As soon as she could see over the steering wheel, Julia Landauer switched to cars, and it was good. Up to that point, she had been racking up trophies as one of the country’s best young go-kart racers; at 13 she was finally able to see out a car’s windshield while also working its pedals, so off she went in 2005 to the famed Skip Barber Racing School. She took immediately to the upgraded complexity, and speed, of a vehicle that had a clutch and could do 120 miles per hour, and the next year, at 14, she became the first female champion in the 31-year history of the Skip Barber Series, a launchpad for professional racers.
As is the case with all child racers, Landauer’s expensive hobby was funded by her parents, a doctor and a lawyer who got all three of their kids into go-karts because, her father decided, racing was one of only three sports that allowed boys and girls to truly compete on equal footing (archery and sky diving being the others). “The goal was just to get them to take responsibility, to get used to functioning under a little bit of pressure, and to have fun,” says Steve Landauer (he’s the doctor). The Landauers also liked that racing taught their girls to “not succumb to a lot of the social norms about stepping out of the way,” adds Tracy, her mom.
But the Landauers had no idea how talented their oldest child would be until she started winning races—and then didn’t stop. Even before Julia won the Skip Barber Series, she had decided she was going to be a professional driver someday. “By the time I was 12, I was like, ‘I could do this forever,’ ” she says.
And that posed a problem: If Julia really did stick with it, becoming a pro racer was likely to take years and cost tens and perhaps hundreds of thousands of dollars just to get to a point where she might start earning money. The Landauers were happy to support their daughter and would keep contributing to the best of their ability, but they weren’t about to go broke doing it. So they began an open dialogue that put some of the onus on her. If Julia wanted to keep racing, she’d eventually have to figure out a way to supplement the costs.
In other words, she’d need sponsorships, for which she would compete against every other young racer with the same goal. Being a girl in a heavily male niche helped, but that couldn’t be her only selling point. What Landauer recognized, even at 14, was that she needed to turn herself into a brand and run her life as a business.
Her first inspiration was to pitch the playful, girl-friendly fashion designer Betsey Johnson. Julia typed up a résumé and proposal, and with her father at her side, walked the package into the company’s Manhattan headquarters, where she handed it to a receptionist, asking that she “please give it to Betsey.” Julia left excited, thinking, “Here we go! I’ll expect a call back in a few days.”
She never heard a word.
“Julia had the harsh lesson that when you walk in cold to a company and meet the nice receptionist who’s happy to take your paper, sometimes she does absolutely nothing with it,” Steve recalls. “And I said, ‘Get used to this. You’ll have another thousand of these before somebody will give you money.’ ”
Nascar Plaza looms over downtown Charlotte, a beacon to the many racers who live in the area, most of them transplants who’ve come with the dream of joining America’s top professional racing series. (Landauer was one of them until recently, when she moved to Asheville.) In the shadow of the tower is the shiny glass-and-steel box that houses the sport’s Hall of Fame and Museum, where Landauer met in 2016 with Nascar marketing execs and the 10 other drivers (all men) who, like her, had been selected for the 2016-17 Nascar Next program, which seeks to identify and “spotlight the best and brightest rising young stars in racing,” according to Nascar marketing materials.
Landauer, now 25, was a fairly obvious choice. She is one of the most promising young drivers in America, and almost certainly the best who isn’t male. Last year she finished fourth in Nascar’s K&N Pro Series West, three tiers below the Monster Energy Nascar Cup Series, where Jimmie Johnson and Dale Earnhardt Jr. make millions driving in 200-mph circles. There are zero women in the sport’s second tier, the Xfinity Series, and just one—44-year-old Jennifer Jo Cobb—in the Camping World Truck Series, which falls just below that. Which means that Landauer is the only up-and-coming female with a legitimate chance of reaching the Cup, as racers call it, in the near future, to join Danica Patrick, who has been racing 39 men every week since 2013, when she became the first woman to land a full-time Cup ride.
That alone makes Landauer unique, but it’s hardly the most interesting thing about her. She isn’t from the South, or even the West, the two hotbeds of stock car racing. She was raised in Manhattan, attended one of New York City’s most prestigious and competitive public high schools, Stuyvesant, and then graduated from Stanford, in 2014, on time, despite missing half a semester to compete on the reality TV show Survivor in an effort to win $1 million to fund future racing and extend the reach of her personal brand. She didn’t win. She got nine minutes of screen time and a second-degree sunburn.
It costs $300,000 to $500,000 to run a full season in the K&N Series, and there’s no pay. Only Cup drivers, who typically race for well-funded teams, earn significant salaries and get lucrative sponsorships; at every other level, drivers live on what they attract from smaller sponsors. Or they have rich parents. Or second jobs.
Last year, Landauer had the partial backing of a team with Toyota and National Automotive Parts Association sponsorship; this year she’s racing for a Ford team, and the team owner, who has a dealership in California, is partially subsidizing the costs. But there’s still plenty to make up with small sponsorships and “personal funding” from her parents. She also has learned to be creative. During her four years at Stanford, she had little time for racing, but that didn’t stop her from promoting the image. In 2012, as a sophomore, she shot a very earnest promotional video on campus and posted it to YouTube and her new website. “I have to work every day to develop my brand,” she says to the camera in her video, “but I also have to go to class.”
Landauer took advantage of Stanford’s rigorous business and technology curriculum, and also its fervent base of aspiring entrepreneurs. (Her own degree is in Science, Technology, and Society.) She had a searing experience in a marketing seminar when she faced a semicircle of classmates and asked them to critique her social media presence, after a failed attempt to raise money through Indiegogo. They ripped her apart, saying her image seemed too polished, inauthentic. “I went home and sobbed,” she says. “But it was great. The stuff I was trying wasn’t working.” The next time she tried Indiegogo, in 2015, it worked. She raised $11,475, or 115 percent of the goal she’d set to help fund a seven-race season at Virginia’s Motor Mile Speedway—which she won, becoming just the second woman to win a title in the track’s 63-year history.
As much as Landauer grew up at Stanford, she lost valuable time racing. She has watched boys she raced with as a teenager climb the ranks, many of them into the Camping World Truck Series, where she hopes to join them next year. That’s almost the big leagues. It’s Nascar’s third tier, featuring stock cars with lightweight truck bodies, and often includes Cup racers who are moonlighting for fun. To get there will require an invitation from a team, which Landauer is unlikely to get unless she attracts a lot more money—a season in trucks, as the circuit is called, runs $3 million to $5 million. Xfinity, the step beyond that, is $6 million to $8 million. And Cup: a minimum of $15 million.
The point isn’t that money can buy a Nascar seat; it’s that without the money a young driver is unlikely ever to get the experience and time required to advance to a level where he or she can be noticed. Racing is unique among the major professional sports in that it doesn’t simply reward skill. Most are basically an athlete and a ball. The practice required to become great takes thousands of hours, and coaching that sometimes costs money, but there aren’t huge capital requirements preventing a kid with broke parents from becoming a professional baseball, basketball, football, hockey, or soccer player.
Last year, Landauer signed with a manager, Chris Gough, which allowed her to hand off day-to-day business stuff. Gough has focused exclusively on major national sponsors, any one of which would open the door for a move to trucks. There, he thinks, Landauer’s profile could quickly rise to the point where larger sponsors come onboard, and at that point, provided she’s still competitive, it would be hard for big Cup-level teams not to get interested. “The trick is to get big enough—successful and/or popular enough—that a really good team wants to hire you, so that you can get in a good car,” Landauer says.
Given the right team, the right car, the right crew—well, it’s easy for Landauer’s mind to wander. Nascar is popular but slumping. TV ratings and live attendance are both down, and the sport has been slow to create stars with crossover appeal to replace the ones who are moving on. Jeff Gordon retired last year. Tony Stewart is down to a partial season. Earnhardt Jr., the most popular driver of the past 15 years, just announced that he’s finished after 2017.
Nascar needs to broaden its appeal, and one obvious improvement would be to get more women in the cars. Patrick’s debut was fervently covered by the national media. But seven years after her first Cup race, Patrick is still the only woman, and her star is dimming. She finished the 2016 season in 24th place out of 40 drivers, and as of mid-August, she was 28th.
Patrick has been candid about how she wants to be perceived. She’s always wanted people—especially the media and her peers—to view her as a racer, not as a woman who races. Landauer’s approach is different. Being a woman is part of her pitch, and she plans to be outspoken about that throughout her career, as both a political and social platform and as a brand extension.
The lack of female or even more generally unisex family brands in Nascar baffles her. Women make up 40 percent of the fans and control nearly half of new vehicle purchases in America. “Why are cosmetic companies not into it?” she asks. “Why are pharmacy brands? Feminine hygiene! That’s what we’re working on. I’d love to have a tampon on the side of my car.”
Just imagine the field of men trying to catch the woman with the tampon on the side of her bright pink car. “It would be so great,” she says, smiling, and then not. “I’m just like, ‘Please just get me in a car, and I’ll make you guys money. Invest now to pay off a little bit.’ ”
Between races, Landauer focuses obsessively on whatever she can do to advance her cause, which on too many days isn’t much. She rarely practices her actual driving—it just costs too much money. “A lot of what I do is sitting at my desk, organizing,” she says. She works out, posts content to her various social media channels, chases leads and contacts, tries to develop business opportunities with Gough, and maintains a healthy speaking schedule to cover her living expenses and travel costs.
