Racing with Gracie
Engineering student, and motorsport fiend, Gracie Hackenberg – and friends – turned classroom lessons into motorsport reality by building an MX-5 race car on the cheap
Engineering student Gracie Hackenberg – and friends – turn classroom lessons into motorsport reality by building an MX-5 racer
Words: Matt Stone. Photographs: Sam Masinter; Gracie Hackenberg collection; Anthony Neste/ Grassroots Motorsports
Gracie Hackenberg is an affable, well-spoken student. She was born in Florida, USA, raised in Portland, Oregon, and attends Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts. It would be easy to take her for a pleasant but otherwise average college senior. But to do so would be a major mistake.
There’s little that’s ‘just average’ about Gracie. Like the rest of us she has a heartbeat, but hers isn’t measured with a stethoscope – you’ll need a tacho. And she’s got as much oil as blood pressure. Because Gracie is a certified motorhead. She caught the bug helping and hanging out at her grandfather’s auto shop; it wasn’t a racing or high performance kind of place, just a general garage. It was here, and through him, that she developed an affinity for things mechanical, and she did more than her fair share of oil changes and routine repairs.
In high school, once she’d reached driving age, the bug got
worse: she discovered how much she really loved cars and enjoyed driving. During some adventure or another, she figured out that going fast thrilled her, so she decided to properly learn how.‘i did the Pro Drive Racing School programme run by Todd Harris at Portland International Raceway when I was in high school,’ Gracie recalls.‘that was my first time on the track and really the beginning of my passion for motorsports – before that it was just a love for cars. It was a fantastic programme and I highly recommend it to anyone on the West Coast.’ It didn’t hurt that Gracie has been a varsity-level athlete all through school, putting her in good physical condition with sharp reflexes.
Post-high school she sought out a small arts college with an engineering programme, and selected all-girls Smith College. It struck her that of all the campus activities, Smith didn’t have a racing team.‘so I decided to start one.’ Of course a racing team needs a racing car and races to participate in, so Gracie again took the lead – she identified Grassroots Motorsports $2017
Challenge as an appealing event to take a run at. Grassroots Motorsports (GRM) is a popular American enthusiast magazine – its strapline is:‘by Gearheads. For Gearheads’ – and the multifaceted challenge event is all about, ‘Celebrating the Country’s [the US, that is] Top Low-buck Builders’.
Each year’s Grassroots Motorsports Challenge encompasses three events: an autocross, drag racing, and a car show – and contenders must be built on a strict budget, of one dollar per calendar year; the 2017 event limit was $2017, and this year’s is $2018, and so forth. So the car must be lean, mean, and clean to compete in those three disciplines, not to mention that the driver must pack considerable versatility at the wheel. Gracie and her class/team-mates divined this to be just their ticket into low buck motorsports competition.
Smith College Racing received considerable coaching, advice and support from the school, but no funding. Gracie and her team needed to raise the money, garner the sponsorships, and build the car themselves. She credits several of her engineering programme professors for helping out, plus a cadre of family and friends. More specific help came from Connecticut-based Hale Motorsports, a well-known (primarily) Mazda racing car building and support concern, and she also credits Dean Case
(formerly) of Mazda Motorsports Public Relations for considerable coaching and guidance. Plus a dozen others whose names are memorialised on the back of the team’s custom T-shirts.
Hale was the source of the car – a rare and now collectible 1999 10th Anniversary edition Mx-5.‘don’t worry,’ Gracie adds quickly,‘we didn’t hack up a low-mile concours contender to make it into a racing car. It was a wreck, literally and figuratively.’ Hale acquired the car as salvage with the intent of a race car build anyway, so he sold it to Gracie for $600. ‘It was cheap, but it needed a lot of work,’ reveals Gracie. ‘We had lots of bodywork to do, and it needed new doors and front end panels and such.’ But the price was right and the bones were worth saving. So Smith College Racing got busy.
