“You kind of feel sorry for yourself for a while, but then you start thinking, ‘Okay, what can I do? I’m not useless.’
“So I got involved in karting and it turned out I had a natural talent and passion for the sport. And so I just pursued it with all my might and made a career of it.”
Last fall, Chalkias and fellow Canadians Nicole Havrda and Cherie Storms drove a Mercedes-AMG GT4 as an all-female team in an endurance race at California’s Buttonwillow Raceway Park.
Chalkias and Havrda were guests of Mercedes at the Montreal Grand Prix last weekend as part of the She’s Mercedes platform, a global initiative aimed at empowering women in sport.
According to Chalkias, motorsport offers a rare level playing field when it comes to physical physique. Being big and strong is not an advantage.
“The car does not see gender, it makes no difference whether you are female or male or what you can identify with,” said the 27-year-old.
However, in a sport where few could name a female rider other than Danica Patrick, the percentage of female riders is tiny. Only two women have ever qualified and started in an F1 race: Maria Teresa de Filippis in 1958-59 and Lella Lombardi with 17 starts between 1974 and 1976.
Since 2000, there have only been eight female IndyCar Series drivers. There have been no female drivers in the NASCAR Cup Series since Patrick from 2012-’18. Patrick scored numerous firsts, including becoming the first woman to win an IndyCar Series race and the first to secure a pole position in the NASCAR Cup Series.
Mercedes’ Formula 1 superstar Lewis Hamilton is a big supporter of female drivers. He said that a walk through the paddock at the Montreal Grand Prix was a testament to the lack of diversity in the sport, from the drivers to the mechanics to the media, both in terms of race and gender.
“This has been a male-dominated sport for a long, long time,” said Hamilton, the first black F1 world champion – he has won seven times. “We still have so much to do to improve women’s representation and opportunities at all levels.”
“(The sport) hasn’t changed nearly as much as I had hoped,” he added.
The W Series opened the door to 20 riders when it launched in 2019. The all-female single-seater championship has teamed up with Formula 1 for eight races. The Montreal Grand Prix is currently not one of them.
Caitlyn Jenner owns a W-Series team that’s free to join and all the cars are the same, which negates any financial benefit.
Canadian Taegen Poles was one of 54 drivers from around the world invited to travel to Austria for W Series qualifying, calling it a “fantastic experience”.
The 23-year-old Pole is completing her master’s degree in applied sciences in materials and nuclear technology at Queen’s University and hopes to gain further doors in the male-dominated field of mechanical engineering in motorsport.
The Poles said while the sport is technically “co-ed,” she was often the only woman at races. She was one of 17 Canadians in the 300+ field at last year’s Rok Cup SuperFinal karting event in Italy and the only woman in her class of about two dozen.
She believes that financial support is the biggest obstacle.
Chalkias bought her first racing car. She left college to work two part-time jobs, the morning shift at Eggsmart and the night shift at Jack Astors, until she banked the $12,000 to buy a used car and helmet.
“I pumped caffeine pills to stay awake,” she laughed. “I smelled like a walking fryer.”
“No matter how long my eyes stayed open (between shifts), I kept working on sponsorship proposals,” she added. “The rush was very real. It’s very humble beginnings in the sport, but it makes you so much more grateful for the opportunities that are given to you.”
Chalkias won the GT4 Championship in 2018 and became the first woman to win the CASC GT3 Championship in 2020. She recently completed a full-time drive in the Mercedes-AMG GT4 with JMS Motorsports and will be competing in the Spa 24 Hours in Belgium this year.
Havrda, meanwhile, became interested in racing when her family watched the Austrian F1 Grand Prix while on holiday there.
“I was like, ‘Dad, how do I get there?'” she said. “He laughed at me, he thought it was a joke.”
That night she researched driving schools from her hotel.
The 16-year-old, from Comox, BC, said last fall’s overnight endurance race was “pretty crazy but a great experience”.
“Cars in front of you would practically dip their wheels in the desert, in the sand, and it would kick up a whole cloud of dust, and you would just drive through it. And for a second you would think, “Where am I going? Am I still walking straight? Am I on track?’”
Havrda tested the W-Series in Arizona in January, but was told she didn’t have enough experience. She will compete in the US Formula 3 Series and hopes to bring good results to another attempt at the W Series.
The next stop for the W-Series is the British Grand Prix at Silverstone on July 3rd.
This report from The Canadian Press was first published on June 20, 2022.
Lori Ewing, The Canadian Press