Racing is more than pushing oneself beyond a natural comfort zone; it’s living there. True competitors enter a state of grace in the exhilarating moments between rev and brake. The purpose-built power, wheel-to-wheel action, and precision handling combine for an adrenaline high pumped with burned fuel and hot rubber. It’s no guts, no glory on the world stage of racing. And industry enthusiasts are unlikely to meet anyone who works harder or smarter than the highly decorated and well-respected road racer, Karen Salvaggio.
Tough Love and Determination
Back in the day, kids developed tough skin growing up in the blue collar city of Pittsburgh. It was a place where families instilled value in overcoming the daily grind with bellowing pride and a spoonful of tenacity. Dig a little deeper when it appears there’s nothing left. Pull yourself up by the bootstraps. And slam back a beer at the corner bar with thy neighbor at the end of a 12-hour shift. Salvaggio’s grandfather endured hard labor in the local steel mills and although her parents were far removed from the automotive industry, they supported her unconventional path to racing stardom, which started at a very young age.
“I was always the odd duck in the family,” said Salvaggio. “I knew from the time I was eight years old that I loved speed and movement and transitioning on a bike or roller skates. Cornering, one direction to the next, smooth or fast. … It didn’t matter. I wanted to race and that feeling was deeply internal. I was that kid in the neighborhood who made my own road course with paint cans,” continued Salvaggio, who recalls her mother being a better driver than her father and indulging the kids with long rides through the two-lane switchbacks in the countryside.
This fascination with speed and performance encouraged Salvaggio to develop her own mechanical skills. “My dad never should have been allowed to operate a wrench,” she laughed. “I fixed everything in the garage. I was always putting something together or tearing it apart. And I really enjoyed it,” she continued.
Discipline and Focus
An aptitude for wrenching served her well, as Salvaggio was nearing college and Title 9 was passed. The congressional mandate sought the development of women in non-traditional fields. Determined, fearless, and handy, Salvaggio was an ideal fit and welcomed the opportunity to fine-tune her mechanical abilities. The attraction of a GI Bill to help pursue higher education further steered her in the direction of the military. She entered the US Air Force and honed her skills as a crew chief on B-52 and KC-135 aircraft. But Salvaggio never abandoned a lifelong dream of challenging opponents at high speeds from behind the wheel of specialty modified production-based vehicles.
In fact, she took the first steps in achieving this dream by building her first race car at the age of 22. She proudly earned a title of master mechanic and temporarily satisfied her daring spirit via military involvement and amateur racing. But, she says, “I reached a point where the promotions were coming quickly and I was having fun, but knew I couldn’t just keep flying around the world. I entered the military with the purpose of serving, then pursuing an education. And I was at the point that the GI Bill was going to expire.”
She left the military in the midst of climbing the ranks to pursue an advanced degree in education and start a professional racing career from the bottom up. Salvaggio studied for her bachelor’s degree while working full time as a service manager at a motorcycle shop. All while simultaneously gaining experience on the dirt track during the late 80s. Salvaggio, true to her word, graduated and served in public education for 25 years where her titles ranged from substitute and elementary school teacher to principal and superintendent upon retirement.
Spunk and Stamina
“A great career but far removed from the track. I maintained a race car the entire time I taught. The kids found out that I raced and loved it and the parents were digging it, too,” said Salvaggio. It certainly helped her relate with the students, especially during such a sensitive time when vocational programs were being cut left and right. “Racing is the ultimate adrenaline high. (I’d come home from a race and enter school) and no one could do anything to piss me off,” she laughed. “Even if it was a bad weekend, I still knew it was way better than anyone else’s!”
Possessing some kind of superpower, Salvaggio managed a healthy balance among her various roles as full-time mother, teacher by day, mechanic by night, and racer by weekend. “The vast majority of racers are grassroots. We save up enough money to get the parts we need or round up enough credit card debt to buy what we need and hit the next race,” she chuckled. “I was always asking questions (to build knowledge, master a new skill set and push the race cars to new limits). It was an ‘I help with your car and you help with mine’ because it’s hard to do as a singleton; there’s a lot of maintenance,” she said.
Honesty and Integrity
“What I have discovered is that it really doesn’t matter the industry you’re in. People respect honesty, hard work, and competence. If you’re those things and not in it to simply prove something, rather because you truly want to learn, then others are willing to roll up their sleeves, get in there, and get mucky with you,” she continued.
All these years of success, Salvaggio never forgot where she came from, nor the lessons she acquired along the way. Those life lessons have helped catapult her to the top of the racing world post retirement. Stay tuned as we’ve got more great insight from this passionate road racer!