Aurora Straus is just 19 years old, but she is wise beyond her years.
The resident of Cold Spring is one of those young over-achievers. A 2017 cum laude graduate of The Hackley School in Tarrytown, she was accepted into Harvard University. But the teenager didn't want start in the fall of 2017.
Above Left: Photo Courtesy of Aurora Straus. Above Right: Photo Credit Warren Rosenberg
Unlike most of her peers, Aurora wanted to gain some real world experience before seeing how a Harvard education could help her achieve her dreams. But she realized that actually finding and believing in her dreams would make her a better student. So, she requested -- and was granted -- a one-year deferment from attending classes in Cambridge, Mass.
During her year away from school, Aurora has spent all of her time and energy on a passion she discovered six years ago. Aurora Straus likes to drive fast. For her, life begins at 140 mph.
You wouldn't know Aurora wants to be a successful race driver by looking at her. A thin young lady with shoulder length blonde hair, Aurora looks like a typical teenager. But a conversation with her will reveal a young woman who knows what she wants and who is working hard to obtain it. So what leads a 13-year-old to want to drive race cars?
"We weren't really a racing family," Aurora said, "but when I turned 13 my dad decided I should learn some basic car control skills -- not to be a race car driver but to be a safe driver on the street. I started in a Mazda Miata and learned how to drive [a] stick shift [transmission] and I loved it. I ran in the Mazda MX Cup for two partial seasons."
Above: John Chuhran interviewing Aurora Straus at Lime Rock Park, CT. Photo Credit: Warren Rosenberg
"Last year when I was 18 was my first full season in professional racing. I did pretty well -- I was the top finishing rookie in the series. We were struggling with the set up [adjustments to make the car turn precisely and maintain balanced grip of the pavement with all four tires] of the car, so I had some good races and some bad races. But overall it was a very good learning year for me and it paid off."
In 2018, she moved up to the Pirelli World Challenge, racing a BMW M4 GT4 in the GTS Class. It was year in which she dealt with a more powerful (330 hp) car in 18 races over nine race weekends. She finished 23rd in the GTS rankings -- a solid performance considering 96 drivers were competing.
It was a year where she learned as much as -- perhaps more than -- she could have in the classroom. As a female, teenage racer she was in demand with the media as she gave interviews at almost every stop on the tour and made TV appearances on Good Morning America and Jay Leno's Garage.
Above: Aurora Straus piloting the #36 BMW M4 GT4 in the 2018 Pirelli World Challenge at Lime Rock Park. Photo Credit: Warren Rosenberg
"Racing has maintained the same simple thrill for me," Aurora said. "I started racing because it was fun -- there wasn't an ulterior motive. Going out on track is one of the coolest things I could ever picture doing with my life. The adrenaline rush that comes with braking later than you ever thought you could brake going into a corner or knowing this massive amount of machinery is under you and you have to handle it or something really big could happen -- there's a lot of emotion that comes with that kind of pressure."
"But at the same time, my motivation to keep moving up the ranks of pro racing has changed a lot. During my first ever semi-professional race weekend, I had a young girl who was with her dad come up to me and say 'I didn't know girls were allowed to race.' It was the first time I had ever heard that. The stigma is still very much there -- much less so than when I started, but hearing the words 'girls were allowed' was jarring to me. I still haven't gotten used to it. I hear it progressively less as I run more races, but every time I hear it, I want to cry."
Thoughtful and articulate, Aurora has decided to use racing as a tool to inspire girls in grade school and middle school.
"If you're a 13-year-old girl in a male-dominated industry and you don't see anyone out there who looks like you, you think, 'OMG, can I do this?'," she said. "I just remember that feeling. So my motivation has transitioned from 'this is fun, I could do this as a side gig' to 'I want to do this professionally because it's my responsibility to reach out to those girls and make sure that the next 13-year-old girl that wants to try it can reach out to me, contact me, and I could help her look for sponsors and rides and gain [racing] experience. I want to be that person to as many girls as I can. That's why I started a program to with the Girl Scouts called Girls with Drive to bring a couple of dozen girls and their families to each of the races and learn about racing and see what I do.
Above: Aurora receiving some last minute guidance before climbing into the car. Photo Credit: Warren Rosenberg
"I was a Girl Scout when I was younger. In my first race of the year at Circuit of the Americas in Texas, I had about 40 girls there and it was really special for me because it was my first podium [top-3 finish] in a professional race and they were there to see it. The girls who come out get a behind-the-scenes tour of the track and view of our team as well as an education program about the physics of a race car that no one else here gets. They get to see race control, they get to learn about the Pirelli tires and how the compounds are different and what the differences are between treaded tires and slicks and scrubbed [used] tires and stickers [new]. One of my favorite things about it is that I get to give comp[limentary] tickets thanks to the generosity of Pirelli and the tracks like Lime Rock Park. I'm hoping that at least one of the girls comes away with the idea that 'OK, there's a career path here for me that I'm interested in' whether it be as a driver or an engineer or a team owner -- there are options here for me."
