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Michele Graaff: Conquering Fear and Putting Her Foot Down

A ProFormance regular shares what she’s learned during her odyssey as a performance driver.

In the summer of 2019, I decided to take my MINI Cooper to the track.  It wasn’t the first time I had been to Pacific Raceways, but it had been many years since I had completed a couple of HPDEs and a bunch of skills days with local car clubs. My logbook was dusty, but I had two goals:  To go have some fun in my beloved little go-kart, and to (hopefully) reclaim a piece of something that used to delight me.

Michele Graaf in car with performance driving t-shirt
The t-shirt says it all

Deep down, I really wanted to see for myself what I was capable of doing.  These felt like big goals to achieve as a single woman without a garage of tools, an expensive car, or a readily available pit crew.  So, I made a bargain with myself:  just go take some classes. See how it feels. If genuine, unshadowed joy was there, I would keep going, slowly. If not, then it would just be another experience learning who I really am—maybe I was more of a hiker than a racecar driver.  And that led me to click the registration button for the ProFormance One-Day High Performance Driving Experience.  

Fast forward to now, and you’ll find me signing up for every ProFormance lapping day my checkbook can manage. I’ve since upgraded my car to a special edition 2013 MINI Cooper JCW GP. It’s still my dual-purpose daily driver/track car, but exponentially more capable on the track than my other MINIs. Sometimes friends or colleagues remark that they can’t imagine driving on a racetrack. They have some idea that I’m incredibly brave, or maybe a little reckless. 

To be honest, I like stability and knowing what I’m dealing with.  I was the kid who, at one point, was afraid to jump on a trampoline.  There was something about propelling myself upward, hands holding nothing, trusting my feet to manage the wobbly landing.  It all felt impossibly dangerous and uncertain.  The years have taught me that this world is full of two kinds of truth: the ones that we can choose to believe, and the ones that exist regardless of our thoughts. And there is nowhere this is truer than at the track.

“In order to grow, I must believe in my own ability.”

While in regular life, what we think we can count on may disappoint us, at the track, you realize that a certain measure of things will always be true.  Once you understand this, you not only rely on it but learn to use it to your advantage. What this means on a racetrack is that physics dictates everything. My front-wheel-drive MINI will inevitably understeer corners where I don’t manage my throttle and braking correctly. You can’t argue with science. Speed and traction win every time.  Conversely, my underpowered little car can be flicked around pretty well in places that the bigger cars can’t.  Physics (and some nifty brakes and rear sway bar) let me carry a lot of speed into Turns 3a and b, then rotate my rear end, and get on power more quickly. 200 horsepower in a well-planted, small car makes for fun hairpins.  It’s almost a relief to know that you can’t argue with some things in this driving life.  You can only get in the car, embrace the facts of driving at speed, then maximize every element through learning.

mini-cooper on performance driving course
Michele’s Mini in flight

On the other hand, the bigger challenge for me at the track has been the truths my mind likes to create. Things like: “I’m too slow. I’ll hold everyone up.” or “I won’t ever get Turn 5 right.”  Stuck to my laptop is this note: “We are powerfully guided by the things we expect to be true.” It’s my daily reminder that how I choose to shape my thoughts will create my experience.  At the track, it has meant that in order to grow, I must believe in my own ability. And not only believe in my skills but embrace them.

From beginner to not-so-beginner performance driver, my mind has made small shifts away from fear. For example, that potentially scary place after the kink at Turn 1 can make any new driver’s stomach clench. Now, I have an embedded belief that I won’t lift off throttle there. No matter if the braking zone is coming up faster than usual because I carried more speed through Turn 10 (it’s a MINI, so we’re not talking F1 speeds).  No matter if I come up on a slower car. I won’t lift at the dip. I expect that my skills are developed enough to know exactly what to do at that point in the track. So, entering the straight, if I don’t have to give a point-by to the flame-throwing Lambo or my buddy’s 911, I put my foot down hard on the throttle and keep it there.

Likewise, until recently, I pinched the track-out after Turn 9 constantly—because deep down I didn’t trust myself to manage the car that close to the bumpy edge. After much pushing by different coaches, I set a goal for myself to track to the edge, with no mental hesitation, eyes looking far up the track. I was forcing myself to believe something different: that I knew exactly how far to go and what my throttle foot should be doing in that moment. I trusted my body to naturally understand how my car feels to float to the left, to not fight it. I trusted in my ability to gently hold the steering when I hit the dip and wait for the car to settle itself, then accelerate into the straight. 

“My goal has always been to do this thing well, not simply drive as fast as I can.”

None of this has come easy for me because my goal has always been to do this thing well, not simply drive as fast as I can. This goal has required a dedication to learning.  Developing my skills and confidence is still a work in progress.  It has taken time and a different mindset – and hours of Speed Secrets podcasts. It has also meant recognizing the people who encourage me.  Don, Donna, Siena, and all of the ProFormance coaches have patiently watched me fumble my way through managing tire pressures to assessing traction on the rainiest of days. Even the turn workers make me feel better, knowing they keep an eye out, our little safety net of teammates. 

Anything I’ve accomplished at the track has been due to the patient and generous conversations with a handful of people I’ve come to trust. I’ve chosen to believe that they have confidence in my ability—so maybe I should, too.  Most of this has come from the coaching advice I’ve received at ProFormance. In the paddock between sessions, I grab snippets of information from Manfred and Wes. I’ve soaked up as much understanding as possible while Curtis or Clete have been in my right seat.  I look up to Shannon as one of the only female driving coaches I know. Outside of the track, a few friends with years of racing experience gently encourage me to keep pushing.  Not one of these mentors has ever made me feel less for being a woman, for making mistakes, for showing emotions, or has questioned my intentions in this journey.   

It’s taken time to align myself out of fear and into faith in who I am as a driver.  I used to doubt myself all of the time, but it’s different now.  Performance driving, for me, isn’t about proving anything to anyone. It’s not about getting an adrenaline high (though that’s a nice bonus). This track life has taught me a lot about myself, what I am, what I can accomplish, and what I deserve. Some of the most genuine people I know I’ve met through driving.  I don’t believe any of this would have happened if I hadn’t signed up for my first ProFormance day.