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Jessica Dana

Racing Car Driver

Olympia, WA

Take it from an 18-year-old racing car driver who happens to be a girl: No matter what your dream is, take risks.

Three years ago, I sped through the first major finish line of my career. I defeated four-time NASCAR champion Jeff Gordon in the “Ultimate Speed” charity karting race. At that moment, I knew for certain that I wanted to make a career out of racing. I was 15 years old.

I’m 18 now, and life is only accelerating. As my high school classmates and I make our way into the real world, holding onto my dream isn’t easy. Not many young racers are skilled enough to break into the big leagues, and even fewer female drivers get the chance to compete on a national platform. There are times I feel intimidated by drivers with more experience and greater resources. There are times when it’s tempting to hit the brakes and focus on a conventional – and safer – career path instead.

I lean in because the choice wasn’t always one I thought I could make. Growing up, racing wasn’t a part of my life: No one in my family raced, and it wasn’t a popular sport in our community. It seemed like a boys’ activity—something I never imagined I would take on myself.

One day, my dad took me to a local indoor karting center. I got behind the wheel and everything changed. The power, speed, the thrill of competition—it all fit together perfectly. Somewhere inside of me, a gear shifted, and I was suddenly a driver. And I was good—so good, in fact, that I caught the eye of indoor karting national champion Mike Smith, who invited me to race at nationals in Phoenix, Arizona.

Becoming a racing professional wasn’t a decision I made overnight. It’s a decision I make again every day. It’s my mission to provide a role model for young girls who, like me, want to compete—not just against each other, but the guys as well.

I understand how important it is to lean in to life’s sharp turns. By hesitating, you let others pass you on the road. I can’t let that happen: I want to use racing to give back, in order to help kids gain opportunities to discover and follow their own dreams.

Once I learned that Patrick Dempsey, who races in his spare time, bought local coffee company Tully’s, I knew I had to challenge him to a race to benefit Seattle-area charities. If he wins, I’ll let Tully’s advertise on my car for an entire season; If I win, he has to donate $10,000 to a local charity of my choice.

As I hit the gas on my career, I hope to never stop improving in my sport and my philanthropic goals. For me, leaning in means determining my own speed and deciding not just how, but why, I compete.

Take it from an 18-year-old racing car driver who happens to be a girl: No matter what your dream is, take risks. Own every opportunity as it comes, because you never know if it will be your shot at becoming the person you’d never expected you could be.