When you’re 21 years old and the lone female race car driver in a sea of male pilots careening around the track at 100-plus mph, there are lots of things to be scared of. Fiery crashes. Occupational sexism. Doubting fans. Constant comparisons to Danica Patrick. But considering the average driver’s seat is only four inches off the ground, a fear of heights is not usually an issue.
But when Ashley Freiberg, currently the only female driver in development for American sports car racing, moved from the pancake-flat suburbs of Chicago to cliff-studded Bondville, Vt., in 2010, she realized her mild case of acrophobia was hardly a good match for her towering new surroundings.
“My fear of heights kind of lured me in, because I wanted to see if I could break through it,” said Freiberg, the first woman to win a Skip Barber Racing Series overall championship (with 25 wins) and the first to win a BFGoodrich Skip Barber National Series race, at New Jersey Motorsports Park. “Driving a race car, that’s what you’re doing: pushing limits, breaking barriers in your mind.”
And so she decided to tackle her fear head on.
Freiberg began rock climbing at a gym with 25-foot walls, where she found out just how much strategy goes into the sport.
“I had no idea how much you actually had to think about what sequence of moves are needed to make it to the top,” she said.
Luckily, racing had prepared her for the mental maneuvering.
“I describe racing as ‘a chess game on wheels,’” said Freiberg, who will compete at Watkins Glen International Raceway for the Sahlen’s Six Hours of the Glen this weekend. “Yes, a lot of it is physical but a lot is in the brain.”
Though Freiberg struggled with the knowledge that she was “clinging to this wall like Spider-Woman, with nothing but my fingers and toes keeping me up,” she was pleasantly surprised by her physical agility and strength. After a few visits to the gym, the No. 51 Porsche GT3 Cup Car driver felt ready for the real thing.
Together with her coach (and ex-climber), Mike Zimicki, Freiberg headed to New Hampshire for her inaugural ascent up the 150-foot Artists Bluff cliff. She soon found herself paralyzed by fears of falling or equipment failure.
“But then I stopped for a moment, looked at all the safety gear I had, looked at the rock right in front of me and realized so much of this was in my head,” she said. “Climbing is about being in the moment; the less room I made in my head for emotions and negative thoughts, the calmer I was and the better I climbed.”
As her confidence grew, so did the elevations of her climbs.
“I made so many new discoveries about how much grip I can create on my feet by transferring my body weight around, or by using the tips of my fingers on a hold that sticks out only a centimeter thick,” she said.
Now it’s not unusual for her to climb 600 feet or higher.
Multiple parallels exist between Freiberg’s new sport and her chosen profession: Climbing and driving both require a finely tuned sense of calm and the ability to make split-second decisions. Both demand incredible grip strength and a willingness to live on the edge.
And Freiberg, who is tied for first place in the IMSA GT3 Cup Challenge standings, feels her sky-scraping hobby has amplified her poise on the track.
“It showed me whatever my brain thought I could do, I could make happen,” she said. “I have found new limits and discovered new things about my mind and why it reacts the way it does and how it performs at its best.”
Her gear of choice includes Mythos shoes, Lululemon tank tops, leggings (loose pants can get in the way), a pouch full of chalk for her hands and Neutrogena sunblock. With two-a-day training sessions that include kettlebell workouts, running, hiking and road biking, climbing offers a killer strength workout plus the chance to spend time in nature, learning lessons Freiberg carries with her off track and on.
“When I climb, I think, ‘If I fall 50 feet, is this little piece of hardware going to protect me?’” she said. “But that’s life in general: Anything can go wrong. Thinking like that will limit so much of what you do in life. You can focus on that bolt or you can enjoy the climb.”