America has always been a nation of new beginnings, offering hope and opportunity to those seeking a better life. Sometimes, it takes an immigrant to remind us natural-born Americans that we really are lucky to live in the best damn country on the planet for more than one reason, chief among those our freedom…to race.
Sarah Burgess is probably not the kind of immigrant we all imagine in our heads. Yet the Australian mother, wife, and race car driver came to the United States to pursue a long-time dream; running a race team. And she’s not just some pretty face; Sarah knows her stuff, probably better than you or I. In fact, Sarah and her husband Adam don’t just own their own racing team; they built their car, and ran a successful performance workshop and machining business back in their home country.
Changing Countries And Chasing Dreams
“We moved here from Australia in 2008, and we haven’t been back even to visit since,” says Burgess. “We’ve been so happy here that we don’t see a need to go back to Australia.” What is it about America that Sarah and her family love so much about America? “People are so nice over here, whether we’re in L.A. or New York” Sarah explains. “We love the patriotism as well. Everybody is proud to be here. Simple things like people flying their flags outside their house, it makes all the difference.”
This would be a good time to mention that Sarah, who works in marketing for SEMA, splits her time between the SEMA office in Diamond Bar, CA, and her home office with Adam in Torrance, CA, and the many different race tracks that are hosting the Xtreme Drift Circuit, or XDC. “We don’t watch television or go out to see movies,” Burgess explains.
Instead, Sarah and Adam spend a lot of quality time tweaking and tuning their drift car, a 2013 Ford Mustang with 5.0L Coyote engine with a 2.9L Whipple Supercharger. Sarah’s team, BMI Racing, used to race a Mazda RX-8, a vehicle Mazda no longer makes. The transition to a Mustang just made sense, though Ford didn’t exactly give them a car. “We bought it at auction,” Adam explains. “It had a straight chassis and only minor damage at the very front of the car, in a section that we were going to chop off anyway.”
From there it was up to husband and wife to put together a car capable of competing with the many up-and-coming drivers of the XDC league…something that would be almost impossible to do in Australia. “If you don’t have the big money, you just can’t compete,” says Burgess. Australia, a nation of just 22 million people, does not have the huge and competitive aftermarket that America does. So what parts there are, are often quite expensive, and can take months to get to your doorstep. That is what led Sarah and Adam to open their own parts business, manufacturing among other things throttle bodies for a variety of vehicles, as well as selling turbochargers and other parts.
Yet even with their ability to manufacture parts and a well-regarded business, the business atmosphere for racers could be described as openly hostile at best. “If you’re caught doing a burnout, it could cost you $6,000,” Burgess says. “If you have an aftermarket exhaust, both you, and the shop that did the work could face a $10,000 fine.”
A Badass Beauty With Business Savvy
That’s some scary stuff right there, and it kind of makes you appreciate America that much more. And for someone wanting to pursue a racing career, America is the place to be. “There is so much opportunity in motorsports in America that you’re a lot more likely to get a sponsor. In Australia, unless you’re racing V8 Supercars, getting sponsors is really, really hard.” And that is when Sarah blows you away with her business savvy.
People remember me, and being a woman drifter running her own team…that is something that gets attention.
“People remember me, and being a woman drifter running her own team…that is something that gets attention.” She’s right, as among her current list of sponsors are big names like SPEC clutches and Aeromotive fuel pumps, as well as lesser-known brands like Ignite Fuels, Sarah’s biggest sponsor. See, Sarah runs on E98 ethanol, which has a high octane rating but is much more affordable than comparable racing fuels. “And the guy who runs Ignite Racing Fuel is the same guy who grows and harvests the corn and turns it into racing fuel. He’s a small-time operation, just like us.”
So how did Sarah get into racing? You can thank her husband Adam for that. “I was racing BMX when I was five years old. From BMX to cycling to triathlons to speed skating on roller blades, and then I did short track speed skating.” In fact, Sarah even represented Australia in the junior speed skating championships. Adam, who ran a fairly successful bread delivery service in Sarah’s hometown, got to talking with Sarah at a local business banquet…and all he was talking about was his Mazda RX-2. “He was such a passionate person to talk about cars the way he did, and two months after we met he asked if he could buy a dragster. And I was like, you’re talking to a girl who spent 10 grand on roller blades. I get it.” And from that moment on, the two were inseparable, and no wonder why.
From there, Sarah and Adam build drag cars, a small business, and even competed in lower level racing series across Australia. But as already mentioned, getting a racing team going in Australia isn’t easy, and the business climate is far from friendly. Sarah knew that if she wanted to take that next step towards owning a racing team, there was only one place she could go; America. “Everything that I have done seems to get faster and faster, so now I’m in a car,” explained Burgess.
