Take 5: With Youmna Zalzal

Background: Youmna Zalzal was raised in Brooklyn, New York, and lived there until she moved to San Jose, California in 2009, where she currently works as a QA Analyst for a social networking site. Her first SCCA event was the 2015 Crows Tour. And while she didn't participate in another SCCA event until the 2015 Slush (post-Nationals) season, she has been to nearly every local San Francisco Region (SFR) autocross since then. She is on the Steering Committee for her Region, has chaired six events in the last year and a half, and is the primary person who runs the SFR SCCA Solo Facebook page. She will be campaigning a Toyota MR2 Spyder in E Street Ladies alongside her friend, Ryan Cirillo, who bought the car during this last off-season from her and her boyfriend, Tony Rodriguez. With the help of the Wendi Allen Scholarship, she will be attending her first Tire Rack Solo Nationals this year.

JH: First off, congratulations on being chosen as one of the recipients of the Wendi Allen Scholarship Fund award. I imagine that was extremely exciting news to get. Where were you when you first heard, and what was your initial reaction?

Y: Tony Rodriguez, who is my boyfriend, had mentioned when nominations opened that he was thinking of submitting my name. But we both felt it was kind of tacky for my partner to nominate me. So, Tony talked to Charlie Davis about it, and Charlie mentioned that he and Teddie Alexandrova had actually talked about nominating me last year. So, Charlie is the one that ended up submitting my nomination. So, fast forward to St. Patty’s Day, and Linda Duncan reached out to me on Facebook messenger and told me to give Howard Duncan a call tomorrow because he wanted to talk to me about something. So, at that point, I had an inkling I had been chosen, but I didn’t want to count my chickens before they hatched. So, the next day I called Howard, which was obviously during the Dixie Champ Tour, but I somehow managed to get ahold of him while he wasn’t super busy. He then told me I was a recipient and went on to tell me all about the history of Wendi Allen and the scholarship. Hearing the enthusiasm in his voice while he told me about the scholarship and what it means was really awesome. It was so fun to hear his passion for the sport and its people. I spent the next few days just trying to grasp it all... it didn’t sink in for a while. Not sure it really has yet.

JH: How did you first start autocrossing? Was motorsport something you were always in to, or was it something that became a passion after you first tried it?

Y: Funny thing…. I moved to California from New York about nine years ago. Being from New York, I never needed a car, so I had never owned one. I had my license, just never had a car. And when I moved out here, it was with the boyfriend I had at the time, and he had a car, so I still didn’t need one. After breaking up with my then-boyfriend, I realized I needed a car and an apartment. In that order. So, I started looking for a car on my computer, and I ended up having two tabs open. One with economy cars like Corollas and the other with Miatas and other sporty convertibles. The choice was pretty easy, and I ended up getting my first Miata. It took me a year to join the Miata club at which I met Tony, learned how to work on my car, attend track days, and start autocrossing. Before buying a Miata and joining that club, I would have never ended up doing any of this. My parents weren't especially interested in cars other than as a means of conveyance, so if you would have told me nine years ago that I would be traveling up and down the west making all these new friends, both here and across the country, because of autocross, I would have said you were nuts!

JH: You haven’t really been autocrossing for very long, yet it seems you jumped in head first in terms of helping out your Region and holding various positions within the local club. Walk me through the thought process that leads a new person to want to be as involved as you are.

Y: Part of it is my personality. I’m a helper. Or I try to be. The first event I chaired was the last event in 2016. It was pretty clear that in this hobby, you work and you drive. That is an integral part of the sport. But, I saw how much work the chairs put in, and that it was the same chairs over and over. I thought this is something I can do and a way I can help out. The first event I did, I co-chaired with Justin Moore. I told him I’m going to need help with learning how to do all of this. He did such a great job of helping me and making it easy on me while I learned the ins and outs of doing the job. I have chaired a total five or six events since then. And what I would like to do this year is what Justin did for me. Have a new chair follow me to learn the ropes so I can help keep full the pool of people able to chair, as it will only help the Club as we go forward. If I can teach more people, it means I don’t have to do it as much. And the people who have already done it a lot won’t have to do it as much. It is so much better when you can spread the load.

JH: With the Wendi Allen Scholarship Fund being for young or new women in our sport, and the new Women on Track initiative really taking on traction, talk to me about being a woman in our sport.

Y: Funny that you should ask about that. I was chatting about this with a friend recently. We were talking about my autocrossing – about my performance at the Tour – and I told him I came in first in my class (ESL) and fourth in the Ladies Index. He asked, "What is the purpose of the Ladies classes?" Considering our driving performance doesn't come down to biological differences, why should we have separate classes? I think Ladies classes are necessary, not because we're physically capable of different things than men (as in other professional sports), but because of the emotional hurdle of entering a very male-centric space. Women often aren’t sure if they’re welcome in motorsports, and Ladies classes offer a place that becomes, essentially, a stopgap until they’re comfortable to move into the open classes. I believe the availability of Ladies classes helps women come out and drive without feeling like they need to bring a male friend to validate their presence at an event. My own experience wasn’t that way, since I had a boyfriend with me to ease my entry into the sport. But I’ve seen other ladies run into this problem and simply not return. I have noticed that the younger set has generally been more accepting.

JH: With that thought in mind, what would you tell the other ladies out there that are on the fence about trying autocross?

Y: Just try it. See what you can do. It may seem scary when you first come in to it, but that’s OK. Tony started autocrossing before I did, with a small marque club. The first time I rode with him, I was cone-blind, couldn't parse what was happening, felt completely tossed around in the passenger seat, and left the car shaking, telling him I would never autocross. A friend convinced me to come back and try it again, but to drive this time. So, I drove at the following event, and was well and truly hooked. So, come out and drive! Know that you are completely welcome, and that it is a ton of fun!