In her final semester at Stanford, Landauer was asked to do a TEDx event and came up with an eight-minute talk titled “Can nice girls win (races)?” The lecture is lively and memorable, and it started a sideline that’s now an essential part of her marketing package. She has since refined her presentation while adding some new options, including a talk about STEM advocacy that focuses on the importance of science and technology in racing. Landauer now does at least one paid speech a month; she recently booked a five-figure sum for the first time, and she’ll speak at Fortune’s Most Powerful Women Summit this fall.
She hasn’t removed herself entirely from the sponsor hunt. The most promising lead, as of late summer, came after she met a group from a large energy company at the Green Sports Alliance conference in Sacramento. Clean energy is another of Landauer’s interests—it was a subfocus at Stanford—and she made a case for why Republicans and Democrats could possibly work together. By August the talks had progressed to where they were discussing financials, and it seemed likely that this company would soon pitch in enough to cover part of a 2018 campaign in trucks. “They were excited by my ability to reach a different audience than the one they’re reaching,” Landauer says.
High points like that helped offset a difficult summer in the car. Landauer finished out of the top 10 only once last season, but in the first two races of 2017, she finished 12th twice. Things improved the next weekend, but only slightly—with finishes of 10th and 6th. It got worse from there. Her motor blew in New Hampshire. Her alternator conked out in San Bernardino, Calif. And she had to pit after a single lap in Spokane, Wash., costing her valuable time, when she realized her window netting wasn’t properly secured.
Landauer is a realist. She understands that despite reaching her sport’s high minor leagues, she faces tough odds. And being 25 in a series dominated by teenagers, she’s constantly reminded that time isn’t on her side, either. “This is my last year at this level, it has to be,” she says, while buzzing up the freeway near Charlotte one afternoon in her black Volkswagen GTI. Landauer has a heavy foot, and flits through traffic, which comes in handy on tracks but is a trait she’s trying to curb on the roads, in part by listening to Jack Johnson. “If my only option next year is to race K&N again, I should probably look for another job,” she says.
That’s why this summer has been so disappointing. “I’m glad I didn’t know how awful this would be before I started,” she says, smiling weakly. Landauer prides herself on optimism, but the run of bad luck has tested her. She’s had more acne breakouts than she did as a teenager, she says; her brown hair is going gray. “When something goes wrong, you pick back up and keep going—if it’s worth it.” Racing, she says, has so many variables. “So many factors out of your control. I like being in control. So—I’m working on it.”
For a few years now, Landauer has been sending out newsletters after races to keep fans updated on her progress (and occasionally to make special announcements, such as when she made the Forbes “30 Under 30” list last summer). Lately she’s been sending personalized notes to important persons, including Nascar executives, “to justify why I did so terribly,” she says. “It’s not like I suddenly forgot how to drive.”
This was a day for attending to details. Her next race would be in Bristol, Tenn., on a storied track, and the event was to be doubly special because Nascar’s Cup drivers race there the same weekend. Bristol would be Landauer’s first time on a banked track, which creates tremendous G-forces in the corners. That requires a lighter helmet than the one she’d been using, which is why she was heading a half-hour north of Charlotte to Mooresville, home to many Nascar suppliers, including Simpson Performance Products Inc., which makes her race suit, boots, gloves, and helmet.
A woman behind the large circular desk inside Simpson’s showroom recognizes Landauer and asks how she can help. At her level, Landauer has no full sponsors, only a web of partial deals and arrangements that help with her racing costs. Simpson, for instance, doesn’t provide gear gratis but gives her a professional rate, plus additional discounts as her company rep sees fit. She also gets expedited service and customization. In addition to the new helmet, she needs some alterations on her two fireproof Nomex race suits, which are bunching up at the sleeves.
Landauer steps into one of the suits—blue, with white and orange accents—and pulls it up over her arms to demonstrate the sag. “Let’s take about an inch off,” she says. “And on the white one, I want to put a Nascar Next patch on it.”
Across the desk, a large man wearing a red T-shirt and suspenders that secure a pair of enormous pants over his belly has just paid for a new race suit for his adult daughter, and he’s been listening to Landauer’s conversation with the clerk. During a pause, he interjects.
“You race for Stewart-Haas?” he asks, as if he already knows the answer is yes, even though it’s actually no. Stewart-Haas is a Nascar team, the big show.
“I don’t,” Landauer responds. “I race in the K&N Series.”
“You look like someone in the Cup, I guess,” he says. That person, of course, is Danica Patrick, who does race for Stewart-Haas.
“Someday,” Landauer says, quietly. “That’s the idea.”