Let’s Celebrate Super Women in Supercars

A billionaire boy’s club? Not for these badass female drivers.

byLawrence Ulrich|
Let’s Celebrate Super Women in Supercars

As a young Wall Street attorney, Virginia “Ginger” Bamford drove a plain-Jane Toyota for years. Now she corrals a supercar stable—including a Ferrari Enzo, Ford GT and Lamborghini Murcielago Superveloce—that would make any man jealous.

Tamsen Beroth attended her first NASCAR race while still in the womb, the beginning of what she calls her “psychotic obsession” with cars. Today she builds (and rebuilds) her 1,000-horsepower Nissan GT-R for ethanol-fueled drag strip runs.

Jennifer Travis started racing a Fiat 500 in Texas, but quickly grew tired of being passed. So she traded up for a Dodge Viper TA, followed by a fearsome Viper ACR, the furthest thing imaginable from the cutie-pie Fiat—even with the Viper’s pink stripes.

Supercars can seem a man’s world, a non-stop, Nomex-clad sausage party. But, thank god, there are women crashing this male preserve. We’re not talking a Kim Kardashian or Nicky Minaj, women who use supercars as fashion accessories; instead, these are serious female enthusiasts, bona fide drivers who refuse to ride shotgun or cheerlead from the pits.

Image courtesy of a third party.

For Bamford, it began with the Ferrari she bought by accident. Growing up near San Jose, Bamford recalls being the first girl to choose shop class over home economics at Saratoga High, gapping spark plugs and changing oil. “To this day, I can’t cook to save my life,” she says.

But as a young New York attorney, focused on career, Bamford contented herself with a staid Toyota Corona Mk. II.

“I drove that little four-cylinder car for 15 years, including five cross-country trips,” she says.

Marriage brought a Volvo wagon, at her husband’s insistence. Divorced by 2009 and living in California with three sons, Bamford accompanied a male friend who wanted to check out the Tesla Roadster. On a lark, they detoured to a nearby Ferrari dealership in Silicon Valley.

“I’d never set foot in a Ferrari store in my life,” she says.

After giving Bamford’s friend the showroom tour, the salesman offhandedly asked Bamford which car she liked.

“I gave a woman’s kind of answer: ‘I like the white one, and it’s got a 16 on it, and that’s my birthdate,’” she recalls.

Image courtesy of a third party.

Purely on a whim, Bamford bought the white one—which happened to be the rarest, most expensive car in the joint, an F430 Scuderia Spider 16M, one of just 499 built. Seduced, Bamford boned up on Ferraris, hired a driving coach to unlock the mysteries of high performance, and bought her first track car, a Nissan GT-R. More creampuffs followed: a matching white Scuderia 16M coupe; a Ferrari Enzo, the only black car in her otherwise all-white collection; a Lamborghini Aventador SV.

At events like the Mojave Mile top-speed shootout, “I kept getting beat by those incredible Ford GTs, so I fell in love and bought one of those,” she says.

Bamford racked up 3,300 miles on the Nissan in barely a month, and 5,000 on her Enzo in six.

“I drove them like normal cars, because I didn’t know any better,” she says.

She still puts serious miles on her cars, and at serious speeds, including reaching her goal of topping 200 mph in her Lamborghini, not long after this blast to 191 mph.

Nearly a century after American women earned the right to vote, their representation in the ranks of speed still lags. About nine in 10 high-end sports cars are bought by men, including a 91 percent share for the Nissan GT-R, 94 percent for the Corvette, and 95 percent for Audi’s R8. Even the Jaguar F-Type, whose curves are known to drive women wild, draws 87 percent of its sales from guys. According to IHS Automotive, just 12 percent of cars in its “Luxury Exotic” segment are registered to women. (Stephanie Brinley, IHS senior analyst, cautions that those figures are based on state registration data, which may not fully reflect who actually drives the car.)

Across brands, Porsche ranks quite well with 25.5 percent female owners—though Porsche’s wide-ranging lineup includes female-friendly SUVs and the Panamera sedan. Women also buy one in four Maseratis, including the brand’s plush Gran Turismos and the Quattroporte sedan. Numbers are lower for hardcore sports-car brands; Lamborghini’s American owner base included 9.9 percent women in 2015, down from 11 percent in 2011. Aston Martin also dipped a bit, from 11.4 percent female ownership to 10.7 percent. Ferrari has managed a slight uptick in women owners, from 7.5 to 8.5 percent. But since Ferrari only sold about 2,400 cars here in 2015, that means just 200 women bought a new Ferrari.

