Renee Brinkerhoff was a late comer to extreme motorsports, but now she’s in it for all its worth, and then some. It was an unlikely change of direction for a wife and mother who took the plunge in 2013 at the age of 57 by driving in one of the world’s most grueling and challenging open-road rally races, the 7-day, nearly 2,000-mile La Carrera Panamericana of Mexico.
Her race car of choice: a 1956 356A coupe, upgraded for maximum durability and competitiveness, in which she has established herself as not only a champion female driver but one of the best drivers overall in the sport of rally racing. Her first time running the Panamericana as a rank novice, she won her class.
Now, Brinkerhoff is on the verge of completing a worldwide challenge of her own invention, named the Project 356 World Rally Tour. It includes every continent, including Antarctica, encompassing 20,000 miles and going with her race team and the 356 to some of the world’s most remote places.
She named her team Valkyrie Racing, with a logo that depicts a winged female astride a galloping horse and brandishing a spear.
The team has completed five endurance drives on six continents, and is preparing for the assault on Antarctica’s frozen expanse.
“Antarctica is our next and final challenge,” she said, noting that the conditions they would encounter would be extraordinarily harsh on the car and its occupants, with frigid temperatures, snow and icy terrain.
What gives her World Rally Tour added meaning beyond the sheer adventure is the cause that Brinkhoff has embraced: fighting child exploitation and trafficking through fund raising by her team’s charity arm, Valkyrie Gives, and educating the public about the global problem that has victimized so many children and young people.
The idea behind naming her team Valkyrie Racing refers directly to the cause it supports, as well as its role as a female-led team, and the rare, and sometimes only, female driver in the circle of competitors.
Brinkerhoff’s late-in-life decision to go racing came after raising four children in Colorado, when the empty nest felt too confining for her vibrant personality and she began casting about for something that would consume her boundless energy. Although never a racing fan, she suddenly decided that what she wanted to be was a racecar driver.
“I told myself that one day, I want to race a car,” she said. “I have no background in cars, my family has no background in cars, but for whatever reason, I said that. I realized that for my self-respect, I had to do that one thing.”
The idea took her husband and family completely by surprise.
“When I first told them, they thought I was joking,” she said. “Once we got through all that, they’ve been supportive of all my endeavors.”
Then it came down to selecting which of a myriad of the racing venues would scratch that itch. As usual, she studied hard, hoping to find the right blend of speed and excitement. Quickly, she decided that racing on a track, whether paved or dirt, did not meet her criteria. Again, too confining.
Her husband’s cousin, who had experience vintage racing in a Corvette, helped her explore the various forms of competition. He was the catalyst that introduced her to the glories of the Porsche 356 and the Mexican road race.
La Carrera was certainly not an endeavor for the feint-hearted, she learned, with dangerous high-speed runs on narrow back roads, often lined with unprotected spectators. The modern-day rally race was not the same wildly unpredictable and nearly uncontrolled event that it was in the 1950s, but it was still pitiless and could get you killed (one participant died during the 2013 race).
Renee decided that sounded just about right. Here was the motorsport adventure she longed for, in which the driver and navigator were totally out there in the real world, battling not only the distances and the competitors, but the roads themselves.
The next step was finding the right car. The cousin had become interested in the 356 collector car market, and it wasn’t long before Renee came in contact with one. She was immediately smitten.
“When I saw a 356, which in 2012 was my first time ever, it was an instant match,” Brinkerhoff recalls. “I loved everything about it. It’s big curves. The sound and feel of it. Everything!”
The search was on for her own 356, which she undertook with the help of a California Porsche specialist Jim Ansite, who knew where to look. The 1956 356A coupe they turned up was exactly what she wanted, in more ways than one.
“Oddly, we share the same birth year and are therefore the same age,” Brinkerhoff said. “To me, that’s cool! This car is definitely my alter ego.”
But her motorized alter ego needed some beefing up to make it fit to survive the kind of racing that Brinkerhoff had envisioned. For that, she enlisted the services of Greg Johnson of Eurosport in Denver. Johnson took the 356 apart and put it back together with a fresh 2-liter boxer engine fed by dual Weber carburetors and a 5-speed transmission with a limited-slip differential. The swing-arm axles were swapped out for the articulated rear suspension from a 911, and the outdated drum brakes were switched to 4-wheel discs. An 80-liter fuel cell was installed as well as such safety features as a complete roll cage, racing-harness seatbelts and a fire-suppression system.
