served as a message to give up. But Addison pressed on, had a good laugh, made mental notes regarding the situation and turned a negative experience into a positive learning experience. But she would soon find that she had few supporters in her corner.

There were instructors at the racing school that did little to foster Addison's determination to pursue her dream. Several told her to give up despite the fact that she improved every time she took to the track. "I didn't know how to double-clutch or heel-and-toe, but I knew that racing was all about getting seat time," she noted. "It was about the learning curve."

While several instructors discouraged her to continue, openly telling her to give up, there were a few that saw the passion, the heart and soul determined to persevere, and knew they were dealing with a person that could not be discouraged, and a person that would use the negative comments as fuel for the passion.

Gerardo Bonilla was one of the instructors at the Skip Barber Racing School who was impressed by Addison's love of life and the pursuit of her dream. "Susan was a classic senior female driver, very tentative, but very excited to learn and have fun," said Bonilla, the 2005 Skip Barber national pro series champion who now competes in the Star Mazda series with Andersen Racing. "The prospect of becoming faster was not easy for her. During her early days as a driver, finding acceptance was a challenge, and she was not taken seriously."

Taking advice from a small group of coaches who believed in her, Addison kept driving again and again. Amazing to most, but not so surprising to those who gave her a chance, she improved. Those that initially wrote her off not only began to accept her, but also helped her and cheered her on. She learned to trust the race car; she learned to work in traffic; and she honed her mental strength.

After several schools she became the first woman to win a Skip Barber Masters regional race. She's also the first woman to run a Skip Barber Masters national race. She finished fourth in the Southern Regional Masters Championship and 11th in the overall Southern Regional Championship with Skip Barber last year, where she competed against all age groups, even teens. She didn't even run all of those events, so that accomplishment is even more impressive. Additionally, when she took the wheel of a Formula SCCA car she became not only the first women to race one, but she collected the first win for a woman in the class. She has accomplished multiple podiums finishes in National Auto Sport Association (NASA) club racing as well, where she drove in the Renault Sports Racer and Spec Miata divisions.

Although it took two years, "Susan went from a very tentative, and honestly, very slow driver, to someone perfectly capable of driving competitively in a professional auto race at Daytona International Speedway," Bonilla said.

Daytona is not for the faint of heart, and many excellent race car drivers never get to compete at the famous track in Daytona Beach, Fla. Having it be the venue for your first professional auto race would be enough to cause anyone additional butterflies, but Addison was excited about driving Roar Racing's Mazda RX-8 at Daytona in January in the Grand-Am Cup series. Her race was a support event for the prestigious Rolex 24 Hours of Daytona.

Engine problems forced her car to the pits for repairs, however, and the long pit stop eliminated any chance of victory. However, Addison wouldn't let another obstacle keep her from finishing the race. There's honor in finishing an endurance sports car race, and Addison drove the Mazda back onto the track. Early in the race her car sped around the high banks of Daytona at speeds reaching 150 miles per hour, but now with the engine problem, it was just a matter of making it to the checkered flag.

Addison ran as high as sixth in the Grand-Am Cup race at VIR in April, which was held under periods of rain. Six laps before the end engine problems forced her car to drop out. Addison is looking for a better finishing position at the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course June 23-25, where she'll be driving a BMW 330i fielded by Craftsman Motorsports.

No matter what she encounters on the track during the race, Addison will be hard at work behind the scenes too. She's trying to find companies that would be willing to take on some of the expenses of racing in exchange for advertising space on her car and having her speak to their employees and/or sales forces on motivation and how to achieve one's goals.

In her case, it's clear she practices what she preaches.

"It's all about keeping the dream alive in your heart," Addison said. "With the dream alive and well, it's all about pressing on, regardless of the obstacles."

-Restart Communications-

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About this article
Series Grand-Am
Drivers Jeff Gordon , Tony Stewart , Mika Hakkinen , Skip Barber , Susan Addison , Gerardo Bonilla