Q&A with Amanda Skelly
Amanda Skelly is a driver for the Noble Star Rally Team. This is her eighth year competing in rally. She recently won the National NA4WD class at the 2019 ARA New England Forest Rally and will be making her first appearance at the 2019 ARA Ojibwe Forests Rally later this week.
1) You’ve been rallying for a few years now. What was your first event and what got you interested in rally?
I was introduced to the sport of rally back in 2005 and began spectating at the Sno*Drift Rally in 2006. At that time, I was also introduced to rallycross and decided it was something I wanted to try. I purchased my first Subaru, a 1998 Impreza 2.5RS (named Sassy) just before Christmas that year and began participating in the local SCCA rallycross events in 2007. I was definitely bit by the “rally bug” and fell in love with the sport.
In summer 2007, at one of the rallycross events in Michigan, I met former rally driver and friend, Matthew Noble Marker. He had me sit in his Impreza that was built for stage rally. I remember in that moment deciding that one day I would build my RS and compete. 5 years later everything changed.
In April 2011, we lost Marker to a fatal rally accident. In the fall of that same year, my engine blew in the RS at a rallycross. That very same weekend I began stripping the car and preparing it for a cage. I was given permission from Marker’s parents to name my team in honor of Matt, and that following January, I debuted at my home event, Sno*Drift 2012. I’ve been competing ever since, and have even tried my hand at co-driving.
2) Your rally car’s name is Stitch, which I totally approve of, my cat’s name was Stitch. How long have you had Stitch and is there a story behind the name?
All of my cars have names and typically reflect the cars “personality”. I purchased Stitch as a rolling chassis sometime in 2015 and he actually sat in my garage for 2 years, because I had already been pursuing a build with another chassis. When that failed, Stitch came into play.
Stitch is a Mystic Blue 1997 Impreza L. I was hesitant to name the car before we actually started building it, but had the idea of naming him Stitch for awhile. It was not until one of my closest friends and teammates, Justin Robinson also suggested we name him Stitch and I figured that was a sign (or a mistake LOL!). Ironically enough- the car had a similar personality to Disney’s loved character.
For those unfamiliar, Stitch was originally known as experiment 626, a complex character who was full of rebellion and destruction and not given a purpose in life. After he finds his family (ohana) with Lilo, he has many opportunities to reflect on occupations other than evil and destruction and begins to change see. Although still hot-tempered and mischievous, he is reasonably well-behaved. Despite his “good” side, he is still prone to temper tantrums when things don’t go his way, and is still unable to completely avoid his impulses and antisocial actions. Regardless of his bad behavior, Lilo is always there to support him and he always returns to her.
Ironically- the rally car has a very similar personality. He started off destructive and full of attitude giving us all sorts of issues throughout the 2 year long build and rebuild process. He was hard to love, but I could never seem to give up on him. Over the years we have all grown to love him and his quirks and even still continuous attitude and because of my car, the rally family we have created has been hands down one of the best things to ever happen in my life. In the movie and series, Lilos love and support for Stitch helped him find his purpose and place in the world. In a weird way, my car has done that same thing for me.
3) If you had to pick one rally memory, is there one that stands out as your favorite?
This is a hard question to answer because I feel like I could write a book about so many of my experiences and memories in stage rally. I’ve had moments that made me laugh so hard I cried, and moments I’ve cried so hard I could laugh. Moments that made me question if I was making the right choices and moments that made everything worth it. Right now, I can say one of my favorite moments was standing on the podium at NEFR this year doing my first champagne spray with Sarah by my side. But it wasn’t for the fact that we had won something, because there is so much more to it. It was a moment when everything finally became full circle for me. Everything I have ever worked for and dreamt of for the last 8 years finally represented something more than just a personal accomplishment. It meant that everyone that has ever helped me over the years, past and present crew, sponsors, friends, family, strangers, fans, teams, heck even those who didn’t support me or wanted me to fail, contributed to that very moment in some way.
It meant that the endless hours put into Stitch and our training; all the blood, sweat and yes- even many tears, all the time, dedication, money and hard work finally represented more than just hope. That moment represented success, possibility and confirmed that we are headed in the right direction. It gave my team something to be truly proud of. Sarah and I were honestly terrified to walk up on that stage, but when we stepped onto the podium with all the bright lights shining on us and we heard the crowd screaming and cheering for us, it all just made sense. And as surreal as it felt, it felt right and we felt proud. And when we came down afterwards and our crew greeted us with the biggest smiles I have ever seen my heart felt full again. Nearly our entire rally family was at one event together and we were all able to experience that very moment in rally together, as a team and as a family, and I just felt like we finally got it all right. That is a moment that I will never ever be able to forget.
