In 2002, newly divorced and with five daughters, Mary Katharine “took the high way,” so to speak, giving a whole new meaning to the phrase, “You go, girl.”
She could have started therapy, she said, thinking back, but instead, she chose to become a race-car driver. “In a car, on a racetrack, you can’t think of anything else.”
Within a year, she had her racing license and in 2006 she turned professional, racing a Mazda Protégé in the Speed World Challenge series.
This summer, she will race with her new team owner, “Irish Mike” Flynn, who admires her driving and her driving determination.
Her kids love her choice of profession. They go to the track with her, and she speaks about safety at their schools (Nancy, 16, and Maggie, 15, go to St. Andrews School. Lane, 13, Mia, 9, and Helen, 7 attend Gulfstream School).
“I tell them to wear their seatbelts,” she said. “As a race-car driver, I have so much more safety equipment, I am actually safer than they are on I-95.”
Katharine, though, is careful to keep her burning to the roadway. In the kitchen, where she wears her other hat as a professional pastry chef, she applies just the right amount of heat.
But, in life, the heat, she acknowledges, is always on. Don’t wait to do what you want, she advises. “Go for it.”
The two dreams she still wishes to fulfill? “I want to stand on the podium after a professional race. And I’m waiting to make my daughters’ wedding cakes.”
— Christine Davis
Q. Where did you grow up and go to school? How do you think that has influenced you?
A. I grew up and went to school in Milwaukee until I was 19, when I married and moved to Arkansas. Growing up in a family of 10 children in the Midwest meant traditional values were instilled in me. In my family, we were really good to each other. We smiled and laughed with each other every day. My girls and I do the same. My children are very respectful of one another and our house is filled with a feeling of peace and the sounds of riotous laughter.
Q. How did you come into your careers? Driving race cars and being a pastry chef?
A. When I was very young, 5-ish, I dreamed of being two things: a chef and a race-car driver. My love of cooking began then, and was nurtured by my mother, who patiently watched me, encouragingly, as I separated eggs by the dozen at the kitchen sink. I used to cook for houseguests, making omelets for breakfast. When I was 11, my mother sent me to a two-week cooking school and I started catering parties shortly thereafter. After I was married, I cooked every day with a passion.
When I was pregnant with my third daughter, I decided I wanted to contribute to the workforce. My talent, if I had one, lay in working with food. So, I went to cooking school to become a pastry chef, knowing I could dictate my hours more than if I was a chef. After graduation, I immediately went to work at a yacht club in Palm Beach, where I worked until taking a job at a country club closer to home.
As for racing, I played with my brothers’ toy Formula One cars and imagined myself skillfully maneuvering a race car through twists and turns at breakneck speeds on some faraway racetrack. I became the master of the slot-car track that we had in our basement on the pingpong table and I watched racing on television every chance I had. But didn’t give my racing dream another thought until I was going through an unexpected and painful divorce. Not wanting to hear anymore from the well-meaning friends who pitied me, I reached out for the anonymity of racing school. It proved to be wonderful therapy, and I gradually worked my way through the ranks racing in a spec class (where all the cars are equally prepared) and in 2006 was given an exciting opportunity to race professionally in a televised series. I jumped at the chance and was awed racing side-by-side with some of my racing heroes. I was the only woman competing in that series, but was never treated differently by any of the other drivers. I now race in a series where there are a few female drivers and everyone in the series seems to be happy about the diversity.
Q. What is your favorite part of the work you do?
In baking it’s creating desserts that make people ooh and aah because they think it all looks too pretty to eat. The additional oohs and aahs that follow hopefully mean the flavors and textures are equally pleasing. Making people happy with food is a wonderful feeling for me. In racing, I love the dance. I strive to achieve perfection behind the wheel — when the shifts happen at the peak of the torque curve and with silky smoothness, the tires squeal just enough, the car slides sideways through the turns and to the very edge of the track on the corner exits. It’s like doing a dance when you get it right and it’s exhilarating beyond belief. Beating one’s competitors while doing the dance is an added rush.
Q. What advice do you have for a young person selecting a career today?
A. In becoming a chef or a race-car driver, it’s important to start with the right school. Go to school and absorb everything like a sponge. Learn all you can from those who have been there before you, and remain humble.
Q. What has been the highlight of your professional career?
A. Having my daughters in the grandstand cheering for me at the St. Petersburg Grand Prix is something I’ll never forget. That same weekend, a little boy was walking through the paddock and I asked him if he wanted to sit in my race car. The look in his eyes, as big as saucers, and the ear-to-ear grin on his face were priceless. In 2006, my rookie year in pro racing, I won the Hard Charger Award, for advancing more positions during the season than any other driver. I’d have to say all three of those are at the top as far as racing career highlights. In baking, it was making my brother’s wedding cake and having all my sisters help me paint the rolled fondant with pearl dust. It was glorious when it was finished and made my brother so happy.
Q. How did you choose to have a home in Gulf Stream?
A. I had one daughter in Gulf Stream School when a house within walking distance was put on the market. We jumped at the opportunity to be fortunate enough to live in this magical little seaside town.
Q. What is your favorite part about living in Gulf Stream?
A. Honestly, my favorite part of living here, besides the school, is Halloween night, where golf carts are decorated and the children wander from one welcoming house to the next, while the parents, neighbors all, socialize. A wonderful time is had by all and our police force ride around with smiles on their faces as big as those on the children’s.
Q. Do you have a favorite quote that inspires your decisions?
A. Two: “Speak softly and carry a big stick,” Theodore Roosevelt; and “Don’t worry ’bout a thing, ’cause every little thing is gonna be alright,” Bob Marley.
Q. Have you had mentors in your life? Individuals who have inspired your life decisions?
A. In life I have my mother. She draws people in with her magnetic personality, honesty, intelligence, kindness, caring and sharp wit. She has led by example and I strive daily to be the mother, friend, businesswoman, good Samaritan and hilariously funny woman she is.
Q. If your life story were made into a movie, who would you want to play you?
A. Ashley Judd. She’s married to a race-car driver.