The Power of Women Sport Role Models | A Personal Story
The Echos of My Grandmothers Sporting Life
Her experiences shape who I am today | By Riley Poduje
My grandmother was a race car driver.
Not many people can say that.
No, not in NASCAR or Formula 1, but she was a local sensation on the amateur level - dominating at Watkins Glen, Lime Rock, and tracks all over the East Coast with my grandfather. They were the couple with the weird names that, for some reason, kept winning.
Noel and Micheline Poduje. Hard to pronounce, and hard to forget.
My grandmother, or Mémé as I call her, didn’t start racing until she met my grandfather in the early 1960’s. Graduating from Wellesley College and marrying young, she had my dad in 1966 and built a life Needham, Massachusetts with my grandfather and her two sons.
As the story goes, my grandfather started racing in the late 60’s on the auto-cross circuit after he acquired his first Lotus sports car. Three years later, in 1970, he moved on to more competitive track races and by the mid 70’s convinced my grandmother to get in the driver’s seat.
They both drove the same tricked-out Lotus sports car with a souped-up engine and a roll cage over the front seats. With a background in engineering, thanks to an MIT degree, and a knack for putting things together, my grandfather really knew how to take this luxury showroom car to the next level.
After a few years of racing and countless podium finishes, it didn’t take long for their natural talent behind the wheel to start attracting attention from newspapers and local news stations. Known simply as “The Poduje’s,” both my grandparents became local celebrities in the racing world and continued to dominate all over North America and even into Canada. They were in this together, not one without the other, and they dominated.
But this piece isn’t about the number of races my grandparents won or how many newspaper articles were written about them. It’s a tribute to the badass woman I get to call my grandmother and how she defied gender roles and societal norms to become one of the best amateur race car drivers of her generation.
Seriously, think about it. A woman ... racing cars ... in the 70’s. Just a few years after Title IX passed. All because her husband thought she would have a good time behind the wheel rather than on the side of the track.
But, as my dad put it, this was totally normal. It wasn’t weird that she was one of the first female drivers in her area, or really anywhere, to smoke her competition race after race. He was just along for the ride, which grew into a love for a sport so close to his family’s heart.
My dad wanted to be a race car driver. He would constantly tell me that “Mémé was one of the best race car drivers of all time,” so I grew up believing that my grandmother was a legend, even if I only knew her as a stroke survivor who’s brain had to work three times harder to piece together a sentence.
And she absolutely was.
She had built a relationship and culture within her family surrounding the love for racing that (no pun intended) drove my dad to appreciate the impact sport can have on a group of people. And I was just lucky enough to reap the benefits of her success and the mindset she installed in my dad as he brought the same ideas when starting his own family.
It didn’t matter that I am a girl, I was going to play sports. My dad made sure I was exposed to sport in a variety of ways, that only made me want to try everything: soccer, basketball, lacrosse, field hockey. You name it, chances are I at least attempted to play it. Growing up like this is the reason I want to pursue a career in sports business, because I have never not been around sport. It is who I am, and there is nothing else I am more passionate about.
The identity of sport does not fade, no matter how long one is off the field, court, or track. I will always consider my grandmother to be a race car driver, despite her not having raced in over 20 years. But her love for the sport runs deep, and riding shotgun in her Lotus Elise with my grandfather or hearing stories of my sister’s first track day will always light up her eyes the way nothing else could.
At heart, my grandmother IS a race car driver - and that’s pretty sweet.