While the little coupe didn’t look much different from a well-executed 356 “outlaw,” it was quite fast with improved handling, and with enough strengthening throughout its body and chassis to withstand rugged, rutted roads and other bad driving conditions.
Before she set out for her first Panamericana (she has now done four) in 2013, she knew she definitely needed to work on her own ability behind the wheel. For that, she attended the Porsche Sport Driving School, where she learned the nuances of performance driving and car control.
Renee and her team arrived for La Carrera Panamericana in October 2013, not really knowing what to expect of the event or themselves. This was all new terrain – a number of the team members had never been south of the border, and all of them were about to compete at a high level as a team for the first time.
Today’s La Carrera Panamericana is the modern revival of the races that ran from 1950-54, competition that stands among the most famous racing events in history. It was also considered to be the world’s most dangerous racing of any type, with 27 people killed during its five-year run, giving the Panamericana the highest mortality rate per race. Much of the danger came from long, high-speed sections of open roadway that were only partially secured or monitored.
The event was revived in 1988 as a coast-to-coast rally race that, unlike such timed-rally revivals as the Mille Miglia in Italy, still includes high-speed competition. Better controlled and not as hazardous as the original races, it’s still fraught with danger as racers in high-performance machinery hurtle along public roads.
“It’s not like racing on a track,” Brinkerhoff said in a video on her team’s website, racevalkyrie.com. “It’s extremely dynamic. It’s extremely dangerous, and there are so many things that you have no control over.”
One of very few women present among participants, Renee roared off with navigator Roberto Mendoza on the first stage of their journey. To their surprise and gratification, they finished that initial stage first in their competitive class. They stretched that into a strong lead over the next 7 days so that when the race was finished, they were declared the winner of their class, a remarkable feat for a first-time racer.
The resounding victory encouraged Renee and her team to come back the following year, something that she had not originally anticipated.
“When I started, I was just going to do it one time,” she said. “Just one race, just to fulfill something I’d been saying to myself. I never envisioned doing it more than one time, yet here we are.
“Being in that car and rally racing, it all came together as if it was meant to be. It was like, wow, we have to keep doing this.”
The following year, she and her team returned, once again achieving a podium win, coming in second in the class and finishing near the top of the overall competition.
The third year that Valkyrie Racing ran in the Panamericana, which they started off feeling like seasoned veterans, turned into near disaster.
“We were in the mountains of Chiapas, Mexico,” she recalled. “We were in the qualifying round, one day prior to the race start. I was having problems steering the car and was yelling at my navigator that something was very wrong with the car.
“We went around a corner and almost went off the road, which would have been a long way down. I kept the car on the road but was too deep in the brakes. In order to miss the spectators, we hit a railing and flipped. The tires were later found to be grossly overinflated.”
The car was damaged but not fatally, so the team hauled it off and set about repairing it. The body needed to pulled out and the suspension repaired, which was accomplished overnight, so that the Porsche was ready to go again the next day for the start of the race. But more troubled ensued, with a transmission failure again sidelining the car until parts could be located and the gearbox fixed. Then it was the steering box, which was found to be cracked. That also was repaired.
Despite all that, and in spite of the unexpected time spent making repairs, Renee and Roberto continued the race and again were able to achieve a second in class, another amazing result further cementing the respect she had earned through her apparently natural-born driving skills.
After that eventful 2015 race, Brinkerhoff took the Porsche to experts to have its condition evaluated. What they found was that the car was more damaged from the crash, and possibly from all the rough-road competition, than was apparent. The entire body and chassis were twisted, which would mean something in the order of a total rebuild. The car was sent to the Porsche restoration experts at European Collectibles in Costa Mesa, California, to get the work done.
During this time, Brinkerhoff was pondering what her next step would be. She and her team manager, Johanna Mendoza (no relation to Roberto), concocted a plan. They had been researching other rally racing venues around the world, and had identified those that seemed challenging enough for their participation. They were scattered around the globe: Asia, South America, Africa, Australia.
That was the spark that lit up the concept of the Porsche 356 World Rally Tour. The stated goal was to compete in such events on every continent on earth, all seven of them, including a final triumphant tour of Antarctica. They searched and pinpointed six varied driving experiences – six events for seven continents because the 9,000-mile Peking to Paris rally takes in both Asia and Europe – that were grand enough to raise the team’s profile and bring attention to their child-trafficking cause.
Quite a tall order for the simple little Porsche 356 and a Colorado lady in her 60s. But Brinkerhoff and Valkyrie Racing have spent the past two years accomplishing nearly every one of those things they set out to do.
