Photos: Victoria Stevens @vsteves
At breakneck speed, the world around me blurs into streaks of colors, my hands steady on the steering wheel, the roar of the engine my constant companion. My name is Samantha Tan and I’m a professional racing driver. Speed has always been my sanctuary—it’s something that always made me feel free. However, many view me as an anomaly in a sphere traditionally dominated by men. My existence in this high-speed domain both questions and defies the stereotypes of what it means to be an Asian woman.
I grew up in a small town where I was often one of the only Asians in the room. I slowly learned I was different from my friends and classmates—that the first noticeable thing about me was that I wasn’t white. For a while, I rejected my culture in every way that I could. I vocally despised Chinese cuisine, rejected learning Mandarin, and degraded my own race in an effort to conform to the whiteness that surrounded me. I slowly learned to assimilate and downplay my race. The more Asian jokes I made, the more my friends seemed to like me. However, I was perpetuating stereotypes, and in the process, was undermining my own self-confidence until I felt as if I had erased my entire cultural identity.
It was around this time that my journey into race car driving began. It was at the relatively late age of 16—later than the typical timeline for most racers—that I started. I had no idea who I wanted to be. I don’t think anyone does at that age, but I knew I loved racing. Initially, I never considered race or gender as factors in deciding whether I could pursue racing. I always believed in the statement, “The car doesn’t know who’s in the driver’s seat. All that matters is whether or not you have the skills to drive well.” Over time, after competing in a variety of series, I slowly recognized that I was often the only girl in the paddock, let alone one of the only Asians as well. It wasn't until I turned 20, while in college, that I fully committed to pursuing a professional racing career. Compared to my peers, I was a latecomer to the racing circuit, both in experience and in recognizing that this could be a potential career path.
I remember the culture shock I felt when I moved to Irvine for college. I went from being the only Asian in the room to only being surrounded by other Asians. It was here that I began to see the harm in denying my culture and trying to fit into a mold that wasn't meant for me. I started to embrace my Asian identity, not just as a label or a set of stereotypes, but as a complex and multifaceted part of who I am. I started to appreciate my heritage and the rich cultural traditions that I had been denying myself. However, it was also here where I experienced my first encounter with blatant racism. Someone hurled derogatory terms at me, yelling, “Asian bitch. Do you even speak English?” These words were a slap in the face, sending me retreating into the shell of my newly embraced identity.
Social media often amplified these biases. We live in a world that is fond of labels, of putting people in boxes. I'd sometimes find myself sifting through a deluge of hate comments. Words that tried to make me believe that my race and gender predetermined my skill set and my capabilities. Words that tried to tell me I had no place in the fierce world of professional racing. During the pandemic, I became increasingly more aware of the pervasive stereotypes surrounding Asian women—the ones that perceived us as submissive, diminutive, and as sexual objects. I felt a sense of fear and unease as I witnessed the rise in hate crimes and discrimination against those who looked like me. It was a stark reminder that being a woman of color meant that I would always have to navigate the world with an extra layer of scrutiny, and that the barriers we face are not always as subtle as a disdainful glance or a hateful comment. Culturally, as Asians, we are taught to avoid confrontations, to remain silent, to fit into designated spaces. The reality is that emotional transparency is often absent in many Asian immigrant households. We were brought up with the notion that emotions should be nestled deep within us, beneath a steadfast façade of relentless hard work and silent perseverance. This demeanor was borne out of a fear deeply ingrained in our parents. They discovered, sometimes harshly, that survival often meant maintaining a low profile and existing within the boundaries of the established system. They learned to never question the system.
But how could I remain silent in the face of such violence and unabashed ignorance? Through this adversity, I found my voice and took up space in a way I never had dared to before. I use my social media platform to promote inclusivity and provide a voice for those who may feel voiceless. I speak openly in hopes that it makes someone feel less alone. It’s not just about me, it's about those who follow my journey. I remember how much it meant to me to find people online who I could relate to, who made me feel seen and understood. They provided a sense of belonging, a sense of not being alone in my struggles and dreams. That's what I’ve always hoped to be for others.
I recently saw an interview with a fellow female driver where the interviewer asked, “What challenges have you faced as a woman in motorsport?” This is something I think all female drivers have been asked countless times in interviews. It’s a question that is sometimes met with frustration. She replied, “My results speak for themselves.” This response, while powerful, fell short of addressing a deeper truth about the relentless struggles many women face in this industry. It reminded me of the comments I’ve received from time to time about “bringing race or gender into the equation”. The ones that go like, “Isn’t it racist to mention that you’re the first Asian woman to win?” or “Isn’t it sexist to acknowledge the distinction between male and female drivers?” Are we giving race and gender too much weight? Isn’t it just about the hard work, shrugging off the hate, not asking for a sympathy card, or just simply having more faith in yourself and what you want to do?
I understand there is the pressure to feel like everything is a meritocracy and to let your achievements speak for themselves, but that doesn’t discredit the fact that there were other hurdles that you had to clear to achieve the same things as others. It is essential to recognize that the path to success isn't the same for everyone. For many of us venturing into motorsports or any male-dominated arena, the journey is marked by an additional set of obstacles—sexist remarks, racial stereotypes, doubts about our abilities, and assumptions about our character. Undoubtedly, the pressure to validate my presence in this space has also been heavier. Any mistake I make on the track often leads to critics attributing the error to my gender, throwing around phrases like "typical woman driver" or "it's because she's a girl". We face an undue pressure to constantly excel and maintain flawless performance, simply because our presence in the field is so limited. These are invisible challenges that we battle, and they make our victories not just about our individual merit, but also about breaking down barriers of prejudice and bias.
As an Asian woman in motorsports, I have no qualms about highlighting my gender and race in the media because I envision a better future. I dream of a tomorrow where women don't have to endure sexist and racist comments or prove their worth twice as hard. Some of us are strong enough to just ignore the comments but why should we have to go through them in the first place? I want to continue normalizing it in the media because we know how influential it is. When young girls see successful women in positions of power, their perception of their potential broadens and greatly impacts the way they view their place in this world. They start to reimagine what is possible for them, thus emboldening their dreams and aspirations. As a woman of color in motorsports, I refuse to contribute to the erasure of women like me from the narrative. While some may choose to ignore or downplay their gender or race, I've grown to see the diminishing allure of such a stance.
Every challenge, bitter as they may be, is an opportunity. It is the chance to reimagine, to reshape, to reclaim. These jarring experiences formed the crucible of my journey, shaping and reshaping my perceptions, stoking the fires of my determination, and fueling my journey through the world of motorsport. My racing career has been a deliberate act of reclaiming space, a palpable confrontation against an antiquated worldview. Every race, every comment, each hateful act, serves as a reminder of the long road ahead. Yet, I am undeterred. I dream of a tomorrow where the term 'female racing driver' loses its novelty and an Asian at the helm becomes an expectation, not an exception. I want my journey to be a testament to what can be achieved when you put your heart and soul into something, to show others that it is possible to overcome obstacles and achieve your dreams. We all have the ability to reimagine a world that doesn’t merely tolerate us, but celebrates us in all our diversity. Because in this grand race of life, we are the ones who must carve a space for future generations in a world that’s more inclusive and diverse. And I firmly believe, one day, we will cross that finish line.