For 27 years Donna Porada-Kitch has helped keep ProFormance Racing School at the front of the pack.
Women in Motorsports month is over, but ProFormance Racing school begins and ends every day under the guidance of the woman who, with Don Kitch, Jr., started it all: Donna Porada-Kitch. Since 1994 Donna has been the school’s manager, administrator, marketer, idea person, and, according to her husband Don, “the brains behind the operation.” No one who has set foot in the paddock will deny that she is the one who keeps ProFormance running like an air-cooled Porsche flat six.
Long before she met Don, Donna exhibited a love of cars and a distinct entrepreneurial spirit. In high school she defied social norms and bought a Datsun 280Z. “I didn’t know how to drive a manual, but I wanted to.” Not only did she learn a stick shift, she kept the car so immaculate that her friends paid her to detail their cars. So began her first automotive enterprise.
Clearing Hurdles Early On
One theme that emerged early in Donna’s life was an obliviousness to the barriers, real and imagined, that keep women out of certain activities. She drove her 280Z when women were not supposed to be into cars. She was elected her high school class president at a time when school politics, like all politics, were male-dominated. “I never thought, “I’m a girl, I can’t do that,” she says. “I did that!’” Moreover, the class presidency taught her a lot about leadership and working with people and committees, skills she honed over the years to good effect.
Checking Off Major Goals
Two enthusiasms revealed themselves early in Donna’s life: travel and cars. After her UW graduation she vowed to backpack across Europe and learn performance driving in her Z. She did both, visiting 19 countries over the summer, and later on enrolling in the IRDC racing school. The president of IRDC at that time was Don Kitch, Jr., who, by coincidence, raced 280Zs. The two hit it off.
Donna loved the racing school, and drove at every opportunity. In order to feed her passion for travel, she persuaded Don to enroll in ELF Winfield, a renowned French racing school. That led to Don’s foray into Formula Ford racing.
When Donna became secretary of the local racing club, a dynamic revealed itself: while Don excelled as a communicator and teacher, Donna had a flair for management and promotion. That dynamic still keeps ProFormance Racing School thriving.
Eventually Don and Donna got married in Santorini, Greece, choosing Monaco for their honeymoon. Among their vows was a promise to visit every Formula 1 track in the world during their lives. Their plan got off to an impressive start when, that summer, they managed to catch the debut of an exciting new driver named Michael Schumacher at Spa in Belgium.
Don soon left Formula Ford and raced nationally in the Barber Saab Pro and IMSA Firestone Firehawk series – all while holding down a day job. In 1992 Don went into motorsports full-time, finally realizing his long-held dream of not having a “real job.” He managed Scandia, a Redmond-based IMSA team, while Donna taught school.
The Big Idea: ProFormance
In the early 1990s there was no school for racing in the Northwest; on occasion the BMW and Porsche clubs ran events at Pacific Raceways, then called Seattle International Raceway. One night, while Don and Donna celebrated Donna’s winning the Golden Acorn, a prestigious award given to outstanding educators, Donna suggested starting their own racing school.
Their new enterprise began with a few High Performance Driving Experience days. But then came a crucial boost: a local Chrysler dealer asked Don to race a new car, the Dodge Neon ACR, for promotional purposes. When Don won a national event, the dealership gave ProFormance eight Neons.
A fleet of identical cars meant ProFormance could go beyond Performance Driving days and teach actual racing, which required all students to drive the same cars to establish a benchmark for their performance. By 1997 Don was taking his new crew of accomplished race drivers to Daytona. Donna was still running ProFormance and teaching full-time.
Reaching the Heart
While most people might consider a teaching schedule and a racing school directorship a full plate, Donna found time to volunteer for Children’s Hospital in Seattle, and soon got the idea of raising money for the hospital by racing for charity. Thus, in 1997, Team Seattle was born.
Sponsorship and publicity came via old-fashioned, grassroots, pre-Internet methods. “We were just going to do it for a year, but we had so much fun, we said, ‘Why not do it again?’”
With the birth of their daughter Siena in 2002 and a Team Seattle win in Daytona in 2003 behind them, Donna left teaching in order to expand ProFormance. But to keep her work schedule at the overflow level, she also opened a travel agency and did logistics for Team Seattle. A side benefit was that they could charge premium rates and donate the proceeds to Children’s Hospital.
