Amy Faulk’s automotive education began at her father’s body and radiator repair shop in Union City, TN, where she and her brother spent their days learning the parts and processes that keep cars running. Under the watchful eye of a father who didn’t believe women should drive at all, Amy never imagined that she would one day be drag racing at 260 miles per hour. No one who is familiar with her focus and determination is surprised that she overcame any challenges and limitations she faced, or that she’s the first female National Hot Rod Association World Champion in the Sportsman (amateur) category, dubbed “The Winningest Woman in Racing,” as well as the CEO of automotive technology manufacturer Hypertech.

We visited with Amy at her home away from home: Memphis International Raceway’s drag strip, which in 2012 honored her with their Lifetime Achievement Award. As we sat in the control tower overlooking the “Christmas tree” — the multi-colored light pole where racers start their stages — Amy shared how she got her own start at the track more than 40 years ago and how she’s conquered both external and internal competition ever since.

World Champion Racer and CEO of automotive technology manufacturer Hypertech, Amy Faulk

World Champion Racer and CEO of automotive technology manufacturer Hypertech, Amy Faulk

How did you begin drag racing?

My husband Kenny raced, but he really and truly likes working on cars. That’s what he enjoys. So one day, just completely out of the blue, he goes, “You’re going to race.” And I had no desire whatsoever. I’d watched him, but until you line up on the Christmas tree and experience going down there, you don’t know what you don’t know.

What were those early races like?

I was awful to begin with. I mean, terrible. Probably if I hadn’t been so bad, I might not have stuck with it. But you know, when you make a fool of yourself, you can either quit, or you can decide to get better, learn and then beat the guys that were making fun of you. We were the turkeys. Everybody wanted to line up against me because I was inexperienced and an easy win, they thought. And I was, for a while. Then we started doing well.

There were very few women back then who were doing it. I had to have a special women’s permit. At 21 years old, I couldn’t race on the track without getting two drag strip owners and two pro drivers to sign off. A young man at 16 who could get his driver’s license could come out here and race; a woman at 21 couldn’t.

Amy calls her NHRA World Championship ring her “Super Bowl ring”; like most prizes in the racing circuit, it was designed with men in mind.

Amy calls her NHRA World Championship ring her “Super Bowl ring;” like most prizes in the racing circuit, it was designed with men in mind.

How did racing help you transition to a career in the automotive after-market?

I came to Memphis and got a job in the medical industry and met my husband. He was a racer. I had work on Saturdays; it was a great job, but Saturdays interfered with racing, so I was very fortunate to get into the automotive field here in Memphis. The racing opened a lot of doors in my professional career.

When we won the World Championship in ’79, I was the Car Craft Driver of the Year in Super Stock, my category. We were winning quite a bit and everybody’s like, “Go professional, go professional.” But I wanted it to always be something fun that my husband and I enjoyed doing, and also my career meant more.

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Both racing and the automotive after-market are male-dominated fields. How did you find — or create — your place?

When I started in the automotive industry, there were few women who had jobs in more of a position than clerical. And so I contacted the president of the Specialty Equipment Market Association (SEMA) and said, “Look, I want something that’s going to help me survive in this business.” He challenged me to start it, so a friend and I put together the SEMA Businesswomen’s Network.

Then I wanted to do a scholarship for women to be in the industry. The SEMA board gave us a little space at the Las Vegas convention, and then I called all my racer friends to give me memorabilia. I think the very first year we raised $25,000; the next year was $250,000. All in all, we’ve raised over $1 million for the scholarship fund.

Amy Faulk was dubbed “The Winningest Woman in Racing” by the National Hot Rod Association, yet a career that led to the CEO’s office kept her from turning pro.

Amy was dubbed “The Winningest Woman in Racing” by the National Hot Rod Association, yet a career that led to the CEO’s office kept her from turning pro.

How do you connect with the next generation of female racers?

I hope that my racing and my career and the things I do inspire everyone, but mostly inspire women to look outside the box and not be afraid to fail. You are not going to be good at anything at the very beginning. It’s too easy to quit, and a lot of people do quit – they’re like, “Well, I was embarrassed.” I ran out in a rice field! My nickname for a year was Rice-A-Roni. And it was just an experience. It was just part of the life.

Your helmet features a butterfly. What’s your connection to that symbol?

It’s because, growing up, everything I had to do never came easy. I wasn’t the smartest. I wasn’t the “most likely” in class. Kinda quiet, not a lot of belief in myself. I was this caterpillar; you look at them, but you don’t notice them. And then they turn into this butterfly, and they fly. I finally got to this stage where I thought, I’m the butterfly. I’m free. I can soar. I can do this.

Once nicknamed Rice-A-Roni for an ill-fated drag race, Amy Faulk became the first woman to receive the National Hot Rod Association’s Sportsman Hall of Fame award.

Once nicknamed “Rice-A-Roni” for an ill-fated drag race, Amy became the first woman to receive the National Hot Rod Association’s Sportsman Hall of Fame award.

When did you feel like the butterfly emerged?

I think it was when I went to Gainesville, Florida, one of my first races, and I actually won a competition stage at a national event. Not the whole race, just that one round. It’s like, I’ve got this. I know what I’m doing. Honestly, I have to say, I’ve won a lot of national events, but that’s the one that sticks in my mind. Did I win the race? No. But I won a stage and got over that barrier.

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How does being a CEO make use of your skills as a driver?

It’s decision-making. One of the things you learn in racing is you don’t panic. Also you learn that you’re in 100% control of everything that you’re doing in that car. It’s the same thing in business. You have to take control of situations, and whatever decision you make, you have to accept responsibility.

"Right now, we’re in the process of building a new car, so this year I haven’t raced that much," says Amy. "I’m hoping next year we’ll race 15 or 20 times."

“Right now, we’re in the process of building a new car, so this year I haven’t raced that much,” says Amy. “I’m hoping next year we’ll race 15 or 20 times.”

How does it work to be so closely involved in the same effort with your husband?

It’s really good. He’s really the one who pushed me and saw more in me than I saw. He knew that I was determined to do things, and he took a lot of flak because he put me in his cars.

What is your best piece of advice?

Whether it’s the race track or business, be prepared, learn everything you can, and don’t be afraid to make mistakes. That’s truly the way I live my life.

The butterfly on "Miss Amy's" helmet symbolizes her journey. "I finally got to this stage where I thought, I’m the butterfly. I’m free. I can soar. I can do this," she says.

The butterfly on “Miss Amy’s” helmet symbolizes her journey. “I finally got to this stage where I thought, I’m the butterfly. I’m free. I can soar. I can do this,” she says.

Other than faith, family and friends, what are three lighthearted things you can’t live without?

My three cats.

Thank you to Amy for slowing down long enough to share her story with us. Learn more about her work at Hypertech, and try to catch her at the Memphis International Raceway.

Thanks to Micki Martin for the fabulous photos of Amy!

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