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She’s still beating the boys

By Roger Diez

Nevada Appeal Motorsports Columnist

If you go out to Reno-Fernley Raceway this weekend for the Sports Car Club of America (SCCA) National races, you are going to see one fast lady.

Carson City’s Donna Gilio has been setting road racing records ever since the racing bug bit her hard five years ago. Last month she raced at Mazda Raceway at Laguna Seca, setting fast time (and track records) in two different racing classes, then going on to win both races. She plans to repeat that feat this weekend at Reno-Fernley.

A petite and fit single mother of two boys, Branden (13) and Bryan (9), Gilio is a 20-year northern Nevada resident who moved to the area from southern California for the skiing. She has competed with boys since elementary school, and in high school she spent a year on the boys’ gymnastics team, then went on to win the women’s all-city gymnastics title in 11th grade.

She got her first taste of speed the following year, when a boyfriend got her interested in motocross. Her competitive nature carried her to a motocross championship in the 125cc class at Carlsbad in 1980, before she moved on to competitive aerobics.

In that sport, she won the Coors Light national aerobics championship. She spent her spare time surfing and skiing, leading to her migration to Carson City in 1989. While working as a mail carrier she spent as much time as possible on the slopes, achieving the coveted Level 3 instructor certification. Just to stay in shape, she also took up mountain biking, completing all five passes in the infamous “Death Ride” three years running.

When her soon to be ex-husband got a new Corvette in 2003 she inherited his old ZR1 and decided to try it in the National Auto Sport Association (NASA) High Performance Driving Experience program.

“As soon as I got a taste of driving at speed, I knew I’d found my passion,” she says.

After moving up to the top HPDE level, someone talked her into driving in the 25 Hours of Thunderhill endurance race in December 2003. Her team won the E3 class in a Honda Civic, and she has never looked back. Racing in NASA’s Honda Challenge series, she has won every race she entered. Moving to SCCA In 2005 she finished second in the championship points in the Improved Touring A class, and the following year scored 33 wins and 20 track records on her way to championships in both the Improved Touring A and Improved Touring X classes.

Gilio entered the professional racing ranks in 2007, running the Mazda MX5 Cup series for Spec Miatas. Although mechanical woes kept her from her usual winning ways, she had attracted the interest of Chuck Johnson of MLC Motorsports in Reno. Johnson offered her an open-wheel ride in SCCA’s Formula Enterprises (FE) class, and she won four races in her first open-wheel ride, finishing second in points.

Although she continues to run sprint races like this weekend’s SCCA event, her true love has become endurance racing. A strong believer that women can compete with men on an equal footing in motorsports, she has founded DivaSpeed, an all-female endurance racing team. Her most recent outing was a six-hour endurance event at Buttonwillow in California’s Central Valley last weekend, where her team won the E2 class by three laps and finished 11th overall.

Besides Gilio, DivaSpeed consists of Dr. Karen Salvaggio of Southern California; Mary Katherine, a mother of five from Florida; California’s Laura Thomas, an experienced Porsche pilot and driving instructor, and the newest team member, 18 year old racing sensation Shea Holbrook of Florida. Currently heading up the team to beat in NASA’s E2 endurance class, Gilio has dreams of bigger things.

“I’d like to take the team to a series like Grand-Am,” she said. “But to do that, we need a major sponsor. To race at that level is incredibly expensive.”

And it’s not exactly cheap to race at any level. Gilio is grateful for the help she has gotten from so many people.

“(Crew Chief) Ron Carroll is terrific, the best car setup guy ever. He quit his own racing career to help me,” said Gilio.

She also thanks Chuck Johnson, who gave her the Formula car ride, Ron Cortez of AIM Tires in Sonoma, Calif., Rupert’s Auto Body and Alpine Signs of Carson City, Hankook Tires and Red Line Oil. She has recently signed a new sponsor, Race2Learn, an organization that uses racing to teach kids math and science. “Cynthia Campagnale of Race2Learn is terrific,” said Gilio.

She is also supportive of Danica Patrick, who she feels has helped focus attention on women in the sport.

“Danica has the whole package . . . looks, talent, a good press persona. Racing is definitely a sexy sport, and Danica embodies that.”

Unlike many racers today, Gilio has no interest in moving to NASCAR. As for her own preferences, “I love the drama of endurance racing,” she says. “You’re racing with different classes of cars, with a lot of speed differential. So many things can happen. You really have to take care of the equipment, but still go fast enough to win. It’s just the best kind of racing.”

And yet, she’s also successful at the kind of sprint races that she will be running at Reno-Fernley Raceway this weekend. Who knows, if she had started her racing career 20 years earlier, maybe Patrick wouldn’t have been the first woman to win in Indy cars.