Julia Landauer first experienced the thrill of racing in a go-kart at the age of 10 on a “very cold November day” at Oakland Valley Race Park, a track in Cuddebackville, New York, about two hours north of her home in Manhattan.
The trek from the concrete jungle to an asphalt road course was the result of her father and mother, an anesthesiologist and a lawyer, wanting their children to have an activity to share with each other.
“They also really wanted something that girls could do against boys,” Landauer told NBC Sports. “I grew up watching Formula One and sports car racing.”
Landauer, now 25, “loved it right away.”
“My parents liked that it meant from an early age … their young kids were given the responsibility of interacting with adults and articulating feedback and needed to deal with victories and losses,” says Landauer. “So really good life skills that everyone needs was a huge motivator for getting us into go-karts. I’m not sure they totally expected me to want to continue.”
But Landauer did continue, winning the Skip Barber Eastern Regional Series at the age of 14 and the Limited Sportsman track championship at Motor Mile Speedway in 2015. This year, after being selected to the current NASCAR Next class, she become the highest finishing female driver in NASCAR K&N Pro Series West history, placing fourth with Bill McAnally Racing.
In the middle of all that, she graduated from Stanford University, began a career in public speaking (including giving a TEDx Talk at Stanford in 2014) and got voted off the island in “Survivor: Caramoan.”
On Saturday, she won the Driver Achievement Award at NASCAR’s Night of Champions Touring Awards.
The following Q&A has been edited and condensed:
NBC Sports: In your first days of college, when you’d have those cheesy ice-breaker games to introduce yourself in class, how would the students at Stanford react to you saying you were a race car driver?
Landauer: Most people found it really, really cool. It was very different from what a lot of people were used to. Lot of people didn’t know a whole lot about racing, but once you start explaining the physical driving part and how it is very athletic, and then you describe the business side and the sponsorship space and how you create a brand and build partners and everything, I think people have a really great understanding of how it is to start up — the way I approach racing is as a startup, which is obviously huge in the Bay Area. It was a different flavor. And because I was at Stanford, we’re taught to reach for the stars and do everything we can. So the fact I want to use my degree to go NASCAR racing wasn’t all that far-fetched in terms of a global dream.
NBC Sports: What is the hardest part about public speaking?
Landauer: It’s a different type of adrenaline, but it’s still adrenaline. It’s so satisfying when you make an audience laugh. I don’t think of myself as a funny person, I don’t crack jokes but when I can make them laugh with some combination of my stage presence and what I’m saying and how I say it, that’s really cool. I think the hardest thing for me is making sure I’m providing really good value to the client. You can be a speaker and kind of give your speech over and over again. For a number of groups it will work, the same talk for different groups. But if someone wants to bring me in and they have a more unique audience or different angle they’re going for, I want to give them what’s most valuable to them. That’s better for them, that’s better for me. Pushing myself out of my comfort zone as to what I’m speaking about is big and that can be hard, and I’m definitely a harsh critique of myself and I want to make sure I’m working as hard as I should be.
NBC Sports: How did you find out you were going to be a part of this year’s NASCAR Next class?
Landauer: Sometime before May I got a call from NASCAR and they said they were excited to tell me I was a part of NASCAR Next. And it was really cool because I started working with NASCAR and understanding that I am such a great brand and personality to have in racing, I’m so different and I do a lot of stuff off track to try to amplify that. So to know that NASCAR saw that as well and that now we’d be more actively working together to really maximize the potential of the Julia NASCAR situation was just really exciting.
NBC Sports: What’s it like for you being aware that you’re an important brand?
Landauer: It’s great. Knowing that the work that I’ve done, the preparation that my family and I have done for 14 years now has value and creates excitement for other people is just fuel to the fire for making it bigger and better. It’s positive reinforcement that some capacity of what I’m doing is right and I just keeping running with it.
NBC Sports: What happened to the Formula One dream?
