Women of vision

Breaking the Limits

    Keiko Ihara has made her name in one of the world's most testosterone-fueled sports. She is one of the few women competing at the top level of endurance motor racing. Now she's shifting gears to become a mentor to other women.

    Ihara works in a team of three to complete a total of six hours of racing. The winning team is determined by the number of completed laps.

    Ihara's initial visit to the circuit, however, was in a different role. She landed a job as a pit girl. "I saw everyone working with a tremendous sense of responsibility and urgency," she recalls. "The driver could die if even one screw was not properly fitted. I thought, I want to live working to the best of my ability."

    Before that, though, she had to get a driver's license. At her first race in Japan at age 25, she found herself on the podium. But she had a hard time winning support. "I went to ask companies for sponsorship, but people there would tell me I'll probably get married and retire," she says. "Or, that I didn't have the physical ability to succeed."

    So, Ihara moved to Europe, the homeland of motorsports. She made it to the F3 races, a gateway to the top Formula 1. But then a health scare forced her to put the brakes on her career. "I competed against male drivers," she explains. "I didn't have the same physical strength, so I was exhausted. I went through more than 200 days in a year with a fever of 38 degrees. My mind became weak, and my nervous system became unbalanced."

    Ihara spent five years rebuilding her health and then made her comeback. The World Endurance Championship requires tactics and resilience. Ihara's abilities caught the attention of teams around the world. Jacques Nicolet, president of OAK Racing says "Keiko was, is the perfect example for actually endurance because she is fast enough, very consistent, never makes mistakes."

    Last year, Ihara and her teammates came in third. At 41, she became the first woman to stand on this podium. Ihara wants to pay forward the opportunities she's had. She started the "Women in Motorsports" project this year, with a Japanese carmaker. She coaches 26 women, including a housewife and a doctor, who come from across the country to train on the weekends. Some of them had tried racing before, but given up.

    Ihara wants to help them participate in races in Japan. Ihara reflects, "My experience taught me that people can overcome barriers of nationality, age, and gender if they work with others who share the same passion. I want to create a social movement by doing what I can, step by step."

    Racing has long been considered a man's sport, requiring physical strength that women don't possess, but Ihara is proving that strength of spirit is just as important, both on and off the track.