4) You have a new co-driver this year, Sarah Freeze. You both seem to be having a lot of fun in and out of the car and you won your first National event together in NA4WD at New England Forest Rally just last month. How did you two meet and who came up with the idea of Sarah being your co-driver?
It’s actually kind of a fun story. In October 2018, I was at the nature center with the little girl I nanny for, which happens to be where Sarah works. When we got back to my 07 WRX, Sarah was kind of lingering by and when I approached my car she excitedly asked me if it was mine. When I confirmed she complimented my car and mentioned that hers was the blue ’15 WRX parked across the lot (the very one I almost parked next to, had it not been for the kiddo). We began chatting about our Subarus and she mentioned that she just purchased hers and didn’t have a ton of friends in the area, I made sure we swapped numbers and welcomed her into the Subaru community. Before I left, I parked by her WRX, snapped a photo and texted it to her. We hit it off, and as I was planning for my 2019 season, I was in search of a co driver that could commit to a full season with me, and truly grow as part of my team. I asked Sarah how familiar she was with rally (which was not that much at all) and proposed the idea of co driving to her. She was open to the idea, so I sent her a detailed email with my experience, expectations, plans and goals for 2019. We got together a few weeks after to discuss more in person and she agreed to join me. The rest is history! (We always say that we bought Subarus and it changed our lives).
5) Speaking of the new co-driver, you two are one of only a handful of all female rally teams. What advice would you give to other women/girls who would like to get into rally, or really any motorsport?
For women- and anyone for that matter- the best advice I have is to simply never give up on your dream – whether it be motorsports or not. There are certainly smart ways to go about getting involved in racing, and I always encourage people to get exposure to the sport of their interest. See what it is like behind the scenes by volunteering, crewing, spectating, etc… Do the research and prepare yourself for your journey. The better equipped you are with knowledge, the further you can take yourself, and the less stressful that journey will be. Most of us start out on a whim with a passion for racing and jump in with both feet. This can result in both success and failure, but so long as you learn from your mistakes and failures, you will keep growing and that is so important!
I love seeing more women getting involved both as co drivers and drivers. Even as crew members. Things have definitely changed in racing since the 80s, and while there may still be people threatened by a woman, the majority are very supportive. At the end of the day, gender still poses challenges in motorsports, and it probably always will, seeing as it has been predominantly male driven since the beginning. But I believe that if women just continue to follow their dreams and do it for themselves, they will continue to find more support because of that. Remember- the only ones we ever really need to prove wrong or right are ourselves.
6) Let’s talk about lupus for a minute. You’ve were diagnosed with lupus and one of the things you are able to do while being involved in rally is to raise awareness about lupus. My brother was also diagnosed with lupus, so I’ve seen firsthand exactly how serious lupus can be. How has lupus affected your life and more directly, your rally preparation?
I was diagnosed with Lupus in spring of 2017, and with that has come a lot of ups and downs and new challenges. Lupus is an autoimmune disease that basically tells your body to attack itself, which results in a lot of inflammation, chronic pain and a whole slew of other symptoms and issues. I’ve battled a lot of depression, anxiety and grief since my diagnosis. It is an ever evolving process and I believe wholeheartedly having a positive attitude plays a big role in overcoming any of the challenges I face.
The biggest thing that I struggle with is ensuring I get enough rest, because I am always on the go; whether it be working, traveling, racing, grad school etc… Getting enough sleep was always a struggle pre-diagnosis, and continues to be currently, but it’s certainly become more of a priority of mine. I definitely have to try and get more rest before and after events because I struggle with severe fatigue on a daily basis. After events, I am often so exhausted I am down for the count for at least 2 days, (unless I have to work, then I push through the week and just go to bed really early and then sleep most of my weekend away).
I get told all the time “I don’t know how you do what you do”. Sometimes I don’t even know myself. Some days, most days, I believe are more tolerable simply thanks to having more experience in managing and recognizing my symptoms.
In terms of rally preparations, a big thing for me is being able to plan and organize things as far in advance as I can. While I am a driver, I am also a team owner and I coordinate most of our logistics. I am VERY thankful to have long time friend and now Team Manager Tamika Edwards helping me as it minimizes stress, which is a huge trigger for Lupus flare ups.