Landauer: It was interesting because I started in road courses, won the Skip Barber championship, did Formula BMW. Then after that I had seen that one of my competitors in go-karts – we were both at a national Skip Barber race – we (had been) pretty equal in go-karts. Then the Skip Barber race was in the rain and he just smoked everybody and I was like ‘Why the hell did he smoke everybody? He didn’t get that much better since go-karting.’ Then I found out that he had done some oval racing and so originally I wanted to make my road course skills better by going out and doing oval racing for a little bit and getting that car control.
Then once I did that I kind of fell in love with oval racing. I think now it’s still the case in terms of technically driving a race track, I like road courses better, I think there’s a lot more to them in that sense. But when it comes to racing, head-to-head competition, it’s hard to beat oval racing and just being so close to all the cars all the time, there are only four corners so everything has to be perfect. Sometime it’s frustrating because I think the car needs to be that much more perfect in oval racing than road course racing. It was just a natural progression. But part of it also goes back to understanding as someone who is not a trust fund kid who is trying to build up a brand in racing, NASCAR is definitely a bigger market in the U.S.
NBC Sports: Who were your racing idols growing up?
Landauer: Michael Schumacher was definitely a racing idol. But then after I got more into NASCAR, Mark Martin was a hero. He followed me on Twitter and I was just like ‘Best day ever’ and I was totally fangirling. Then also Paul Newman, throwing it back. He as a person is a huge hero to me. Just how he lived his life. And Lyn St. James, she’s been a mentor of mine since I was 13. These past two years we’ve been talking a whole lot more. Every one one of those has something different to offer that I aspired to.
NBC Sports: What is it like to play as yourself in “NASCAR Heat Evolution”?
Landauer: I have to admit, I actually haven’t played it yet. I have never been a big video game person but I am going to be getting over to NASCAR sooner rather than later to be able to play it. It is super cool, but if I had grown up playing video games it may have had a different effect and I’d be a little bit more urgent to go play. For me what was really cool was seeing the screenshot that someone had taken and seeing my name was right next to Bobby Labonte. I was like “wooooah! We are making it.”
NBC Sports: What’s the best Christmas gift you’ve ever gotten?
Landauer: It’s down to two things. Either the My Size Barbie I got when I was 4, that was pretty phenomenal. It was as tall as I was and you can dance with it. Either that or my junior year of college, my parents gifted me a Euro trip with my friends who were studying abroad. We went to Spain, Prague in the Czech Republic and Vienna. That would probably be better than the Barbie. When you’re 4 and you get a Barbie that’s bigger than you are, that’s pretty incredible, too.
NBC Sports: What’s the hardest you’ve ever laughed?
Landauer: I’ve definitely peed myself laughing before. It was probably Thanksgiving two years ago and just had some family friends who came over, my Godfather and his kid and stuff. I don’t know what it was, but the combination of the wine and whatever was being said, there was more than one of us that leaked a little bit and needed to run to the bathroom.
NBC Sports: If you could sit down with Danica Patrick and talk about one thing, what would it be?
Landauer: I would want to talk about the dynamic of a track. I’ve had my experiences of trying to get the respect of my team, my competitors. Just what’s that like? On the Cup level, I know what it’s like on the development series. She’s obviously a huge brand. So I’d like to know what the 360-degree view of life as a mega NASCAR star is like both on and off the track.
NBC Sports: If you were racing in the Cup Series night race at Bristol, what song would you choose to be introduced with? I’ll give you time to look.
Landauer: I have to go by my most played songs … No, those are not pump up songs at all … One second, I’m almost there … I don’t listen to music before I go racing. I don’t really listen to race music the entirety of the race weekend. That’s just such a great question … I’m a folksy kind of song listener. Like more alternative indie stuff.
NBC Sports: If it helps, the song I would probably choose is the Star Wars theme song.
Landauer: That’s great. This might be a cliché but I’m a big (fan) of the “Jaws” song. It’s just like ‘you’re about to die,’ that’s how I feel when I hear that. The creep on you (part of the song). It would be during the latter part of that song, with the instrumentation. But I’d want people to know they’re about to die … I’ve had the theme song on my iPod for a very long time. It starts off really quietly then it’s all fake big sharks and blood and everything.
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