It takes a lot to be a successful race car driver — nerves of steel, cat-like reflexes, and razor-sharp focus. We’ve always wondered if that makes them better drivers on the road, so we got in touch with 18-year-old Natalie Fenaroli, one of the most exciting young drivers in the racing world, for some answers.

Natalie started racing go-karts at the age of 5 and was the youngest female driver to win the Kid Kart National Championship at age 7. In 2008, she was profiled by Autoweek magazine as one of “Five of the Fastest Women You Will Ever Meet.” She’s the highest-finishing female in Mazda’s Teen Mazda Challenge and the only female to win a race in the history of that series. So, it’s safe to say she knows a little bit about driving. (Full disclosure: she’s also a family friend.)

We caught up with Natalie at home in Kansas City, MO, just before Christmas.

How did you get started with racing?

When I was 4 years old, my dad heard an NPR story about how the brain works and how much children’s brains develop when they’re young. He wanted to hardwire my driving skills before I was 16, so he had me start driving go-karts just after my fourth birthday. I was very competitive (you can start racing once you reach the age of 5). A lot of professional racers start with go-karts. It’s a relatively inexpensive way to get started.

What type of racing are you doing currently?

I’m currently racing a Spec Miata — it’s the race car version of the Mazda Miata. I moved to cars from go-karts when I was 14.

The National Auto Sports Association partners together with Mazda for the Teen Mazda Challenge [which I took part in last year]. It’s a race within a race — drivers between 13 and 22 are scored separately. It’s supercompetitive; at one point there were 30+ cars on the track.

How do you anticipate what other drivers might do on the track? And how does that ability help you on the road?

It’s a matter of time and practice and observation. I’m always conscious of what’s going on around me. Awareness — knowing where all the cars are around you at all times — is really, really important.

In karting school, I learned “with distance comes comfort.” Don’t focus on just what’s right in front of you. You don’t need to be right on someone [like I would be in a race]. It’s easier to be aware when you’re further out.

When you got your drivers license at 16, did you ace your driving test? 

I did not ace my driving test [laughs]. I might have missed a few points, like when I was parking on a hill and had to turn my wheels in. But I wasn’t close to failing.

How do you avoid a collision or obstacle?

It’s more of an instinctual thing for me. I have pretty darn good reflexes after driving for so many years. So, I have an instinctual reaction when something happens.

How do you deal with bad weather or a hazard like oil on the track?

It’s definitely anticipation. If it’s wet or there’s oil on the track, I immediately start running through scenarios: how will I react, how will others around me react? And I adjust accordingly.

How do you maintain your focus for the entire race? What’s going on in your mind?

You can’t not focus at the track. When I’m on the road, to keep focus, I will practice where people are around me. I make a game of staying aware. I’m a huge advocate against texting and driving.

When you’re on the road, do you ever wish you could be going faster?

No, on a regular road I don’t need to go fast because I can do that at the track.

My dad made it clear that the track and the road are very different places. Those behaviors belong on the racetrack, not on the road.

How can you tell when your car needs maintenance, other than relying on gauges? Is it the way the car starts to handle?

My race car has pretty standard gauges: gas, RPM, oil pressure, water temperature. Tires are one of the most important [features] of the car. I can definitely tell when the tires are going away. By the end of the weekend, there’s a noticeable difference. The car will break loose differently in the corners.

My own car is a MINI Cooper. I always check the tire pressure and oil to make sure the car is running well. It will last longer and be a better car if I maintain it.

What’s the biggest challenge of driving in the real world?

When I first started driving, I wasn’t used to cars coming at me from the other direction. I would stay very far to the right because I was scared of the oncoming traffic.

Now, the challenge is paying attention. It’s so easy to be distracted by thoughts about homework [or other things going on].

Do you think racing makes you a better driver on the road?

Yes, I would definitely say it does. [Racing has given me] really good instinctive skills and additional awareness, which makes me a more courteous and safer driver. The original plan worked out well!

What piece of advice would you give drivers in the real world?

Just drive. You’re in the car to drive.

You should find pleasure in getting to drive a car. If you enjoy it, you’re more likely to be focused and keep a calm mental state.

I learned a long time ago: it doesn’t help to drive angry. That’s when you make mistakes. When something happens, you have to let it go because you have something else coming. If someone cuts me off, I don’t dwell on it.

Natalie’s top driving tips

Here’s a quick rundown of this racer’s best recommendations:

  • Stay conscious of where other drivers are around you
  • Don’t tailgate — it’s easier to be aware when you’re further out
  • Don’t text and drive
  • Save speeding for the track
  • When conditions are poor, try to anticipate how that might affect you and other drivers
  • Don’t drive angry — that’s when you make mistakes
  • You’re in the car to drive, so enjoy it and stay focused

Keep an eye on Natalie Fenaroli

Natalie is definitely a driver to watch (she spent last weekend being interviewed and photographed by the Wall Street Journal). You can follow her career on her website and Facebook page — and you can follow her excellent driving advice anytime you’re behind the wheel.

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about Ellen

Ellen has spent many years as a professional wordsmith, helping to shed light on such topics as world travel, cargo pants, and the porosity of bath tiles. As a freelance copywriter for Esurance, she brings her boundless curiosity to the world of insurance. Outside work, she can be found cheering on the San Francisco Giants, hiking in the Oakland hills, and (barely) resisting smuggling penguins home from Antarctica.