After looking at the “benefits of driving a V8” and seeing Ford as “such a strong company”, it was a natural transition from the Mazda RX-8. “We decided to invest in ourselves, and that was when I stepped into the racer’s shoes.” Sarah had the experience, having driven plenty of high-horsepower cars back in Australia. Still, there is a steep learning curve, and sometimes things just go wrong. When we first heard of Sarah, it was because of a crash that sent the back end of her Mustang airborne. “The damage wasn’t bad, but it made for a great picture,” Burgess says.
Drifting: The Family Business
Which brings us to our next question; how does Sarah juggle a full-time job, a racing career, and family life? “I have to thank Adam for that; he doesn’t just take care of the car, he takes care of the house, and does things like pick up our daughter Bridget.” And according to Sarah, their relationship “thrives on stress.”
Their quality time is “all work”, and according to Sarah it has really improved their ability to communicate. “It’s certainly been an experience working with your partner, but you just learn to work through it. Since we’ve been in the race car, we’ve learned to communicate so much more,” Sarah says. “We have our moments, but we’ve learned to handle it.”
What helps is Sarah’s intimate knowledge of the car. Not only is she the owner and racer, but Sarah’s technical knowledge of how her Mustang works is second to none. “I can read the gauges, I can hear what is going on and I can communicate that to Adam,” Sarah says. And that also comes into play when it comes to sponsorships. As you might imagine, being a woman in the world of motorsports can bring its own unique challenges.
“As a woman in the industry, it has its good points and it has its bad points,” Burgess explains. “Sometimes you’ll get somebody asking you about a car part just to test you. I had an incident at the Summer Nats where I was standing at the booth handing out fliers, and I had a guy come up to me and ask I have this sort of car, what would you would recommend I put on it. And I went on this whole spiel, you can do this or you can do that, and he’s just like…I wasn’t expecting you to answer that question. I thought you were just the model.”
Race Like A Woman
Just because I’m a girl doesn’t mean I get a sponsorship easy…if a sponsor wants to sponsor you because you’re a winner, you have to be sure you can guarantee that, and it doesn’t matter if you’re a girl or a guy.
And while pretty much every new racer has a hard time finding sponsors, you might think a beautiful blond Australian drifter would have an easy time getting sponsors. But that isn’t the case according to Sarah. “Just because I’m a girl doesn’t mean I get a sponsorship easy. There are different parameters set by different companies. Some companies want someone who will promote the brand well; if a sponsor wants to sponsor you because you’re a winner, you have to be sure you can guarantee that, and it doesn’t matter if you’re a girl or a guy.” Sarah says she still gets ignorant comments on websites like Facebook about how “girls shouldn’t race”, but she doesn’t seem the least bit phased by the vitriol. Haters gonna hate, as the saying goes.
What about other female drivers? “Other women in motorsport sort of set that bar of expectations of what has to be done to get sponsorship, and you’re kind of like, is that what I have to do to get sponsorships, or can I just know about the parts?” Sarah goes on to tell us how Racepak Data Systems sent her a new product, the Smartwire, which Sarah actually helped do the prototyping for. They know I know the products and that I give them good feedback, and as a sponsor they really like that.”
That is what really sets Sarah apart; her intimate knowledge of her car, as well as her devotion to family and running a small business while working for a much larger one. This is a woman who wears many hats in a single week, and does so with a lot of success. Her and her husband Adam have a work ethic that is matched only by their love of their daughter, Bridget, who is already showing promise of a future in racing.
Following In Mother’s Footsteps
“She isn’t your average kid,” Sarah explains, and that much is obvious. During the interview Bridget was drifting her RC car up and down the driveway, close enough for her mother to keep on eye on her but far enough away so that the noise wasn’t at all bothersome. When she was done playing, she packed the toy up into a pink suitcase and closed the door to the house quietly. While I’m certainly no authority on raising children, whatever Sarah and Adam are doing is working. “Sometimes we even have Bridget make us dinner when we’ve been working on the car all night. Granted it is usually fish sticks, but
Bridget, who spent much of the interview drifting an RC car up and down the driveway, pitches in when she can too. “Sometimes Adam and I are spending the whole night working on the car, and we ask Bridget to make us dinner,” says Sarah. “Granted it is usually fish sticks, but after a long day fish sticks can taste like a 5 star meal.” Bridget has also become a fixture at the race track, handing out fliers (just like her mom used to do) and drumming up support for her family’s racing team.
So far, Sarah is still vying for success in the world of semi-professional drifting. And while she may not have the backing of HUGE sponsors like Falken Tires or Monster Energy, that only emphasizes her underdog status to the fans, most of whom love the idea of a woman driving a drift car. Besides, Sarah does have a distinct advantage when it comes to her team. After all, how many drifters count their entire family among their pit crew? Not many, and it is an advantage that carries on through the off-season. Sarah is following her dreams, and getting a lot of positive attention in the process. And if moving to another country, starting a racing team, and getting your whole family involved isn’t inspiring, well frankly, we couldn’t tell you what is.
You can follow Sarah on her Facebook fanpage, or on Twitter @bmiracing