‘We didn’t even have a proper shop to build the car in,’ she recalls. Some of the car was built in a too-small shed, while other jobs were undertaken outside. Gracie proved she was no dilatant racer, rolling up her sleeves and grabbing the tools – she ground, cleaned, drilled, welded and installed. A big part of the job was sorting the bodywork and making sure the chassis and suspension were straight.
Likely the next largest task was building the roll-cage from scratch – it was measured, cut, formed and welded by the team. Done right it would add the necessary safety protection, and a measure of extra chassis rigidity for sharper handling.
The entire powertrain, suspension and driveline were removed, spruced up and modified where the budget allowed. The engine is internally standard, but earned a few extra ponies via a cold air intake system and racing exhaust (cut and pasted primarily from scrounged up used pieces), and a fresh coil pack. Miata special edition-style wheels were painted red and wrapped in fresh high performance rubber.
A clear Lexan rear spoiler was homefabricated and mounted to the rear deck. The cool gearknob is a 3D-printed piece. And a million other ancillary details were sorted to make the poor little wreck into a real racer. Then the whole thing was covered in a fresh, homebrewed paint scheme, and finished off with lettering and decals acknowledging all of the helpers and sponsors.
It’s likely this is the first race car build in the history of motorsport to come in under-budget; the whole build rang the register at $1625.23 including the initial cost of the car, and Gracie proudly adds that this number includes every nut, bolt and washer bought and used. Recall that the event allowed a max spend of $2017, so the Smith College Racing MX-5 was track-ready with a few dollars (on paper) to spare.
Gracie wasn’t sure what to expect when checking in at Florida’s
Gainesville Raceway, up against nearly 40 other teams, virtually all male, and some with more than a little track time under their Nomex.
She was pleasantly surprised at how welcoming everyone was, with a great sense of community at the event. ‘Everybody helped everyone else out, whether it was the loan of a part, a tool or some muscle.’
The cars ran the gamut from mild to wild: a variety of low buck bangers including other Mazdas, several Datsun Zs, Mustangs, Hondas, you-name-its and a torrid-looking American Motors AMX. Gracie drove hard and smart, doing well up against several cars that were likely faster, and some drivers with more experience.
Smith College Racing finished as the highest placing Mazda in the overall tally, taking a commendable third place in the autocross, and seventh overall, plus winning the Grassroots Motorsports Editors’ Choice title. Gracie’s smartly turned out MX-5 took the pounding and kept coming back for more, with no mechanical breakdowns worthy of mention. One occasional challenge was dealing with an onboard computer and engine management system that was looking for things like seatbelts, airbags and certain emissions levels, but the team worked through and got past it all to finish well and in one piece, still a runner at the end of the event.
Gracie sums up her GRM Challenge experience:‘oh, so much fun!’what’s next for her? Graduating from Smith with her engineering degree is on for summer 2018 and probably some more MX-5 autocross and racing.
She’s investigating what will be needed to modify and refit her car into legal Sports Car Club of America Spec Miata form. But she has no immediate designs on become the next Danica Patrick, the only female winner of an Indycar race; instead she knows the name and background of every successful female motorsport racing team engineer, and that’s her current career goal.
She has befriended Lyn St. James (former racing driver and winner of the Indianapolis 500 Rookie of the Year award in 1992), who she admires greatly and thanks for giving her lots of excellent advice and mentoring about being a woman in motorsport.
So next time Porsche, Audi or maybe even Mazda wins the Le Mans 24 Hours, check to see if the team’s chief racing engineer is a woman. It might just be Gracie Hackenberg.
Left: new brakes and suspension components were fitted, and yet still the car came in under the rules’ $2017 budget (which included the cost of the car!)
Right: gearknob is a 3D-printed item
Above: the Smith College Racing crew did all the work on the car themselves, including the rear axle refurb
Above: cold air intake was one of the car’s few performance upgrades
An unlikely drag racer, but that was one of the disciplines in Gracie’s racing event debut
Smith College Racing team members all wore T-shirts thanking their sponsors