She is a competitive race car driver who built her own race car, a physics whiz with her eye on a career as a race engineer and a current freshman at Brown University. With such an impressive resume, one might expect a very serious 19-year-old. But Sydney McKee is as bubbly, effusive and engaging as she is intelligent, grounded and driven — and it is disarming and entirely refreshing. With equal parts ease and exuberance, she trades jabs with her male counterparts on the track, waxes rhapsodic about her fellow racer and role-model father and lights up at the mention of her “cute, fluffy” dogs, Zinny and Chloe. As she leads us around Barber Motorsports Park, one thing is clear: She is at home on the race track. We are delighted to introduce today’s FACE of Birmingham, Sydney McKee.
How did you begin racing?
My love for racing was sparked when I was my father’s guest at the Porsche Sport Driving School (PSDS) at Barber Motorsports Park. The intense nature of the sport as well as the inviting demeanor of the instructors immediately captivated me. I was too young to drive in a PSDS course, so my father decided to take me to the Bob Bondurant School of High Performance Driving in Arizona, where I was able to get my first taste of being behind the wheel of a race car. As my passion grew, my dad agreed to give me some money in order to build a Spec Miata. I spent a summer sweating in a garage with one of my close friends as we turned a Mazda Miata into a race car. About a year ago, my Spec Miata was born with the name Penny, and I have been racing her ever since then.
Why is her name Penny?
When we were looking for cars to build into a Spec Miata, we found lucky pennies on the ground. Once we found the chosen Miata, we opened up her center console to find pennies encrusted in it like someone had spilled a soda. As we started ripping out the interior, we kept finding pennies and the name stuck.
So what is thrilling, exciting and addictive about racing?
It’s definitely an adrenaline rush. You get in the car, and you have to be razor-edge focused the entire time. A major difference between racing and any other sport is one mistake could cost you a place, your car or, in extreme situations, your life.
What has been the biggest hurdle you’ve faced with racing?
The biggest hurdle initially was my age. At 16, the ways I could get involved with racing were limited. Nowadays, the biggest hurdle is maintaining a balance between racing and life. Racing is an expensive sport, so all of the money I make gets poured into my car. My mom offered to buy me a new pair of jeans for college, because I need new jeans, and she knows that I would rather spend my money on tires than jeans. It’s hard to find the balance of enjoying and loving racing, but not being consumed by it. Especially as I am going off to college, I have to find a balance between being a college student and finding time to race or drive.
How do you prepare for a race?
Preparation for a race starts way in advance. You have to be in good physical condition as driving a race car is much more physical than driving your normal street car. There isn’t power steering, which means that when you are turning the car, you are physically turning the wheels. This requires a lot of upper body strength and core strength.
And then, I have something called I-racing. It’s a racing simulator that is comparable to a high-tech video game. I can download race tracks from all over the world in order to practice racing skills and learn new track layouts.
The day of a race it is all about making sure you’re calm, level-headed and (especially in the summer) hydrated. It’s all about creating the right balance within yourself and making sure that you’re calm and prepared and excited.
How has racing changed you?
It has made me a much more focused, mature person. My dad told me from the beginning, “If you want to build this race car, it’s all on you.” You want a seat? Go contact someone, and get a seat. I was constantly calling and emailing people. This was during the end of my junior year, so I would be at school and have to run out of class to take a phone call to get something set up for the car. It made me buck up a little bit and be like, “OK, I have a goal. Let’s get this done!”
What is it like to compete in this traditionally male-dominated field?
It’s a split environment. Some of the guys in the sport love that I’m a female who races and they want to support me in any way they can. And then there are some others who look down on me and think, “Oh, you’re actually here to race — you’re not just someone’s girlfriend?” It’s nice sometimes, going out there and competing with someone, knowing they can’t see me, and they don’t know that behind all the racing gear is a female. Being a female constantly surrounded by males is not always an easy situation to be in as I have been sexualized and stereotyped. But I have my team who loves me and supports me, and that’s what I focus on and that is what really matters.
You studied physics for three years in high school, and you plan to continue to study physics at Brown University. How has your love for physics affected your racing?
Racing a car is a practical application of physics. When you make an adjustment to the suspension, it changes how the car handles. Being a driver who understands the mechanics of the car is very important as it allows me to better communicate to my team how to adjust the car to make it best work for me.
How do you plan to incorporate racing into your career and future?
As much as I love driving and racing cars, it’s very difficult to turn it into a career, partially because there are some people who want to buy the seats in professional series. I wouldn’t say I’ve given up on the dream of actually racing as a career, but I’ve put that to the side and am trying to be a little more realistic. So, I’d like to be what they call a race engineer, someone who figures out how to best set up the car in order to maximize its capabilities.
Favorite Birmingham restaurant?
Satterfield’s. We have a tradition that every Saturday night after racing, we go to Satterfield’s.
What’s your best piece of advice?
My best piece of advice is to focus on what you can control. There are many variables in my life that I have no control over, and focusing on them only causes unnecessary stress and worry. Instead, I try to focus on putting my best into the things that I can control and letting go of the things that I cannot.
Name three frivolous or lighthearted things you can’t live without.
My dogs, my race car and a good cup of coffee.
Thank you, Sydney! To learn more about Sydney, Penny and their races, check out the FaDa Racing Facebook page.
Thank you to Charity Ponter of Charity Ponter Photography for today’s beautiful photography.