2016 Michigan Tech Magazine: Issue 1

In The Driver's Seat

By Mark Wilcox

Reagan May wins races in Wisconsin, performs in the classroom, and is part of our strong auto racing tradition.

When Reagan May was nine years old, she went to a bowling alley with her family in her native DePere, Wisconsin. What happened next changed the course of her life, and it had nothing to do with strikes and spares.

Portrait of Reagan May
Reagan May breaks records and barriers.

“Someone was there with a go-cart,” the mechanical engineering student at Michigan Technological University says. “I sat in it, and I knew right away that’s what I wanted to do.”

That innocent experience has blossomed into an impressive racing résumé, especially for someone in their early 20s.

As you might expect, May began her racing career with go-carts, along with her brother. After a couple of years, she advanced to mini-stocks. At the age of 15—before she could legally drive a vehicle in Wisconsin—May was speeding around the state’s racetracks in Super Late Model stock cars, the highest class in short track racing.

May says even though she is a rare female in the male-dominated sport of auto racing, most of the pushback she’s received so far has not been because she’s a woman.

"Maybe female drivers 20 years ago had to deal with those issues, but I really haven’t seen it,” she says.

Actually, in some instances being a woman has opened doors for her, but it doesn’t mean she hasn’t faced some resistance.

“If I’ve been treated differently on the track, I don’t think it’s because I’m a girl,” May says. “On the track it’s really not gender that matters. If I get any grief, I think it’s because of my age.”

Reagan May in her #33 car with the checkered flag..
Reagan May in her #33 car with the checkered flag.

She says what many of the men who compete against her weekend after weekend don’t realize is, that despite her youth, she is a seasoned veteran on the Super Late Model circuit.

“I been doing this since I was 15,” she says. “I worked my way up to this point. I’m not competing at this level because I’m a girl. I’ve been around a while.”

May handles these prejudices, like she handles everything in her life—through hard work.

“How you handle yourself is the key. I think I’ve gained respect from drivers and others in the racing profession. Of course respect does come from winning.”

And win she does.

Reagan May with a trophy next to her car.
Reagan May claimed her first-ever Super Late Model track championship, the first by a women in Wisconsin and fourth by a women in the United States.

May competes in the TUNDRA Super Late Model Series, where she was named Rookie of the Year in 2014. A car fire early in the 2015 season extinguished any hopes of a 2015 TUNDRA Series championship run, and she finished at No. 17 in the final standings of the 60 drivers in the series. This year she is not competing for TUNDRA points as school commitments forced her to miss the first race of the season.

While she was pinning her hopes last season on her first TUNDRA Championship, May and the checkered flag were not strangers. Out of her first 22 starts last season she picked up six feature wins, 14 top-five finishes, and 17 top-10s.

Reagan May crosses the finish line to take the checkered flag.
Racing in the #33 car, May was the 2014 TUNDRA Super Late Model Series Rookie of the Year.

With one win and several top-five finishes at Golden Sands Speedway events in Plover, Wisconsin, last summer, she claimed her first-ever Super Late Model track championship. That championship was the first by a woman in the Badger State and only the fourth by a woman in the United States.

Wins at the Sands Speedway in Marquette County and Kinross in the Eastern Upper Peninsula earned her the U.P. Challenge earlier last season.

May’s success has not gone unnoticed in the racing world. Last season she was one of only seven drivers—and the only woman—in the 2015 Kulwicki Driver Development Program, established by the family of late NASCAR champion Alan Kulwicki.

The Greenfield, Wisconsin, native, who died in a plane crash in 1993, began his career, like May, on the short tracks of Wisconsin. He progressed to NASCAR, where he was the 1986 Rookie of the Year and won the Winston Cup in 1992. According to its website, the Kulwicki Driver Development Program aims to “help worthy drivers along the way in reaching their dream, while at the same time keeping Kulwicki’s memory and legacy alive.”

The comparisons between May and Kulwicki don’t end at the track. The late champion earned a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. May will receive hers from Michigan Tech in December or next spring.

May putting her Tech mechanical engineering courses to good use at Coleman Racing Products, Menominee, Michigan.
May putting her Tech mechanical engineering courses to good use at Coleman Racing Products, Menominee, Michigan.

May believes her Michigan Tech education is the key to her racing success, as the focus of her studies is automobile suspension. Because Super Late Models use sealed engines, essentially outfitting each competitor with the same motor, the car’s suspension, how it handles around the track, is what makes each car different from the others. “Suspension is key,” she says. “It’s where we find our speed.”

That, she says, is where her Michigan Tech education comes in. “I think being able to use what I learn at school helps. Understanding suspension, how the car actually works, is important. Understanding how what we do in the shop can affect the car on the track makes me a better driver.”

But her education is a double-edged sword, of sorts. A mechanical engineering degree is certainly the kind of pedigree NASCAR appreciates. But making it to the big show could come with a price she’s not ready to pay.

“My ultimate goal would be to make it to NASCAR as a driver. But without major sponsorships, I won’t have the resources. Realistically I would like to make it to NASCAR. But if I do, it will be as a car engineer. To do that, it would require me to give up my dreams of being a driver. Right now, I’m just not ready to do that. Driving is my passion . . . it’s my life.”

At least for this summer, weekends find Reagan May behind the wheel of a race car, seeing her dreams come true, one left turn at a time.

Michigan Technological University (www.mtu.edu) is a leading public research university developing new technologies and preparing students to create the future for a prosperous and sustainable world. Michigan Tech offers more than 120 undergraduate and graduate degree programs in engineering; forest resources; computing; technology; business; economics; natural, physical and environmental sciences; arts; humanities; and social sciences.