The track is a controlled-chaos environment that presents life or death scenarios. And Karen Salvaggio has proven that she’s got both the brains and boldness to handle it. In our last piece, Salvaggio shared her passion for racing and how it started at a young age. An early fascination with all things speed-related turned into a desire to hone her own mechanical skills. And she did just that—as well as climbed the military ranks, obtained an advanced degree in education, and built a successful professional racing career. Is there anything this woman can’t do?
But Salvaggio knows it takes more than just technical know-how to nurture that passion for racing. It requires a certain amount of faith—in the mechanics of the vehicle, in the other racers on the track, and mostly in oneself. Salvaggio remained steadfast in her natural ability to weave and bob with rhythmic precision. “Go fast, turn left. Sprint uphill, downhill, right and left. Accelerate through all the gears with 60-75 other cars. It’s predator and prey at the same time, and there’s an unbelievable amount of focus and discipline required to master that balance,” she commented.
No Risk, No Reward
The master mechanic matured, perfecting the technical skill, physical endurance, and mental toughness that is the very DNA of every race car driver. “Road racing is spiritual. It’s so freeing and so uplifting to be battling hard against opponents and them against you at such tremendous speeds. Drivers must be so smooth, precise, and exact. You have to trust each other to maintain that balance,” said Salvaggio.
“But even the most prepared person faces huge risk. I’ve learned what it’s like to have a heart but no pulse, to hear and watch people trying to bring you back to life. As fun as the sport is, I always keep that in mind,” she said. “Parts break and other people’s cars break. An engine can just blow up. I don’t care how good of a driver you are. It’s like an ice skating rink when you hit a wall going 120 mph,” she continued.
“We don’t break down and go home. A driver hits the wall and we’re all pulling parts out to do whatever needs to be done to get the car fixed and back on the track because we want the competition. We true competitors work traffic better, are more dialed in, are gracious and satisfied to have the best of the best on the track with us.”
An Impressive Résumé
With more than 200 first place finishes and a few track records in driving competition, Salvaggio would know what it means to be the best of the best. A career that started on the dirt tracks of the NASCAR Winston West series in California flourished as Salvaggio competed in diverse racing events, including street stock class competition. During this time she secured a Most Improved Driver award with numerous top five finishes. She tried her hand at NHRA drag racing and excelled there, too. And her passion for racing was rewarded further when she became the recipient of the Gardei Memorial Overall Competitor Award in 1997 (Firebird Raceway) and Top Eliminator at the Race Pro Radiators. At the Pomona Drags in 1999, Salvaggio proved capable of impressive speeds in a straight line even though she preferred to extend the thrill past a few seconds.
Salvaggio joined the American Le Mans Series (ALMS) during the 2000 season, hitting a stride and competing in the Women’s Global GT Series. “I moved to the late model sportsman and then transitioned to road racing vintage Corvettes with the Vintage Auto Racing Association (VARA). During that time, I became an SCCA member, competing in high and low speed autocross competitions, driving my 1995 Corvette and 2001 and 2003 Z06 Corvettes. I also competed with the National Council of Corvette Clubs (NCCC).” said Salvaggio.
A Team Must Be a Family
“Your family expands to include a huge extended race family. We’ve watched our daughters get married and attend each other’s baby showers. The people who were part of my first track endeavors more than three decades ago are still part of my life today,” said Salvaggio.
“Later I became an instructor driver for SCCA events and then joined the National Auto Sport Association (NASA) in the mid-90’s as an instructor driver [where she secured the 2009 NASA So Cal Instructor Driver of the Year] before I returned to wheel-to-wheel road racing in my Factory Five Racing (FFR) 1965 Challenge Series roadsters, as well as my 1965 FFR Daytona Coupe. I raced that coupe and the roadster in wheel-to-wheel sprint and endurance racing. We won the 2011 Endurance Racing Championship in my coupe,” she continued.
According to Salvaggio’s Thunder Valley Racing site, “She followed up her 2009 multiple championship winning season by again securing the 2010 West Coast Championship along with the 2010 Southern California Regional Championship in the Factory Five Challenge Series. 12 pole positions, 11 overall race victories, and 24 trips to the podium marked a phenomenal 2010 race season for Karen and her team, including setting track records at Infineon Raceway and Buttonwillow Raceway Park, and securing this race team’s place in competition history.” In fact, Salvaggio is the four-time recipient of the West Coast Regional Championship for the National Council of Corvette Clubs (NCCC).
Endurance Turns Trial Into Glory
In December 2010, Salvaggio and her intrepid team took on the most extreme endurance racing challenge on the planet, competing in the 25 Hours of Thunderhill. Driving the Cobra in the EO Class, her determined team completed 523 grueling laps (more than 1,569 miles) under extreme race conditions, enduring steady rain and skillfully avoiding on-track incidents in very challenging conditions to successfully complete the ultimate closed-course racing competition. Salvaggio participated in this event a number of times, including five with her own car and team and eight with her car and driver with other teams.
“The last 25 Hours of Thunderhill race for us was in 2011. We ran endurance series all year, but had to run the race to secure the championship,” said Salvaggio. There were some complications on the track during pre-qual that had her team ripping the car apart, getting new parts, putting it all back together and asking, “Well, where do we get a windshield installer at 2 a.m.?” Thunder Valley Racing never threw in the towel though, working through the night to push that car to the starting line on race day.
“The crowd gave our team a standing ovation. It shows the power of the enduring human spirit to overcome anything. No one gets paid. It’s about being part of something bigger than yourself with your race family,” she continued. It was during this time that the Thunder Valley Racing team began shifting their competitive focus to endurance racing.
You Get What You Give
As a teacher and lifelong grassroots racer, Salvaggio’s long-term goal was to develop her own racing skills to be competitive in the endurance racing ranks. That includes to one day field/manage a top-notch endurance racing team in premier racing venues across the United States. And we have no doubt she will, for “effort equals results,” said the famous Roger Penske.
Salvaggio proves race car drivers aren’t born, they’re made. They’re made during those countless hours in the garage, at the track, and among the community at large. Because a true passion for racing requires the heart of a champion. One who isn’t afraid to fail, and try again.
“Bottom line, I love teaching and helping people go where they want to go. This mindset has taken me to tracks all over the country,” she said.
We reap what we sow and for Salvaggio, her efforts to encourage children to pursue vocational programs, empower women in motorsports, and share her industry knowledge with fellow professionals and enthusiasts have landed her a lifetime of racing success and loyalty.