Originally published in the Manchester Journal on May 29, 2017
MANCHESTER — For race car driver Ashley Freiberg, business acumen is just as important as athletic ability in a sport driven by sponsorship deals.
On the track or off, Freiberg is an accomplished athlete, having been featured in Sports Illustrated, ESPNW, Seventeen Magazine, and many more. In her spare time, the Chicago native takes to the Vermont mountains to train by hiking, cycling, rock climbing and skate skiing.
“Moving here, as an outdoorsy and athletic person, Vermont really appealed to me because it fit my lifestyle,” said Freiberg. “Vermont is a part of my training, I pretty much exercise outside nonstop around here with all of the hiking and cycling that’s available.”
The 25 year old athlete, a resident of Bondville, became interested in racing at a young age.
“I was a total tomboy from day one, and I grew up with two older brothers so I played a lot of sports with them,” said Freiberg. “One day they started driving as a hobby, and I thought that I could do it too.”
After finding some success with Go Kart racing, Freiberg realized that she had a talent for driving fast and wheeling it hard.
“It was instant love, and I thought this could really be something when I won a major championship in Karting when I was 14,” said Freiberg. “I got into cars at 15, before I even had my driver’s license, and once I started winning races I just kept going.”
The racer began to gain momentum in 2009, becoming the first female in history to podium in the BFGoodrich Skip Barber National Series race, capturing four more race wins in that year. Though she had seen immense success for a novice racer, Freiberg began to feel the pressure to maintain sponsorship support.
“Racing is an interesting sport; it’s not like basketball or baseball where if you’re really talented you just keep going,” said Freiberg. “It’s very much a business because it’s so expensive, so I learned really quickly that I had to understand the marketing side of it to find sponsorship.”
The next year Freiberg bagged 25 more Skip Barber wins and two Skip Barber Series Championships, becoming the first woman to win an overall Barber Series championship as well as the first female winner of a Skip Barber National Series Race.
Freiberg went on to become the first woman to win a MX-5 cup race, alongside four more big wins in that same year. She also became the second female, after racer Danica Patrick, to be nominated as a candidate for the Team USA Scholarship.
“I found some recognition, and tried to use that to find sponsors, but the next step was a lot more money,” said Freiberg. “That’s when I really started to dive deep into the business side of things.”
Freiberg’s athletic successes continued into 2011, when Freiberg won four more Skip Barber races. In 2012, the athlete finished 11th overall in her rookie season in Star Mazda, bagging six top ten finishes. Still, finding the necessary support from sponsors remained difficult.
“It was crazy, because I won a major championship there, but then I had nothing without sponsorship,” said Freiberg. “That’s when I really started looking into sports car racing and landed a deal in a Porsche, which went really well for me almost instantly.”
Freiberg’ earned two top-five finishes in her debut sportscar race in 2013, and made history once again by becoming the first woman to claim an overall GT3 Cup Challenge victory in North America the next weekend.
Freiberg jump started her 2014 season with a monumental win at the Daytona International Speedway, becoming the first woman in history to win an overall race at Daytona. Unfortunately, the athlete was only able to race four more events in that year due to a lack of sponsorship funds.
“I was leading the championship halfway through the season,” said Freiberg. “But, sponsorship fell through, and losing my ride put me back to square one trying to find sponsors.”
By 2015 Freiberg was named a BMW of North America Scholarship Driver and partner with IHG Rewards Club to score three podium wins with co-driver Trent Hindman at Petit le Mans. This scholarship continued into 2016, with Frieberg competing at the Daytona 24 hour, the Sebring 12 hour, and Petit Le Mans. Still, her support rested on a shaky foundation.
“The majority of people in racing now have family money or own companies, which is really frustrating,” said Freiberg. “There are a lot of drivers like me who know they can beat a lot of people on the track, but you’re not out there because you don’t have the money.”
After months spent searching for sponsors Freiberg returned to the track in early May of this year, bagging two third place finishes in the Pro class in the Lamborghini Super Trofeo.
“I think what makes the difference is having the tenacity to keep getting knocked down, continue to fight, and find the sponsors,” said Freiberg. “It’s hard though, because as an athlete you just want to be out doing the sport.”
A Bright Future
That tenacity is perhaps the most striking facet of Freiberg, who has broken countless barriers as a woman succeeding in a historically male dominated sport.
“I’m usually the only girl racing for most series that I’ve been in,” said Freiberg. “I have to be thick skinned and fight for my turf, but at the same time, the car doesn’t recognize if I’m a man or a woman. You still have to wheel it hard, so that’s all that I focus on.”
Though support from sponsors has fluctuated over the years, Freiberg has found that her fan base has never faltered.
“I love this sport and I love to drive, but over time what has started to fuel me is the fan support that is building behind me,” said Freiberg. “Seeing all of these people look up to me is great, because I did start from square one and worked my tail off to be where I am, versus having it handed to me.”
The athlete, who aspires to race in the competitive Indy 500 and eventually win the Lamott sportscar race, is finding that her career is strongest when her focus is divided between marketing herself and training.
“Right now my immediate goal is to have a whole season in place, but we’re still working from race to race,” said Freiberg. “It can be difficult, but I love being that inspiration for my fans; they push me to live up to that ideal.”
Freiberg will race next on June 29 in the Lamborghini Super Trofeo at the Watkins Glen International Raceway. All races will be live streamed on IMSA.com. To follow Freibergs racing career, find her on Facebook and Twitter, or visit her website at www.ashleyfreibergracing.com.