From War Survivor to Race Car Driver: Interview with the Tenacious Martina Kwan
There’s that classic saying, “There’s more than what meets the eye.”
When you first meet Martina Kwan you likely see two things: a stunning, brunette woman and a Porsche.
However, nothing can quite prepare you for the unbelievable, jaw-dropping life story of this beautiful female race car driver.
While hearing Martina’s story, it sounds more like a script for an Angeline Jolie action film; the kind when the preview crescendos and the texts reads: ‘Based on a True Story’, the audience is left with a confused look and curious skepticism. “A true story? A child escaping bomb shelters and war torn countries to race Porsches and own a racing school?”
But Martina’s story is true: a tale of fierce inspiration and overcoming adversity.
Martina is Eurasian born in Hong Kong. Her childhood consisted of constant moves from Hong Kong, Lebanon, Germany, Bahrain, the Netherlands and Switzerland, finally landing in the United States in 1985.
From her humble beginnings she gives ‘boss lady’ a whole new meaning as CEO of Martina Kwan, Inc. in which she is a Transformational Coach and also is Co-Founder of a Racing School and Performance Driving Academy with with Dwain Dement of Vision Motorsports.
She ‘drove’ deeper in our interview with her inspiring story.
Beauty and Keys: We know you faced many challenges growing up; which one impacted your life the most?
Martina Kwan: The greatest impact on my life growing up was living through the Lebanese War. I didn’t even realize how much it impacted me, until I sat in the Saleen S1 race car last June at Thermal Raceway 4 decades after I left Beirut, Lebanon.
To anyone else the sounds and the performance of the Saleen S1 race car were truly extraordinary.
However, to me, the noises and sounds of the turbo charged engine reminded of the sounds of machine guns, rockets and bombs exploding while I was an 8-10 year old child living in Beirut, Lebanon during the war. I felt a visceral paralyzing fear towards that race car that I was not even able to clearly identify until a few months later.
I’ve always considered myself a 100% confident and strong woman, and credit living through war in Beirut to my strength and fearlessness as a woman throughout my life, but the first contact I had with the Saleen race car really brought me to my knees.
It was the first time in 4 decades that I had to confront the fears I felt as a child sitting huddled in our ground floor apartment corridor with our neighbors on Bliss Street in Beirut, which we used as a bomb shelter. Every time we would hear the bomb sirens (usually during the night), we would have to move from our bedrooms to our apartment corridor, and all our neighbors would come down to our ground floor apartment and we would sit huddled opposite each other in our corridor and wait until the fighting and warfare were over.
I knew I had to get over my fears fast if I was going to try and effectively compete in the Saleen Cup which was part of the Blancpain GT World Challenge America. I woke up on August 15 , 2019, on the morning we were going to Buttonwillow Raceway to test the Saleen, and FINALLY realized what was causing me to fear the Saleen S1 race car.
I realized I had heard the sounds of the car before. I realized that the hissing and popping sounds of the Saleen over 40 years ago when I was a 10 year old living in Beirut, Lebanon during the Lebanese War.
It was the hissing and popping sounds of the Saleen that reminded me of the sounds of machine guns, bombs and rackets hissing and flying through the air, followed by explosions.
I knew I had to get over my fear fast; I knew it was time to no longer sweep things under the rug. It was time for me to pull the rug up and confront the fears I had subconsciously carried around for 4 decades. It was at that moment I pulled off on the highway before the Grapevine to Buttonwillow, and found a video on YouTube with the REAL sounds of machine gun fire, rockets, bombs and explosions. For the first time in 43 years, I listened to the violent and aggressive sounds that I remember hearing sitting in that corridor. I listened to these violent sounds for 1 hour at full volume. As I was listening, it made me cry to think of the little 9 year old girl that I was in Beirut, climbing into my sister’s bed & remembering the visceral fear that I felt.
