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Samantha Tan: "I'm not afraid to say I'm an Asian woman"

13 years ago, Samantha Tan decided to give sports car racing a try. Now, she’s got her eye on a few prizes — including a prestigious GT championship, a victory at Le Mans and being the representation she never had. 



It’s mid-May in Austin, Texas. Weather-wise, it’s one of the most unbearable times of the year. Every element of a Southern summer comes in excess: Temperatures soar too high, the sun rises too early, the sun sets too late, the air is too humid. 


But, as always, weather is no deterrent to motorsport. At the Circuit of the Americas — the 20-turn, counterclockwise home to Formula 1, NASCAR and MotoGP grands prix — 29 drivers gather to compete in the continent’s highest class of GT racing: GT World Challenge America. Among those 29 is Samantha Tan, who both drives for and owns her eponymous team, ST Racing. 


Throughout the weekend, Tan stands out for a multitude of reasons. One, she is the only woman on track. Two, she is the only Asian woman on track. Three — after the first race — she is leading her class’s championship. 


Come Sunday, she and team-mate Neil Verhagen walk away with two class victories, two overall podiums and an 18-point championship lead. While lead may be a new development, it is far from a surprising one. This season, Tan and Verhagen have taken the podium in every race — including a win in the series’ previous round in Sebring, Florida. 


Still: “It hasn’t hit me,” she tells Females in Motorsport. “The wins, especially — even after all this time, they don’t hit right away. In the heat of the moment, when I’m performing at that level — when I’m performing at my very best — everything feels very calm. It’s only when I’m past the chequered flag and I see my team on the pit wall that I realise: ‘Oh, wow. We did that.’ I mean, we could be on the podium or getting off it, and I’d still need somebody to pinch me. It’s always a surreal moment.” 


Does it ever gets old? we ask.


“No,” she laughs. “Never.” 



The vast majority of racing drivers commit to their careers quite early on. Think Lewis Hamilton, who first stepped foot in a go-kart at eight. Or Doriane Pin, who took on her first national championship at 12. 


Comparatively, Tan had both a late and unconventional start. Though her father was a great motorsport enthusiast and passed down his love of the automotive (her earliest memories with him include track days, car meets and “taking spins in his road car”), she never considered making a career out of that love. 


But fate, and her father’s insistence that she practice handling a car on Toronto’s icy roads, would have Tan sit in on a performance driving programme at 14. After learning the fundamentals of braking, lane-changing and handling, she earned the opportunity to take a hot lap with a professional driver. Of course, she accepted. 


“That was the moment I fell in love,” she says. “I was in that Ferrari 458 Challenge, feeling what it’s like to ride at high speeds… Once you have that feeling, you’re hooked. As soon as I got out of the car, all I could think was, ‘I want to be a racing driver. I need to be a racing driver.’ And that’s what started the journey.”


At 15, Tan enrolled herself in racing school. The following year, she entered her first regional road racing series, competing in National Auto Sport Association-sanctioned events with her 1991 Honda Civic. By 17, she had moved on to the Canadian Touring Car Championship, where she clinched a fifth-place finish and the 2014 Rookie of the Year title (“all in a Mini Cooper S JCW — the cutest thing ever,” she notes). 


Her success caught the eye of the Kia-backed Kinetic Motorsports, who came to Tan with an alluring offer: Come to the United States and run in the TCA Class of the Pirelli World Challenge. In addition to a seat, they promised her the challenges of a larger field, stiffer competition and uprooting herself from her childhood home.  


Yet again, Tan accepted. 



In 2015, her first season in the Pirelli World Challenge, Tan finished sixth. Though she would repeat that standing in 2016, she considers her second season to be the more memorable one. For one: 2016 her graduate from driver to driver and team owner


“That was unexpected,” she says. “No, really — never in a million years did I think that would happen.” 


As with most touring car drivers, she had rented her race car from a registered team — in her case, a Honda Civic Si from Team OST Racing — and expected to do the same for 2016. Unfortunately, said team went into receivership after her first race weekend, leaving Tan with only the Honda. To remain in the series, she had to partner with another Canadian team and race under her own name.  