Aurora thinks that women have some advantages over their male counterparts in certain aspects of racing.
"Studies show that you need more endurance and less physical strength to drive sports cars [compared to some oval track racing]," Aurora said. "Women have a strategic advantage in some ways because you have to have endurance and be able to withstand high temperatures -- it can get to be over 100 degrees in the cockpit and you have to be able to endure it for up to two hours and still perform at your best. One of my friends recently described racing to me as sitting in barrel at 130 miles per hour, running a marathon while you're in three-layers of footy pajamas while you have people screaming at you on the radio. You need to be able to keep laser focus in that kind of heat. Girls seem to be able to focus a little better in that environment.
"It's a sport where there should be equal opportunity, but somehow there isn't as much as in other sports. My motivation comes from that. I could say it's not my responsibility to reach out to these girls, but then who's going to do it? It was hard for me when I got started because in sports car racing weren't that many role models out there. They're tough to find -- you have to dig for them."
Aurora is a reflection of her time. Beyond hoping to motivate other young women, she is using the latest in Social Media skills to help them and herself.
"Kids today interact differently than adults," Aurora said. "They aren't necessarily as verbal, but a lot of them understand marketing in the digital space better than the marketing professionals I work with. I have gotten a surprising amount of sponsorship support from Instagram Direct Message. People notice the constant interaction that I have with my followers. It's a lot of tiny things; this morning when I got to the track I saw this Ben and Jerry's ice cream truck right next to my trailer and I wanted to share that with a shout out that 'this is the best thing in the world!'. It's me, and it's what I want people to see.
"Right now I have about 20,000 followers on Instagram and a couple of thousand on Facebook. A lot of the marketing has nothing to do with social media. For example, I was on Good Morning America in March the Friday of a race weekend and it sparked a lot of other media opportunities. It was a win-win for me, for Richard Mille, for the Pirelli World Challenge, and the cherry on top was that I got about 5,000 people watching who otherwise might not have noticed. Some of those viewers of GMA followed me on social media and some of my followers [on social media] watched me on GMA. It's hard to put exact numbers on it, but I do think a lot of racers under 25 know how to work it really well and they've gotten some money because of it. Smaller sponsors are out there and they're watching social media.
"At the end of the day, a lot of this is about building a brand for yourself. I catering to sponsors who are good at cross-promoting with each other. People who buy a Richard Mille watch are likely to buy from Tiffany and vice versa. That's just easy for me from a marketing standpoint. I try to access the same demographic for most of my sponsors, but I'm still just trying to figure it out. I've had some amazing discussions for 2019, so I'm going to see how that plays out. There's a lot of competition for various sponsorship dollars right now."
Now, with the 2018 season in her rearview mirror, Aurora can turn her attention to Harvard, where she was planning to double major in two very different disciplines -- English and Mechanical Engineering. That will work for now, but when the racing season begins again next March she might have to adjust her schedule.
"School is going to be a tough fit because I plan on racing full time while I'm at Harvard," Aurora said. "I'm a big believer in not giving up something that you are passionate about and I wouldn't give up racing for the world, and I wouldn't give up [an education at] Harvard, either. So, I'm going to do both, but I might be on the five-year plan [to get a college degree]."
Aurora has definite goals for the future -- not just in what races she wants to win, but in what she wants to achieve if those victories don't happen.
"I'm weird as a racer in that my biggest goal has nothing to do with what racing series I want to be in," Aurora said. "I would love to go to LeMans [France] and win [the 24 Hours of endurance -- sports car racing's most prestigious event]. That would be my ultimate sports car racing goal. But Girls With Drive is exponentially more important to me. If I am still in the Pirelli World Challenge five years from now but I have three girls who came to one of my Girls With Drive events who are now out on track with me, that's going to feel infinitely better than winning LeMans to me. The goal is to get girls out on track.
"My five year goal has changed, too. I used to see myself going into car design and I could still very well wind up there. But now I think there's a 50:50 chance of that or motorsports journalism or politics. So the short answer is, I have no idea."
Regardless of whether she moves to other racing series and wins some famous races, Aurora is now in life's fast lane and she's pushing hard to make sure she clears a path for others to follow.