But you know what? Having listened to these sounds for an hour at full volume, desensitized me and took away my negative association, so that by the time I reached Buttonwillow, I was able to get into the S1 with much less fear than I had before. I got into that race car, and was able to podium twice in 7 races during the season. I now love the sounds of a turbo race car.
WOW. We don’t really have any response to your answer other than.. wow. You are an overcomer! From being fearful of the turbo noise because it reminded you of bombs and bullets to conquering that and racing- that’s a remarkable accomplishment!
How did you find your way to race cars? Have you always been a car enthusiast?
Oddly, no. I wasn’t really a car enthusiast till recently. I grew up in CITIES all my life where driving a car was NOT the main focal point…Hong Kong, Beirut, Hamburg, Bahrain, Amsterdam, Leysin, then Miami, Boston, New York before moving to Los Angeles.
In 2011, while I was living in Miami Beach, I was finally able to afford my dream car: a Porsche 911. I finally started taking an interest after purchasing a 2009 997.2 Porsche 911.
“I’ve always considered myself a 100% confident and strong woman, and credit living through war in Beirut to my strength and fearlessness as a woman throughout my life, but the first contact I had with the Saleen race car really brought me to my knees.
That is a classic dream car. We love Porsche! What inspired you to get into racing Porsche?
In 2011, my old company, Neoteric Luxury Outdoor Collections started sponsoring a track event every April with Benjamin West at Pikes Peak International Raceway, which piqued my interest. I drove up to Willow Springs for my first track day in my Porsche 911 with Porsche Owners Club in January of 2015.
I attended a few track days here and there in 2015/2016 but by the middle of 2016, I felt I wanted to do something different.
I felt that I had lost who I was a person. Life’s responsibilities of taking care of the business, my family and children had left me feeling I was no longer happy, and something had to change.
It was on a business trip to Dubai in September of 2016, and rode an Arabian Horse in the Arabian Desert at sunset that changed my life. I used to ride in the Bahrain desert as a 13 year old, and the ride in Dubai reminded me of happy feelings from childhood.
The sunset ride in the desert was a magical moment. It was the defining moment I remembered who Martina was.
It was the moment I named my Porsche 911 “Firehorse” and the moment I said I want to become a race car driver.
The natural progression was to use my Porsche 911 as a vehicle to accomplish that. In 2017, I kept is stock and won the MS Championship. In 2018, I slightly modified the 911 with Vision Motorsports and won the M4 Championship. And in 2019, I finally converted it to a non streetlegal race car and won the GT4 Championship. Dwain Dement of Vision Motorsports and I also own a Mercedes-AMG CLK63 Black Series Race Car. Even though I had the opportunity to drive the Saleen S1 car semi-professionally last year, my heart belongs to racing Porsche.
Why Porsche? Is it your favorite marque to track?
In my opinion, German Engineering is the best. There are several other brands I tried before I was able to afford my first dream car, a Porsche 911, namely BMW and Mercedes-Benz, but when I first drove the Porsche, there was an incredible feeling that encompassed me EVERYTIME I turned on the engine.
Completely unmodified, straight off the factory floor, the car has a “Je n’est c’est quoi” that NO OTHER car has. It represents beauty, prestige, and ultimate class.
Sure, there are many other cars that are beautiful and sound amazing, such as for example, Aston Martin and McLaren etc, but Porsche represents the WHOLE package. It is a lifestyle. a beautiful one, an all-encompassing one.
Porsche is an aspiration. A lifelong desire, want, and need. A Porsche is something you dream about owning for most of your life. Yet, it takes most people years, or in fact, most of their life, to finally reach a financial level where they can yes, without a doubt, it is my favorite marque to track.
You are a female in a male dominated industry. Have you ever been treated different because you are a woman?
Of course, there are still some misconceptions about being a female racer. In my experience, most males (and females) will at first dismiss you as competition since you are a woman. They do not expect to see you perform as well, if not better, than your male counterparts.
In the process, some males have looked under my car to presumably see if I was cheating to get the results I was getting, and others joking that they were faster than all their male counterparts (but not me, the female).
