Renée Brinkerhoff scanned the room full of men and began to feel uneasy. The driver’s meeting for the 2017 La Carrera Panamericana, the seven-day, 2000-mile, high-speed road rally through Mexico, suddenly felt like the wrong place to be.
“What am I doing here?” the 61-year-old mother of four recalls thinking.
The moment of doubt passed swiftly, however, as Brinkerhoff thought back to her racing debut at the 2013 La Carrera Panamericana. She won the Sport Menor category in her 1956 Porsche 356, becoming the second female competitor to reach the podium in the storied rally’s history, which includes the original 1950–54 race and the revival that began in 1988.
In the 2014 event, driving in fog and heavy rain, Brinkerhoff and co-driver Roberto Mendoza took second in class and 14th overall. Brinkerhoff, a Denver resident, also placed second in class in 2015, despite a crash that temporarily sidelined her car. Brinkerhoff’s crew worked through the night to make repairs, using parts provided by a local Porsche collector.
“Once I got that focus back, I knew it was right to be there,” she says. “I’m here because there’s something inside me that’s exactly the same as [in] the men. This is not for a profession or money, but for sheer enjoyment of driving. We want adventures. We want challenges. And we love the experience of driving these cars in these places.”
Brinkerhoff, whose team, Valkyrie Racing, is named for the female figures of Norse mythology who choose battle survivors, went on to win the Sport Menor category again in 2017. She is the only woman to have ever finished and placed all four years that she drove in the demanding and dangerous race.
Brinkerhoff’s performance in La Carrera Panamericana is especially impressive considering she began racing just four years ago, specifically to run this race. The bug to do it, she says, came as a “now or never” desire to live a dream she’d harbored since driving a hot-rodded Volkswagen Beetle as a teenager. The daughter of a diplomat, Brinkerhoff credits her time living in Southeast Asia for fueling her fondness for adventure.
For Brinkerhoff, the 2017 La Carrera Panamericana was the start of her World Rally Tour, a plan to compete in six long-distance endurance races. In April, she’ll run the six-day, 1200-mile Targa Tasmania rally with her new navigator, Calvin Cooledge, a Brit with 30 years of rallying experience. She’ll finish 2018 by racing in November’s Grand Prix of South America, a revival of a race held just once, in 1948. The 30-day, 5700-mile competition includes numerous stages run on dirt and gravel.
The quest will continue in June–July 2019 at the 36-day, 9300-mile Peking-to-Paris race, followed by the eight-day, 1200-mile East African Safari Classic in November 2019. Such punishing, off-pavement racing requires the Porsche to be raised for added road clearance while also maintaining stability and agility, and special ventilation is needed to keep dust out of the cabin and engine compartment. An ice race in Antarctica is planned for 2020.
“This is a major leap for the car,” Brinkerhoff admits. “In some races, a 356 has never participated, and there might not be another woman driver. We’re really jumping into the deep end.”
Built for endurance
Brinkerhoff purchased her 356, a car already modified into an “outlaw,” in 2011.
Originally built by Greg Johnson of Eurosport in Denver, the car was prepped for the 2017 La Carrera Panamericana by Jim Ansite in California. The race’s Sport Menor rules call for original bodywork, but the mechanicals beneath are far from stock.
The 2.0-liter boxer four, built by Porsche specialist Fat Performance, is based on the Type 4 engine used in VW’s 411/412 models and the Porsche 914. Modifications include 11:1 compression and dual Weber carburetors to make 152 horsepower. Built the same year Brinkerhoff was born, her 356 has been extensively modified with a five-speed manual transmission, 911 rear suspension, a limited-slip differential, four-wheel disc brakes, and 12-volt electrical system. Safety equipment includes a full roll cage, fire system, and 80-liter fuel cell.
For the rest of Brinkerhoff’s World Rally Tour, Tuthill Porsche in Oxfordshire, England—renowned for building Porsches for modern and historic rallying—will take over car prep.
Among the team’s sponsors is La Loma, a Mexican restaurant in Denver that Brinkerhoff’s husband runs. “He doesn’t really like my racing, but he supports it,” she says. “He knows how passionate I am about it.”
Brinkerhoff is especially gratified that her daughters are the most enthusiastic about the racing. “I want to encourage women not to take no for an answer—not to be told they can’t do something.”
Their mother is living proof that if there’s a will, there’s a way.