Jennifer Travis knows she’s a bit of a unicorn whenever she pulls up at her kids’ school in a 645-horsepower Viper ACR. It’s no different when she hones her skills at tracks like Texas World Speedway and MotorSports Ranch—especially with the Viper’s pink stripes serving up maximum male intimidation.

“I love the feeling when people look at you and go, ‘Oh, look at that chick in the Viper, there’s no way she can handle that,’” Travis says. “And then I just pass them up.”

The stay-at-home mother from The Woodlands, Texas, started racing three years ago in her Fiat 500, finding a hobby she could share with her husband. She drove her husband’s McLaren P1 on track, but went straight back to the Dodge.

“It’s more fun, it growls and you can really feel it. Driving the McLaren is too easy, there’s no stick shift, nothing. The Dodge takes more effort, but I think it makes you better and smarter on track.”

Image courtesy of a third party.

These days, Tamsen Beroth prefers her speed in a straight line. Growing up the daughter of a RJR Nabisco vice-president, the Winston-Salem, N.C. resident grew up wedded to NASCAR and other motorsports. She met her future husband, Brian, in high school, while cruising a strip in High Point in her Honda S2000. Three years ago, she bought a 2010 Nissan GT-R, voiding the warranty on the very first day with some launch-control starts.

With Ohio shop Buschur Racing, she built the GT-R into a 1,000-horsepower, ethanol-fueled terror, replacing virtually everything but the body panels—but keeping the stock interior and Bose sound system, the better to blast various Marleys, Buju Banton, and other favorite reggae artists. It’s a mellow soundtrack considering the internal-combustion violence under the hood.

“It’s always been about being bigger, better, faster,” Beroth says of her life in cars, and her Nissan that clocks quarter-miles in the low 9 seconds at nearly 150 mph. “I do this on my own dime, no sponsors. Even my parents think I’m crazy.”

The national accounts supervisor for a dealership software and database company, Beroth recently suffered “a painful learning curve,” grenading her Nissan’s differential housing on a drag strip run. But she’s rebuilt it for an annual DSM shootout in Ohio, hoping to set a personal best and top 180 mph over a half-mile.

Like other fast women, Beroth has heard her share of patronizing comments from the boys.

“Every once in a while I’ll see someone roll their eyes or say ‘Oh, that’s cute, her husband lets her drive the car.’ But I let my driving and my speed do the talking.”

Bamford knows all about tired assumptions. The Ferrari Enzo may be her “rock star,” but she says the Murcielago may confound people even more.

“It’s the baddest of bad boys, so when I pull into a gas station, and a crowd flocks around, they always seem let down: ‘Oh, a girl’s driving it!’”

Image courtesy of a third party.

Gender expectations are actually reversed in Bamford’s household. She has three sons between ages 18 and 24, and “none of them are really interested in my cars. They haven’t caught the bug yet, but I hope someday they will.”

If men tend to buy supercars to attract women and to project status and power, as social and evolutionary scientists believe, the IHS’s Brinley suggests that women have different motivations.

“These cars are extremely expensive, demanding, and less comfortable, so you have to be really committed to this,” Brinley says. “I think you find successful women being flashy in different ways than buying a sports car.”

For women who make that commitment, she says, “there’s probably a stronger emotional attachment to the driving experience itself, and less the status.”

Theories abound about women’s low representation in sports-car ranks, from unequal pay, nature-and-nurture, to the same exclusionary boy’s-club vibe that also discourages women from video gaming or engineering schools.

“It’s always puzzled me,” Bamford says. “Maybe women just didn’t get a chance to take auto shop. But it’s not unusual for me to be the only woman out of 50 guys” at a rally, or Cars and Coffee.

Travis suggests it's not always easy to crash the frat party. “I think that probably women are a little intimidated, because the sport has been run by men for so long. But a girl can drive just like any man. And I think we fit into the cars better, too," she says with a laugh.

Beroth and Bamford suggest that women tend to think collectively, with more of a nurturing mentality and less need for the spotlight.

“Whether it’s an engine builder or a weekend warrior, there’s always a wife, girlfriend or mom helping,” Beroth says. “Sometimes they know as much or more than the guy, but they’re comfortable behind the scenes.”

That may be changing, Beroth believes. More girls and women are racing and karting than ever. More women, raised to be fearless and fully equal, are following their dreams. If they step on boys' toes, or challenge their insecurities, so be it. Whatever men think about fast women in fast cars, Beroth knows she belongs.

“This is all I know and all I live for,” she says.