At the end of the day, I do not believe there should be a difference between the performance of a male or female driver.
What do you think women bring to the car industry?
Women bring a different perspective and new ideas that to this day, many men, might NOT want to hear, but if they really listen, often find themselves respecting the opinions and input of the women they work with. There are still many inroads to be made in terms of women in automotive and motorsports.
What is your favorite quote or mantra?
In life in general, and race car driving specifically, my favorite quote and aspiration is: “Be like water, my friend” by one of my childhood idols Bruce Lee.
You’re a mom, a business owner, a race care driver… do you have time for any other hobbies?! What are some of your passions?
My passion for the past 4 years has been cars and race car driving. When I was a child, I loved horseback-riding and still have a special affinity to horses. Horses are still my favorite animal.
I also enjoyed snow skiing when I studied in Leysin, Switzerland and continued to ski until recently. The first time I started having second thoughts about skiing was when I was hit on the ski slopes in Deer Valley by a man who could not stop, resulting in a concussion. It took about a year to fully recover especially short term memory. I now no longer enjoy the sport of skiing since race car driving is more important and I do not want to risk injuring myself while skiing.
A woman who literally does it all. Tell us your plans for the next year!
This year, I am focusing on two new ventures:
The first is co-founding a new racing school and performance driving academy with Dwain Dement, at his new private membership facility at 3491 75th Street West, Rosamond, Ca, 90 miles from LAX, right outside the gates of Willow Springs International Raceway. All previous race schools have been founded by male race car drivers. In our case, we will be the first racing school in the world co-founded by both a man and woman who are both FIA Licensed race car drivers. We have a combined 70 years of business experience. Dwain is a Champion race car driver, has been in Porsche for 40 years, and founded his company Vision
Motorsports 25 years ago in which he services Porsche and builds race cars. Since he has the uncanny ability to get in a race car, drive a couple of laps, and know exactly what to do to change the setup, many compare him to Ken Miles. He has been my race coach for the past three years and helped me achieve the 3 Championships I have won. I have 30 years of business experience and previously successfully founded 2 award winning businesses.
The school will have 4 main components:
1. It will be an accredited Racing School in which drivers can not only hone in on their craft, but also become race licensed. A lot of focus will also be given to mindset, and how to professionally conduct oneself both on the racetrack and off. 2. The Performance Driving Academy will help drivers master car control on a road course, including turning, braking, throttle application and mental training. This will be open to all makes and models and we plan to collaborate with various car dealerships as well as race teams. I am particularly excited about helping women feel comfortable at the racetrack in general and helping them move forward in their skills.
3. Teen Car Control Clinics will help young drivers develop confidence and safe and responsible driving habits. Inexperience and Inattentiveness have serious repercussions and the aim is to help teens understand their car better, and feel comfortable in different situations. CDC notes that teens are more likely to speed, make risky moves, underestimate dangerous situations, drive at night, and not wear a seatbelt compared to older drivers. Exercises will include understanding various risks that can present themselves, throttle steer, skid control training, proper estimation of braking, accident avoidance drills, slalom exercises and lead/follows. As a mother of two teenage girls it is my mission to help teens become safer and better drivers. The Teen Car Control clinics will be offered throughout the summer holidays as well as during other school vacation times and certain weekends.
4. Private 1:1 Coaching
I am now a Transformational Coach for Women, in which I will help women who are over 40, exhausted from working for others, transition into being Unstoppable Entrepreneurs. Many of my career years were spent founding and building 2 Award Winning Businesses in which I won 9 Furniture Design Awards, 4 Telly Awards and 2 Emmy Awards. Being an Entrepreneur has been one of my greatest joys. Now, I would like to share my knowledge with other women who want to achieve the same.
Find out more about Martina’s ventures here: www.martinakwan.com
Photo credits: Photo 1: Alexandra Hainer, 3: Caliphotography, 4: Lesley Pedraza, 5: 6: Alexandra Hainer, 2, 5, 7: Martina Kwan