Vanessa Robinson: Breaking Down Barriers on Her Race to the Top

By Gloria Vaquera Photo by Domacio Bernal

When Vanessa Robinson started down a career path in a male-dominated sport, being a female didn’t seem to be an issue—at least not to her. Fortunately, it didn’t take long for her to demonstrate her potential and has proven that she is worthy of respect not based on her gender, but rather on her talent and ability to outmaneuver even her male counterparts on the track.

“I was never brought up to think that I was a girl. I mean I knew I was a girl, but I didn’t feel like I had any limitations just because I was a girl. Behind the wheel of my car racing is where I belong. It’s just what I love to do,” explained Vanessa. 

Vanessa isn’t the only one in her family that’s into racing. When Vanessa’s parents, Luz Ibarra and Martin Robinson, married in 1988, Martin was already in the business of racing. In fact, he’s been a driver, a machinist and race engine builder for the past 35 years. In 1993 Luz raced for the first time in an all-lady’s race in a car rigged with 2x4s on the gas peddles, and pillows on the seats so that she could reach. The following year, Martin built Luz her very own custom-fitted car and she went on to become the first woman to win the Street Stock Championship, at SNM Speedway. 

Sisters, Valerie and Vanessa, were essentially born into a life at the track, but it was Vanessa who channeled her inner race car driver early on following in her father’s footsteps. “My dad deserves all the credit for everything I know about racing, for building my cars and for keeping me honest. He is the only one in our family who has not won a championship and it’s not because he isn’t capable. He is a very talented driver, but helping others has always been more important,” praises Vanessa. She tells me that on one occasion Martin was running against a friend that needed a car part and Martin willingly gave it to him. It ultimately cost him the race and his friend went on to win the championship.

Martin built Vanessa’s first full-size racing car when she was only 9 years old. However, Luz didn’t allow her to actually drive it because she was too small to reach the gas pedals and see over the dash. Her concern was that she could hurt herself or other drivers because of her lack of experience. Vanessa eventually grew into her car and has now been racing for fourteen years, making her only 13 years old when she started on a dirt track at the Southern New Mexico Speedway.

Once she made her way around the track comfortably at the SNM Speedway, which didn’t take very long, they took her out to a bigger track in El Paso. By year two, her talent was becoming more apparent and she was running both tracks on a regular basis to get familiar with the car and the tracks. In 2009, she was ready and her team set a goal to win the championship. Training to win consisted of racing at the Speedway in Las Cruces on Friday nights, working all night on the car if she wrecked it, and racing on Saturday in El Paso. The work paid off; that year she won her first Street Stock Championship.

After winning numerous races against both men and women, Vanessa transitioned to running modifieds on asphalt at the Sandia Speedway in Albuquerque in 2011. She admits that although this was not a NASCAR sanctioned class she needed it for the experience. After racing this class for a year, she and her team finished 2nd in points and received the title of Rookie of the Year. More significantly, Vanessa was the first female driver to win a main event in Asphalt Modified at the Sandia Speedway. That same year, she was also named Rookie of the Year in the Dirt Limited Late Model class at SNM Speedway. 

With her eyes set on bigger tracks, Vanessa was quickly outgrowing what Las Cruces and El Paso had to offer. In 2012, she became the first woman to join Lucas Oil Modified Series, a touring series, and the following year she became the first female driver to start pole at the Blythe Speedway in California in that same class. This was a big deal because pole is the most favorable position at the start of a motor race because it means the qualified driver will start from the first position in that race.

Hardships, however, are an unavoidable fact of life and this was no exception for team Robinson. After suffering a back injury from a serious crash on the track, Vanessa underwent surgery. Although her surgery was successful, she was unfortunately out for an entire season. As luck would have it, after the rehabilitation treatments were over and she was cleared to get back into her car, all their vehicles were stolen from the parking lot of the hotel in California. “They took everything except our luggage which was with us in the room,” remembers Luz. “They took the truck and the trailer with Vanessa’s car inside and spare motors. But I really think that God had a different plan for us because we were on a path and all of the things that happened in 2014 redirected our plans,” said Luz. 

2015 was the first full season back and it turned out to be one of Vanessa’s most successful. Not only was she named Rookie of the Year in Super Late Model at the Tucson Speedway but also for the entire state of Arizona as well as in NASCAR Whelen All American Series. She was also the first female driver to win a major event at the Tucson Speedway and was that year’s driver with the most wins. One of Vanessa’s most notable events of the year, however, was winning the Championship at NASCAR’s Inaugural North American where she proudly represented Mexico and being named the First Female Hispanic NASCAR Driver in the K&N Pro Series.

She placed 6th in points in the NASCAR Pro Truck and 5th in points in Super Late Model at the Tucson Speedway in 2016. Then, this year, Vanessa once again won the Championship in the NASCAR North American in Super Late Model. She was also selected as a driver for Jefferson Pitt’s Racing in NASCAR K&N Pro Series. 

Even while competing against men, sometimes twice her age that believe “she’s just a girl,” Vanessa has an impressive resume. And as her rank in NASCAR has improved, so have her talents. Although she has to be approved by NASCAR to move up, the plan next is to break into the Camping World Truck Series in 2018, one more step on her race to the top. 

Ask Vanessa Robinson what sets her apart and she’ll say, “I’m not like most girls and I definitely don’t spinout like a girl. I’m just another driver.” 

Summer 2017

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