LeMans and Onward
Thanks to their charity work, Team Seattle was invited to race at Le Mans – the only American team to be invited. Apart from Don, the team included Joe Foster and actor Patrick Dempsey (“Dr. McDreamy on Grey’s Anatomy).
Eventually Team Seattle went national, as Valve entrepreneur and racing enthusiast Gabe Newell came on board. Team Seattle was re-christened The Heart of Racing, an organization which continues to improve the lives of children in medical need through their efforts.
A Different Kind of Racing School
Under Don and Donna’s guiding hand, ProFormance has helped put Washington State motorsports on the map, sending legions of skilled drivers into the world. “People tell us they can’t copy us,” says Donna. An outstanding location is part of that. Unlike tracks like Laguna Seca which, though superb, are somewhat isolated, Pacific Raceways is surrounded by large cities that supply it with drivers, instructors, students, and spectators.
But demographics don’t tell the whole story. Don and Donna’s immersion in motorsport is also a vital element. It’s not hard to rent a track and run lapping days. But Don has lived the racing life and has developed a cadre of top-flight instructors. Donna drove as well – Don claims she could have been a better driver than he is, had she wanted to. “She knew her way around a car before she ever met me. When a car would come in, she was the first to get the body stripped off, oversee it put up on jackstands, pull the wheels off, going through the list of what it takes to prep the car for its next outing.” But these days it is her penchant for marketing, promotion and leadership that contributes most to ProFormance’s success.
Getting Women Up to Speed
Sexism has never deterred Donna, and one of her causes is ensuring that other women in motorsport aren’t beaten back by it either. “We created an environment where women can come in and feel one hundred percent empowered. All the time I hear women say, ‘I feel so good that I can do this!’ We’re ahead of the game on that.” She’s correct: ProFormance held the very first women’s track days in the region 20 years ago. Four years ago instructor Shay Hoelscher picked this up and brought it to the Porsche Club, and others are doing the same. “We still do a Women’s Day, but now women are here all the time. That wasn’t always the case.” The ProFormance tradition of welcoming everyone is the reason why the Pacific Northwest is turning out so many drivers, men and women, amateur and pro.
Among those benefitting from Donna’s advocacy for women in motorsport is her daughter Siena Kitch, who officially entered the family business at age five, participating in a kids’ race at LeMans called Little Big Mans. She competed against a field of boys, a familiar situation that she handled gracefully.
Siena sees that women can do anything,” Donna says. Today Siena is immersed in ProFormance, handling marketing and social media for the school.
Of Cars and Drivers
The ProFormance spirit of inclusion goes beyond getting women behind the wheel. Drivers at some schools can be surprisingly clannish about what car one drives. “The vibe is different here; you’re here to have fun. We have all makes of cars – not just BMWs or Ferraris – so everyone talks to each other.” Getting people to tell their stories is part of the fun of being in the ProFormance community. “We once had a guy in a Caravan, and he loved that car. Everyone was talking to him, because they were interested in how he’d tricked it out. You never know someone’s story till you start talking to them.”
A Passion for ProFormance
A lot of exceptional people have come together to build ProFormance into the Northwest’s premier racing school. But there is no doubt that the unique combination of Don Kitch, Jr. and Donna Porada-Kitch is irreplaceable. And while Don, as Chief Instructor, is the face of the school, he credits Donna’s Swiss-Army-Knife-like aggregation of talents and passions as the key to their success. “She is ProFormance,” Don says. “Whatever it takes to build the business and keep shoving the bar higher, she’ll do. I can honestly tell you, whether you’re driving on an amateur level or making the transition from amateur to pro, she’s willing and able to whatever it takes, from an administrative end, to marketing, to emotional support, to mechanical, to help you get where you want to go.”
For Donna, the job is its own reward. “It’s crazy busy, and crazy stressful, but it makes me so happy when all these people come out. We’re on their bucket list. We may never see them again, but we’ve changed their lives. That’s how I felt when I took my car out for the first time.” Her teenage crush on her 280Z, then, sparked a lifetime career. “If you can find your passion, and turn it into your job, you win.”