While other little girls filled in “ballet dancer” or “veterinarian” for their elementary school “When I grow up” project, Toni Breidinger only had one thing on her mind: speed. She got her first taste of the track at just nine years old, racing go-carts at a local complex. Before she was even legally old enough to pilot the family minivan she was racing cars. When Breidinger finally made it to the DMV to take her driving examination, the woman administering the test had no idea about her background in racing. “I didn’t want to tell her because I didn’t want her to expect me to drive really fast or something,” Breidinger tells me, laughing. “But afterwards she mentioned that I had a little bit of a lead foot on the gas pedal.”
Breidinger certainly doesn’t fit the “good ol’ boy” stereotype of a traditional NASCAR aspirant. Born in the Bay Area, she boasts the looks, style, and charm to draw thousands of Instagram followers. Her captions, unsurprisingly, are flawless. But don’t let the pretty face and the laid-back California cool fool you—Breidinger is here to win. Though sometimes it does take a bit of effort to make the switch to racing mode. “I really have to train myself,” she confesses. “As soon as I’m in a race car, I just have to switch my mentality over to being a more aggressive person so I can really get after it during the race.”
A look at any given footage of Breidinger in competition shows you how dramatic that switch can be. In one such video, with the camera perched just above her helmet, Breidinger whips around the track, jostling between other drivers, using all her strength to wrestle the car into submission. She makes room for herself on the track, leaving timidity behind to push competitors out of the way and off of her spot on the podium.
A comment below the video, which was posted to her professional racing Facebook page, marks the move as unsavory. “This is awful,” Someone’s Suburban Dad says. “She bulldozed all of the cars out the way.” Breidinger’s reply is firm and unapologetic: “They were not going to see me until I got next to them, and I did so without contact. I don’t see how that could be unfair.” She doesn’t need your advice when it comes to what happens behind the wheel.
She also doesn’t seek special treatment. She doesn’t need it. While facing a trifecta of challenges—her conspicuous youth, a heavily male-leaning field, a childhood outside of the traditional Southern racing bubble—she’s ripping through barriers with the determination of men twice her age and size. But she’s not too keen on bringing gender-politics into racing. “I guess I don’t really think about it much. As soon as the helmet comes on for me, everyone is just a driver; gender is pretty irrelevant at that point. So, when I’m racing I really don’t think about it. I’m just so used to racing as one of the only females.”
At the moment, for Breidinger, racing comes first, second, and third. Rather than heading to college like many of her peers, she’s making the jump from The Bay to Charlottesville, to further immerse herself in the world of top-level racing. “I don’t feel like you have to necessarily go to the East Coast to get good, but it’s definitely different,” she explains. “Racing on the East Coast is definitely a little bit bigger. There’s more of a car count.” And with her sights set on NASCAR, it’s the only place to be. “North Carolina is a huge hub for all things NASCAR, and basically all the teams are there. The team that I’m driving for this year is in Concord, North Carolina. So my move there was to help out my racing career and to be surrounded by racing.”
Racing requires Breidinger to maintain a strict diet and exercise regimen. Her training includes working out 1-2 times a day and eating vegan. “I know a lot of people think you’re kind of just sitting and turning a steering wheel but it really takes a lot more than that. A lot of people think it might just be arms, but I have my legs get tired in a race,” she says. “Honestly, it’s like an entire body workout that you have to prepare for, even though it doesn’t really seem like it. I find myself getting tired in all areas of my body.” As for the rare moments between racing, when I ask her what her perfect day looks like, she includes working out with her trainer and hanging out at her team’s shop. Even when this girl has a day off, she’s on.
Though she’s extraordinary in many ways, don’t get the impression that Breidinger is the manifestation of perfection, here to shame us all into veganism and daily exercise with her picture-perfect lifestyle. She’s definitely got her vices—racecar drivers: they’re just like us! Just like you she loathes running on the treadmill, and she pines for a puppy to fill the loneliness of living in an apartment alone, far away from home. She’s also not immune to some sibling rivalry with her twin sister and fellow racecar driver, Annie. Breidinger emphasizes that though she tries to be cautious with Annie—“I don’t want the drive home to be awkward,” she laughs—on the track she’s still there to win. “We’ve been racing against each other for nine years now, so I know her driving style very well and I treat her like any other racer. We’re rooting for each other to do well, but I still always want to get first place.”
This dogged desire for first place and a decade of hard work culminated in her being named USAC (United States Auto Club) Winningest Female Driver in 2017. Additionally, in March of this year, she was added to Venturini’s Motor Sport’s driver line-up for is “thinking about and the 2018 ARCA Racing Series, which she preparing for everyday.”
An Instagram post from earlier this year features Breidinger at the track in full gear before a race. Looking into the distance, she focuses all her attention on the instructions humming through the buds in her ears. “Take the risk or lose the chance” the caption reads She tells me that the most difficult part of breaking into racing at the highest level is finding sponsors. With Breidinger’s poise and unflappable determination, it seems that what we’ve seen is just the prelude to the main act—which, with any luck, will take place in a car plastered with Mountain Dew, Energizer, and Valvoline decals.
Written by Kathleen Juarez
Photographed by Chris Schoonover and Jonathan Schoonover
Styled by Jenny Haapala
Flaunt film directed by Katie Levine
Music by Coby Ashpis
Hair by Yuhi Kim
Makeup by Aidan K
Styling Assistant—Alea Christie
Styling Assistant—Olivia Jakubik: