Our next interview takes us to the US. We talked to Karen Jankowski, who is not only a driver and co-driver, but also runs her own business, a sales & marketing company for the automotive industry. She tells us how she combines the three and why she chose the Dodge Caliber SRT4 as her rally car.
WHEEL SISTERS: Karen, please introduce yourself.
Karen: My name is Karen Jankowski, I live in Vancouver, Washington and I am the owner/driver of Jankowski Motorsports. I am also the event organizer for Oregon Trail National Rally and am the Chair of the Competition Committee for the American Rally Association.
WHEEL SISTERS: Karen, you are a highly experienced and successful rally co-driver in America and Canada. You have been racing for 15 years and you can call yourself a five-times US rally champion. How were you introduced to motorsport? Can you tell us a little bit about your journey?
Karen: I have competed in over 140 rallies as a co-driver and a half dozen as a driver. In that time, I have won 5 national class championships and 6 events overall.
Back in 2001 I attended my first stage rally, Rim of the World Rally in California. I grew up in a small town in Northern California and never knew anyone that competed in motorsports. I was very competitive as a kid, playing volleyball, doing track and field as well as cross country. Attending this rally race and meeting so many of the competitors and volunteers, I knew I wanted to be a part of it. The next year a friend of mine started his own rally team and I became the team manager (not as big a leap as it sounds as I was already in sales & marketing). I helped that team when they won a production national championship and in 2006 I knew I needed to try this sport myself. I completed the Primitive Racing rally school and the very next weekend was asked to co-drive. My plan was to buy a rally car and drive but this opportunity gave me the chance to get into the sport quicker.
WHEEL SISTERS: What does the rally landscape look like in America? How many championships are there? Which conditions do you mostly have (tarmac, gravel, ice)?
Karen: The rally landscape in America consists of two sanctioning bodies with their own championships. There is the American Rally Association which has a national and regional championship and NASA Rally which offers the same. Our roads are as varied as the states we race in, so we see everything from hard packed dirt, gravel and tarmac to ice and snow… Sometimes at the same event!
WHEEL SISTERS: Which rally do you love the most and why?
Karen: As a co-driver the rallies I enjoy the most are the ones that are the most technical, where the co-driver makes a significant difference. As a driver I like roads that are flowing and almost have their own rhythm.
WHEEL SISTERS: How do you prepare for a rally event?
Karen: Whether I am driving or co-driving a rally event, nutrition and preparation are key. I make sure to increase my hydration and cardio a few weeks prior. Then comes the normal prep which involves making sure everything is complete on the pre-event check list for the team, double checking sanctioning body rules and bulletins for changes, booking travel, rooms, etc.
WHEEL SISTERS: In your opinion, what does a rally co-driver need to have in order to become successful?
Karen: Flexibility, tenacity and good communication I think are the keys to being a successful co-driver among many other qualities.
WHEEL SISTERS: Who is your role model?
Karen: I have several role models including Michele Moulton, Gail Truess, Doug Shepherd (champion co-driver and driver), Cindi Lux and many others. Learning from their motorsport journeys has been key to helping me in mine. Also, I have learned something from every single driver I have co-driven for, which helps me a ton as a driver.
WHEEL SISTERS: Off the track: Do you have a day job in addition to your career as a driver?
Karen: Motorsport is my full-time job but I also own a sales & marketing consulting company that focuses on automotive companies.
WHEEL SISTERS: You participate in more than 10 rallies a year. How do you manage to combine racing with running your own business?
Karen: Owning my own team and consulting company makes all of the motorsport travel possible. My husband is my crew chief and also crews for other teams so both being in the same sport helps a ton.
WHEEL SISTERS: In 2019, you switched seats and started as a rally driver at the Rich Olmstead Regional Rally. Was that a long-held dream of yours? How did you manage that change?
Karen: My plan was always to own a team and drive but I was having too much fun racing with other teams. Then, in 2019, a close friend, Henry Krolikowski, died of cancer and he had always pushed me to make my dreams a reality. I then decided to start my own team and I entered Oregon Trail Rally (so everything came full circle), driving for my own team.
WHEEL SISTERS: What challenges did you have to deal with in the driver’s seat?
Karen: The biggest challenge is the financial one as a driver, because as a co-driver you aren’t responsible for the rally car or crew costs. Trying to make everything work financially can be quite difficult and stressful, being out on stage driving flat out in your rally car is the easier part.
Also racing a Dodge Caliber SRT4 is quite challenging because no one has ever raced one, they only made around 3,000 of them and parts are becoming harder and harder to find. Very few companies make aftermarket parts for it either.
WHEEL SISTERS: Why did you choose the Dodge Caliber SRT4 as your rally car?
Karen: I picked a Dodge Caliber SRT4 as my rally car for a few reasons. First off it was the first car I ever raced which was 2006 Targa Newfoundland racing for Dodge Motorsports. The car is quite rare as less than 1% of the Dodge Calibers produced were SRT4 versions, so it is also fun to race something no one else has. Another reason is that my husband/crew chief has a long history building and racing Dodges, so racing one, or in our case two of them, makes a lot of sense.
WHEEL SISTERS: You share your hobby and passion with your husband, Don. Can you tell us what your teamwork looks like? In what situations do the lines between marriage and business blur?
Karen: Don and I met at a rally race, were engaged at a rally, and this sport is a passion we share together. He drove rally cars for many years before he focused instead on being a crew chief. He also has built many race cars so his car knowledge, especially of Dodges, is incredible. I have worked with many great crew chiefs with other teams but he truly is one of the best!
WHEEL SISTERS: Over the last few years, you had to travel a lot and your free time was very limited. How do you spend your days off?
Karen: My husband and I are super active and like to be outside hiking, going for a walk with our dog, listening to live music, going to hockey games, and learning to become better cooks. But owning two race cars that compete in different racing series means there is always work that needs to be done on the cars.
WHEEL SISTERS: Empowering women in the male-dominated world of motorsport is a big part of your life. Can you tell us a bit about your initiatives?
Karen: Since I was lucky to have some great female mentors when I started – as well as now, all these years later – I focus on giving back to the sport that has given me so much. I mentor many people in our sport including women who are volunteering, trying to make the leap to racing, those who are completely new to the sport and those who have been rallying a while. Sharing ideas is a big part of that and feeling comfortable that no question is too small or too big.
WHEEL SISTERS: Have you experienced any sexism during races and, if so, how did you deal with it?
Karen: I haven’t really encountered much sexism at a rally race except for the occasional time when me and my co-driver (who is male) are standing by the car and a fan goes to my co-driver for a driver autograph or questions on the car. I don’t take it personally but instead view it as an opportunity to change that person’s perception of a race car driver. Social media is a whole different story and I view it as an opportunity.
WHEEL SISTERS: What advice would you give to girls or women looking forward to getting into motorsports?
Karen: Find a mentor, someone you can go to for advice and help. Ignore the naysayers and focus instead on what makes you happy and on achieving your goals. Remember, social media is a blessing and a curse so don’t get too excited when it is going great or too down when it’s going badly, instead use it to your advantage.
WHEEL SISTERS: What are your sporting goals in the upcoming months or years?
Karen: My goals are to win a class championship as a driver for my own team, help as many people as have helped me over the years, add new regional (i.e., club) rallies in my area so folks can get more seat time, and experience and compete at every event on my bucket list.