But 2016, Tan reflects now, was a blessing in disguise. It was inconvenient, yes, but it also gave her an autonomy over operations and logistics she previously never had. And she liked calling the shots. In fact, she liked calling the shots so much that she decided against returning to a factory team altogether. 


Then, as per Tan: “ST Racing was born.”  


At first glance, it seemed as though 2017 — ST Racing’s first year in operation — would be a straightforward season. As a team owner, she had entered two BMW M235iRs under the ST Racing banner. She had recruited fellow Canadian Nick Wittmer as her team-mate and her father as co-owner and Team Principal. As a driver, she had stepped up to the TC Class, with two years of experience in the lower TCA Class and on Pirelli World Challenge tracks to serve her well. 


And for the first few races, it was straightforward. Despite navigating a much larger, much more competitive class, she kept it clean and managed to score her first points in the fourth round. Though saddled with managerial duties, a full course load at the University of California, Irvine, media appearances and, of course, racing, the 19-year-old Tan was staying afloat. 


“Then,” she says. “I crashed.” 



Road America, Turn 11. It’s a subtle right-hander on the backside of the track, and it comes at you fast. It demands precise control of your throttle, entry speed and instincts. It has taken countless drivers as its victims. You might know it as The Kink — one of the most infamous corners in all of American motorsport. 


But to Tan, it’s home to the lowest point of her career. 


It was June 25, 2017. The second race of a non-championship round for the TC Class. Tan was running ninth in her class, with little over eight minutes to go. As she headed towards Turn 11, she decided to take it flat out. Her front tyres lost grip, her car understeered onto the grass, and she flew into the wall at 100 miles per hour. 


When Tan hobbled out of the car, it was wrecked. As was her confidence. 


For weeks, while tending to her injured leg — in her panic, she had forgotten to take her foot off the brake during the crash — she questioned whether she should continue with racing. “Am I not good enough?” she kept asking herself. “Am I not cut out for this?”


“At the same time, it was a big turning point for me,” she says. “I had to take a long look at what I was doing, and I had to think. ‘I’m 20 years old. I’m doing all of my social media, my sponsorships and my public relations on my own. I don’t have a manager. I’m a full-time college student and a full-time racer — I’m studying everywhere, I’m travelling everywhere.’


“That was the point I realised, ‘If I want to be good at this, I have to make some sacrifices here. I really need to focus.’ It was the point where I decided to commit fully to being a racing driver. So, I cut back on my social life. I dedicated myself completely to training and school, but in a balanced way. I said, ‘I’m going to be disciplined, but I’m also going to give myself the grace to move forward.’ I kept moving forward.”



By the next round in August, Tan was back in her car. After closing the season with four consecutive points-finishes, she took on 2018 to rise to the GTS Class and claim her first-ever podium. Her maiden pole position came in 2019, and her maiden win in 2020; both seasons saw her finish in the top three of the standings. 2021 was the year of her first titles: The 24H GT Series Drivers’ and Teams’ Championships. 


In 2022, she graduated to GT World Challenge America, becoming the first and only female Asian driver in the history of the series. Tan, who is Chinese-Canadian, wears the role of trailblazer with great pride. 


But it comes with great loneliness, too. 


“When I first started, I didn’t pay attention to it,” she says. “Until I was hit with all sorts of stereotypes. You know: Women can’t drive, Asians can’t drive, Asian women really can’t drive. But it was after hearing all of this that I realised, ‘I am the only woman in this series. I am the only Asian woman in this series.’ There is nobody in this industry that looks like me. There is nobody I can relate to.” 


To be a woman of colour is to be underestimated, she continues. You are confined by your race, cut down by your gender. When you achieve, you are invisible. When you falter, you are hypervisible. No matter what, you are nothing more than the narrative that has been made for you. 


