Shawna Robinson reflects on her and son being cancer free, post-racing career

Photo by Daniel McFadin
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CONCORD, N.C. — Fourteen years after her racing career ended, Shawna Robinson got to experience a first at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

On a hot September day, the former NASCAR driver arrived on the track’s pit road as one drop in a sea of pink.

Robinson, 54, wore a pink shirt identical to those worn by numerous other women who covered pit road, signifying their status as survivors of breast cancer. They were all there to help paint the track’s pit wall pink ahead of NASCAR’s Roval race weekend.

For Robinson, the first woman to win a NASCAR sanctioned race (Charlotte/Daytona Dash Series’ AC Delco 100 at New Asheville Speedway on June 10, 1988), it was the first time she’d attended the “Paint Pit Wall Pink” event to promote Breast Cancer Awareness Month.

Robinson, who once suffered from Stage 3 breast cancer, has been in remission since 2015.

“It’s just an honor to be a part of this,” Robinson told NBC Sports. “You just see the courage of all these survivors and you know the process you go through once you’re diagnosed, it’s a journey.”

October is significant for Robinson not just because of her experience with cancer. In January 2014, two months before her diagnosis, her father-in-law Dale Clark passed way after a short battle with prostate cancer.

“We had just lost (Dale) and the next thing you know, I have the same oncologist and I’m doing chemo in the room that he did, and my mother-in-law’s there with me,” Robinson recalled. “Things just come full circle. It’s been really, really tough on everybody losing Dale and then for me to get through the process and then for (son) Tanner.”

Six months after her last radiation treatment in September 2015, Tanner was diagnosed with testicular cancer just before his 20th birthday. He’s now cancer free and pursuing a career as a professional gamer.

“We were able to catch it early,” Robinson said. “Him going to chemo was probably harder. I went through chemo for three years, he went through it for six months because it was such a different type of treatment.

“Just to see him go through that and the frailness was really, really tough. But he’s cancer free. When I lost my hair, he shaved his head (to give moral support). Little did he know a few years down the road he’d be losing his hair due to chemo.”

Robinson shared a lesson that came to mind seeing her fellow survivors gather at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

“Life never will be the same again, but you’re fortunate,” she said. “It changes the person who you are and I feel that it makes you a better person. It makes the life that you’ve lived even that more grateful to have another day to live it.”

After not having raced since she failed to qualify for the April 2005 Xfinity Series race at Texas Motor Speedway, Robinson is still finding ways to live within the racing community. And that’s not including being a member of the National Motorsports Appeals panel.

Robinson is the founder of the interior and event design company Happy Chair, which has been responsible for design projects for Martin Truex Jr., Clint Bowyer, Ryan Newman and other NASCAR drivers.

“I kind of went from the driver’s seat to the inside of the driver’s home,” Robinson said.

Robinson’s interest in both racing and design originated while growing up in a racing family in Iowa, where she got her competitive start by racing diesel trucks.

“I think I got part of it from my mother, who was very much into decor, and I grew up as a little girl going to flea markets and antique stores and my dad was the racer,” Robinson said. “Every weekend was at a race track.”

Robinson “dabbled” in design when she took a two-year hiatus from racing in the 90s to have her two children, Tanner and Samantha.

Shawna Robinson in 2002 before qualifying for the Daytona 500. She was the second woman to compete in the race. (Craig Jones/Getty Images)

“Really just word of mouth, it just really picked up with, ‘Would you help me do this, would you help me do that?'” Robinson said. “Then I went back into racing in ’99 and then basically got out of it in 2005. (Going back to design work) seemed like the next step to go to.”

Robinson describes her style as “very eclectic,” as she likes to “take old patterns and mix them up. I’m a little mixed up, so I guess that works well for me.”

Anyone with familiar with JR Motorsports’ headquarters in Mooresville, North Carolina, might have seen her work.

“Still to this day if you see any kind of interviews with the crew or the team it’s on the blocked wall in the back with all those colors,” Robinson said. “I was literally on a scaffolding painting those squares. It’s pretty cool to still see that. I worked very closely with Dale (Earnhardt) Jr. and Kelley (Earnhardt Miller). Everybody kind of did their race shops in red, black, silver. He wanted to go a totally different route and we used a lot of earth tones and odd colors. It’s a very homey feel to that shop and it’s a very family feel with JR Motorsports. …

“I created that atmosphere and to see it 10, 15 years later and it’s still standing. A lot of times when you go to a job you did in the beginning or early on and you go back to it and you think ‘Oooh, I could have done this different.’ I don’t feel that way, I feel like it’s really held its beautiful look that it has.”

Here’s an example of Robinson’s design work.

For Robinson to focus on her new endeavors, she believed she had to “pull the door down on that world” of racing, which saw her make 72 starts in national NASCAR races, become the first woman to win a pole in the Xfinity Series (Atlanta 1994) and be the second woman to compete in the Daytona 500.

And Robinson is clear “You can’t do racing halfway.”

“Any career you want to succeed at, you can’t do it halfway,” she said. “So I really had to dive into (interior design) and just think I had the support and the clientele because of being in the racing world and people have a trust with you. Giving you the key to their house or giving you the opportunity to go in and work with their things.”

Shawna Robinson during the 2001 Brickyard 400 race weekend. (Jonathan Ferrey /Allsport

The club of woman who have competed in NASCAR is small, but Robinson has high hopes for the latest woman to grab the sport’s spotlight, Hailie Deegan.

Thirty years after Robinson, Deegan became the second woman to win a NASCAR sanctioned race last year when she won at Meridian (Idaho) Speedway in the K&N Pro Series West. She’s added two more wins this season.

“She seems like such a confident girl,” Robinson said. “There’s no question she’s a hard driver that’s not afraid to put her nose (in a tight spot) to get to the next spot. I think she’s got a ton of potential. The fact that she’s running with Toyota support and she’s running different K&N races, she can pretty much get into anything and drive it. I think that’s going to be her saving grace.”

Robinson has never met Deegan. If she does, what would she like to talk to her about?

“I hope she knows who I am would be one thing,” Robinson said with a slight laugh, “or who I was.”

Even if Deegan doesn’t know who she is, plenty of people still remember her career.

Robinson said she gets autograph cards in the mail “every day and get people that want things signed or just want to know how I’m doing. I’m happy about all that. They’re still very, very supportive.”