MELBOURNE, FLA. — Elaine Larsen’s work space is cozier than most. Taking up about six feet, there is room for the 50-year-old former Mennonite and little else. Her business attire is different, too: a fire suit capable of protecting her for 45 seconds were she to be exposed to direct flame.
When one’s office is a missile-shaped jet dragster with top speeds approaching 300 mph thanks to a jet turbine blasting out 30 feet of flame, precautions like that fire suit are necessary.
Welcome to Larsen’s nontraditional presence in the very traditional profession of racing. And it is a place that, despite trends to the contrary, she makes sure she does not occupy alone.
Even as women in STEM continue to lag behind their male counterparts in representation – a 2016 study from the National Science Foundation found that while women make up half of the total U.S. college-educated workforce, they comprise just 29 percent of the science and engineering workforce – Larsen is mentoring 20-year-old Kathryn “Kat” Redner as a driver for Larsen Motorsports’ jet dragster teams and 24-year-old Paige Sanchez as a crew chief.
Redner, who is enrolled at Larsen affiliate Florida Institute of Technology to study multiplatform journalism, is the seventh driver that the two-time jet dragster world champion has trained.
Five of the seven have been women.
“As females in nontraditional roles, we have always had each other’s back,” Larsen said. “We let our performances do the talking.”
Sanchez was just 21 years old when she was named Elaine Larsen’s crew chief, in 2015. That year, her work in the pits and Larsen’s excellence on the track netted Larsen the 2015 IHRA World Championship.
For Sanchez, a lifelong racing enthusiast who knew since elementary school that she wanted to be an engineer, her parallel interests came together at Palm Bay, Florida-based Larsen Motorsports and Florida Tech in nearby Melbourne.
With a working shop and lab that features $8 million in equipment, tools and machines, and experience in high-tech fabrication, turbine testing and other STEM-oriented tasks, Sanchez learned plenty outside the classroom. But she spent time in those, too, and in May graduated from Florida Tech with a master’s degree in mechanical engineering. She is now earning her Ph.D. in aviation sciences with a focus on human factors.
“I’ve always been a math and science nerd, and I got made fun of for liking NASCAR,” said Sanchez, now 24. “But I knew those were the directions I wanted to go.”
Sanchez will continue to serve as Larsen’s crew chief, even as she prepares to enter a field where only 7.9 percent of mechanical engineers are women, according to the NSF research.
But pushing forward, defying stereotypes and shattering preconceptions is an approach Larsen has lived, and Redner and Sanchez have learned.
“You’ve got three choices in life,” Redner said, citing her favorite quote. “Give up, give in or give it all you’ve got. We’ve chosen the third option.”