Deciding how and when to deal with that narrative can be an impossible task. On one hand, acknowledging it means acknowledging the people behind it, and the last thing Tan wants is to platform them. “It’s such a waste of time and energy,” she says. “With trolls” — whether on the Internet or in the paddock — “it’s easier to go out and prove everybody wrong.” 


The first example that comes to mind: The 2021 24 Hours of Barcelona, one of the wins that clinched her double 24H GT Series titles. During Friday’s qualifying session, Tan stepped into her BMW M4 GT4, and put down a competitive lap for the team. As she stepped out, she overheard a competitor attempt to joke to her male team-mate, “They put you in the car and made you use her driver ID. She didn’t actually run that lap. She couldn’t have.”


On Sunday, Tan took the class win.


And that competitor? we ask.


“Well,” she says. “He couldn’t look me in the eye.” 



On the other hand, she feels as though silent action, on its own, is not enough. After all: “If I really consider myself to be someone who is striving to make the world a better place for women — for Asian women — then shouldn’t I be taking a stand?”

 

While the 21st century has seen motorsport take steps towards diversity and inclusivity, it has not yet shed the conservative culture that comes with being a historically white, male and wealth-dominated industry. Meaning, the sport can make temperate calls for change, and drivers can, too — unless their calls go further than what the industry puts out.


Of course, that doesn’t stop Tan from speaking out. But it does make it harder. 


“We’ve made it very uncomfortable to be vulnerable,” Tan says. “Especially to be vulnerable on race and gender, which are considered so controversial in our industry. I’ve had many people come up to me and say, ‘You’re in sports. You shouldn’t be talking about anything political.’ I’m always like, ‘This is my platform. I’ll do what I want.’”


What frustrates her the most is how quick people are to dismiss discourse on race and gender. Perhaps in a perfect, meritocratic world, the common talking points of drivers are seen as drivers and results always speak for themselves would be true. Identity would play no role whatsoever in a racing career. 


Except, as she points out, we are not at the stage where we can take identity out of the context of our achievements. Not when marginalised groups still face immense challenges when trying to break into motorsport, and not when they are still treated as though they do not belong. 


“I do recognise how uncomfortable it is for others to bring up race and gender in the media,” she says. “At the end of the day, we all want to be treated as drivers — we want to be treated equally.” 


But that’s precisely why Tan brings it up. It’s not only to call out individual instances of racist and sexist abuse. It’s not only for herself. It’s to root out the industry’s entrenched racism and sexism that allows these instances to occur — and, too often, with impunity. It’s for the future generations, who deserve better. And if we want them to be treated equally, she argues, we need to talk about why that’s not happening right now. 


“Look, this is a sport that’s still dominated by white men,” she says. “If we want to change that, it’s important that we normalise the conversations on it. We need to bring attention to what needs to be changed because that’s the first step to changing it.”  



And in these conversations with Tan, there is one common thread: representation. 


It’s a matter of leading by example, she explains. Of reaffirming that minority and women drivers do belong in the industry. That they will face challenges that their white and male peers will not — but that they will overcome them, too. That when they succeed, there is someone who understands both the pain and joy they feel in the moment. 


All issues that are deeply — painfully — personal to her. 


“Again, growing up in the industry, I never had a role model,” Tan says. “I always had to be the only one. And that’s hard, especially when you’re so young. Whenever somebody would bring up those stereotypes, I could never point to somebody and say, ‘Oh, but she did it. Therefore, I can do it.’ That was so detrimental to my confidence.” 


Now, though, she taps into her past as a source of motivation. “I’m not afraid to say I’m an Asian woman. I mean, I’ve always wanted to be the role model for the next generation. If I’m not consistently showing there are Asian women in places of power — if I’m not consistently pushing the truth that Asian women can succeed, especially in the media — how will they see themselves in me? How will I be the representation I never had?” 


As one of the only Asian women in motorsport, Tan is — by default — one of the only Asian women shouldering that gargantuan responsibility of representation. That, we suggest, must be a lot of pressure.


