Gracie Hackenberg: Driver, race-car fabricator, and Smith College student
When it comes to America’s best schools for aspiring mechanics, Smith College appears on no one’s top-10 list. The elite women’s liberal arts institution in Northampton, Massachusetts, is known for its strong focus on environmental sustainability and social justice—not automotive mechanics and certainly not racing.
It wasn’t on Gracie Hackenberg’s list, either. “I wanted to drive and build race cars,” she says. “Smith had a machine shop and an engineering program but nothing automotive. However, I had the opportunity to design a curriculum that would give me the experience to start my career in motorsports.” Hackenberg’s family didn’t go to the track. They didn’t watch auto racing on TV. But her grandfather—a retired space shuttle and flight simulator engineer at NASA’s Ames Research Center—had some vintage cars.
“I remember tinkering with him in his garage and always loving cars from a mechanical standpoint,” Hackenberg says. “But it wasn’t until I was 16 and went to racing school that I decided I wanted to make it a career.”
That summer class at Portland International Raceway in Oregon offered professional instruction and plenty of track time. It satisfied Hackenberg’s need for speed. Fast forward to Smith College where, as a student of mechanical engineering, she purchased a 1999 Mazda Miata and modified it to compete in the Grassroots Motorsports $2017 Challenge. Hackenberg and her team—Smith’s first racing team, which Hackenberg founded—eventually shipped their retrofitted creation to a Florida track to race against other American colleges in the industry-sponsored competition.
From engine work to fabricating a roll cage and spoiler, much of the work Hackenberg did she learned by watching DIY videos on YouTube. “I ended up building that car without a lift or any real automotive tools,” she says. “But the mechanical engineering program at Smith allowed me to tailor my coursework to what I really wanted to do.” The team raised $1800 and managed to compete against colleges with full automotive programs.
Hackenberg’s dream beyond school was to work as a mechanic in NASCAR or Formula 1. It was her determination that captured the attention of the Wall Street Journal and, soon after, the RPM Foundation, leading to exciting opportunities and a reexamination of her goals.
“Through RPM programs, I met a lot of people in the industry, including my idol, Lyn St. James,” Hackenberg says. “She’s become a mentor and has given me a lot of career and life advice.” Hackenberg also met Brian Donovan, who after reading about Hackenberg’s Smith College racing team in the WSJ followed her results and then offered her a job.
Donovan Motorcar Service in Lenox, Massachusetts, is best known for building Jaguar engines for vintage racing E-types. It’s also a hands-on restoration and service shop for all things vintage European. Hackenberg served an internship with Donovan during her senior year and started full time after graduating in 2018.
“Working with Brian on vintage cars has changed my whole perspective,” Hackenberg says. “I’m still racing my Miata, but I want to race Jaguars, too, and even build a vintage racer of my own. I’ve found a true passion in vintage racing, a sport that’s not about status but how important these old cars are.”