They started out the World Tour in October 2017 with the team’s fourth appearance at La Carrera Panamericana. This time, everything came together and Brinkerhoff drove to another class victory. Her score for the four Panamericanas: two class wins and two class runner ups. Quite an enviable record.
Next up was a trip down under to Australia and the Targa Tasmania, a six-day, 1,200-mile competition known as “the largest, fastest tarmac race in the world,” according to the Valkyrie Racing website. Many of the racers were competing in modern supercars, Brinkerhoff said, and she was the only female driver among the hundreds of racers.
She was successful in running the race and completing it, and did it with enough brio to be awarded a Targa Plate.
October 2018 found Valkyrie Racing taking part in the Caminos del Inca, a 9-day race in Peru that goes from city to city and at altitudes as high as 15,000 feet. Here, the 62-year-old Porsche found itself in strange company, competing against modern, purpose-built rally cars, the kind of racers you see at World Rally Cup events.
“We’re the only classic car or vintage car that has ever participated,” Brinkerhoff said. “First time that a Porsche has ever been in the event, first time for people in Peru seeing a 356 – there’s only one in the whole country.”
Although totally outgunned by the modern competition, the 356 finished the South American race, adding another notch in the seven-continent belt.
Next came the big-daddy of cross-country rally events, the 36-day, 9,300-mile Peking to Paris Motor Challenge in June and July 2019. Open only to vehicles built before 1976, with teams ranging from first timers on bucket-list trips to hardened veterans, the rally took a northern route that time, across China and Mongolia, into Russia and across to Scandinavia, then down through northern Europe to Paris.
This most grueling of challenges, much of it on rough terrain, takes its toll on vehicles, and the 356 was no exception; it succumbed to engine failure near St. Petersburg. A fresh motor was sourced and shipped in. Once the engine swap was complete, Renee and company drove the remainder of the lengthy course, and arrived in Paris for the finish-line celebration.
The final competition thus far, the East Africa Safari Classic through Kenya and Tanzania, is regarded as the most-difficult rally race of all, driving 3,000 miles over nine days through every kind of terrible terrain imaginable. Valkyrie Racing took part in November/December 2019, and this time, Renee had a very special co-driver: her own daughter.
“We were the only woman-driven car,” Brinkerhoff said. “And I think we’re the first mother/daughter team to ever participate. It also was the first time having a Porsche 356 in the event.”
The other cars in the race were primarily vintage purpose-built rally-racing cars, she added, from the 1980s and older. There were a handful of Porsche 911s in the event, but just one 356.
The mother/daughter team underwent a real test of their skills and stamina, she added.
“It’s absolutely nuts,” she said of the Safari Classic. “That thing is all off road. They pick really difficult gravel, dirt, mud, river-crossing roads. This last year when we participated, it was the rainiest year they had in 20 years. So the roads that were already hard became in some places absolutely impossible and impassable. They said it was the toughest year they had in 20 years.
“You are in all kinds of different terrain. You’re in super-deep mud, dusty-dry roads. Some roads that are just so terribly washboard that you think you’re going to lose your teeth. Huge washouts and ravines and gullies. Big boulders that you have to get around. Really, anything and everything that you could image for an off-road challenge, we were presented with it.”
But the 356 held up and Renee and her daughter completed the rally, against all odds.
Valkyrie Racing is now preparing for what could be the biggest challenge of all: Antarctica. Brinkerhoff has been making arrangements to ship the 356 to the bottom of the world for a solo drive, along with a support team, across the frozen wasteland. She plans to go 356 miles in honor of her faithful Porsche.
“It’s an event that I’m organizing and it’s solely for my car to complete the seven continents that we need to drive on,” she said. “We’re redesigning the car so that it can actually drive on the ice,” she said. “I had the option of using tracks or using tires, and I choose to use tires because that’s driving.”
The timing for the polar trip is up in the air, Brinkerhoff said, as they try to work out the logistics.
Once her unprecedented Porsche 356 World Rally Tour is completed, she will go on looking for other challenges, she said, all the while using her newfound fame to raise awareness and fight the problem of child trafficking.
“I had so much spare energy and personal time when my children left home,” Brinkerhoff said when she first began her worldwide journey. “I initially filled this with rallying – an incredibly exciting passion which requires immense focus and courage – but I knew there was more I could do.
“We started by exposing the audience that was building around our story to important social issues and asking for help to make peoples’ lives better.”
This article originally appeared in the Porsche 356 Registry magazine. Reprinted with permission from the publisher.