“There’s a lot of pressure when you’re given that title,” she admits. “It’s nice to be a role model for others, but you also burden yourself with this sense of perfectionism. You feel like you always have to perform to the level of a perfect role model and live up to those expectations.” 


But the importance of representation far outweighs whatever pressure that comes with it, she adds. And, in a way, it has taught her a lesson or two: “At some point, I had to come to terms with it — perfection doesn’t exist, and you shouldn’t chase it. The work that we’re doing is important right? So, take a step back. Give yourself credit. What matters is that we’re trying.” 



When asked what keeps her going, Tan smiles.

 

“Oh,” she says. “I think there’s a lot of those.” 


Her ultimate goal is no secret: To be the first Asian woman to win Le Mans. “I mean, I always tell people, this is The Sports Car Olympics. The pinnacle of racing. You have to be good enough to go. You have to be the best to win. It would mean the world to me, to be able to compete there and eventually win.” 


Aside from Le Mans, though, her complete list of goals — which range from entering the IMSA SportsCar Championship to running an ST Racing junior programme — fall under three categories. Better the racing industry. Inspire and empower the next generation. “And continuously push myself, because I think that I deserve to see myself meet my potential.” 


While Tan has made a career out of pushing herself to the limit, it appears as though she has taken extra measures to do so this season. After re-signing with BMW M Motorsport as a Global Ambassador in February, Tan announced that she would test out the new-gen BMW M4 GT4 at the Long Beach Grand Prix. The last time she had raced a GT4 car was in 2021. 


“It’s funny, because the more you go up in the series — the more you go up in classes — you’d expect it to be more difficult,” she says. “Sure, the field’s more competitive in GT3. But the GT3 car itself — there’s so much more engineering, so much more R&D that goes into it, and that makes the car easier to handle. Going back to GT4, I felt like I was driving a streetcar. Way lower braking capacity, not enough downforce, very slow cornering speeds.” 


Her verdict?


“Long Beach was humbling. It was really, really humbling.” 


(In the second race of that humbling weekend, Tan took the podium with a second-place finish. According to the BMW Group, she plans to return with the BMW M4 GT4 to “select Nürburgring races this summer”.) 



It’s June, and we are halfway through the GT World Challenge America season. Six rounds remain, with the next race weekend being at the Virginia International Raceway in late July. For the very first time in the series, Tan will return to it as the championship leader. 


Given that the lead is new, and somewhat precarious, she remains cautiously optimistic. “You know, this is GT3. It’s on the next level. To be leading a championship — oh, it’s a lot of pressure. But I’m really proud, too. I’m really proud of myself, and I’m really proud of my team.”


She speaks fondly of her team, and she speaks of them often. Her crew chief, Mark. Her team manager, Jon. Her team-mate, Neil. And her father and team principal, Kenneth. 


“People think that’s because it’s just you in the car at the time of the race, racing is a solitary sport,” she says. “But it really isn’t. So much goes into the prep of the car, into the pit stops that need their every aspect nailed, the driver change, having the trust in your team-mate to bring the car home in one piece and keep it clean — it really is a team sport.” 


And her team is so very capable. “It’s been incredible, learning with them and learning from them. They’re a really great support system, and they’re a really great team. I owe it all to them.” 


So, it’s June, and there’s a lot on the line for Samantha Tan. She wants to bring this championship home — and for many people. For her team, with whom she’s weathered so much over the past seven years. For her father, who has been with her from the very start. For the Asian community, who is her home. For all the girls out there, who keep her head high and her heart strong. 


And for herself, who knows that this win won’t be the end. Far from it, in fact. 


“I’ll never stop learning,” she says. “Even after it, if I’m feeling like I’m at the top of my game, I’ll still think, ‘No, I could have done this better. I could have done that better.’ It’s a never-ending journey. I can’t wait to keep it going.” 



All images are credited to ST Racing

3 Comments


Nina Mina
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5 days ago

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TRAP INC
TRAP INC
Jun 21

Keep winning samantha !!

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