We now leave even earlier for events so we have a cushion for mishaps and more time to rest before RECCE and race days. Additionally- since Lupus, I’ve discovered gluten and dairy intolerances, so ensuring we have appropriate nutrition during events is essential (both of which Sarah and Tamika also experience). Meal planning has been factored into our event preparations now.
Honestly, because of my amazing crew, I have had a slightly ‘easier’ time accepting and transitioning into racing with an illness. Their level of understanding and support has helped me manage my symptoms and needs before, during and after the events.
7) What would you say is your favorite part about being a rally driver?
I would have to say my favorite part is the experiences and opportunities it brings to my life. Being a rally driver gives me the opportunity to travel, drive on some of the most amazing roads, meet new people, help inspire others to follow their dreams and it has opened so many doors for me and created some amazing friendships over the years.
And can I just add- being able to compete in these events gives me the opportunity to spend more time with my crew and best friends. We live in a few different states, and rally gives us an opportunity to see each other more than once a year. Our team comes from- Michigan, North Carolina, Connecticut, Pennsylvania, New York, Florida and South Carolina. Rally is an amazing community of people, and the family it has given me doesn’t compare to anything else.
Without our crew, we could not do what we do. Not only do they volunteer a ton of their own time to keep our car together at the rallies, they also help maintain Stitch in between events, keep us fed and show us never ending support. My crew chief, Ryan Davis, dedicates so much of his own time, resources and expertise that I can say taking the chance to work with him was one of the best decisions I have ever made. We have built one phenomenal team, and car and the best events are the ones where we are all reunited.
So a BIG thank you and shoutout to our brothers and sisters, who have crewed or helped Sarah and I prep for events this year, we love you all!
Ryan Davis, Mike Butler, Bryan McGrath, Justin Robinson, Tamika Edwards, Ben DeRita, Tedrick Mealy, David “Woody” and Stina Woodruff, Jay Grizaniuk, Matt Peterson, Lori Clute, Jeff Berlin, Joshua Melocik, Ian Kessler, Steven & Katie Larsen, Steven Blackmon, Levi Broaddus, Mike Freeze, Villa Cseh & Louis Jonas, Elizabeth Cordara, Amy Feistel, Addi Stagg, Ronnie Bunker & Courtney Baize, Will Skelly (Daddy), Ryan Holzbaur and Tony Lacy, Bryn (FIRM), Rhiannon & Alex Gelsomino (OzRallyPro).
8) Is there someone in rally or any realm of life you look up to or who has really inspired you to be a rally driver?
I grew up loving racing and going fast, be it in a car, go kart, snowmobile or dirt bike. My dad and brother Will always encouraged me to go faster and push the limits. I always thought they were brave and could do anything, and I wanted to be like that too. So as a kid, I always looked up to them, and I suppose I still do in some ways too.
If I had to say who inspired me to actually become a rally driver, I could say maybe it was Matthew Marker, because he was just so full of life and passion and excitement for the sport. When he had me sit in his rally car and buckle up, it felt like something awoke inside me that told me I needed to do that too. However, I also feel like it was just something predetermined in my DNA, and when I was introduced to the sport I just fell in love with it.
As I learned more about the sport of rally, I was intrigued by French rally driver Michele Mouton, and I can say she is definitely someone I appreciate for her talent, drive and dedication to the sport even after her retirement in 1986.
9) This year will be your first time at Ojibwe Forests Rally, what else is in store for the rest of the year and on into next year?
For Ojibwe, I will be joined by my old Co-Driver, Elizabeth “Liz” Cordara from RallyCats Moterspurtz. The rest of the season is quite busy for us. Sarah will be rejoining me for STPR and LSPR and there is a possibility we may run Nemadji in December. Outside of competing, we will be joining Stitch at Subiefest FL in November. I will also be helping teach at the FIRM (Florida International Rally and Motorsports Park), and doing some more training in Stitch at their facilities as well. Towards the end of the season, Sarah and I will be spending more time practicing writing our own pace notes and preparing for 2020.
Moving into 2020, we will continue running as many events as we are able to financially maintain and a lot will ride on how well we do this season. As of NEFR, I was 1st overall Driver in NA4WD in the Eastern Regional Championship and Sarah was 3rd overall Co Driver. I believe after Summer Sno Drift, which we did not run, I am now tied for 1st.
I am still working towards my Post Master’s Degree Certificates in Hospice/Palliative Care and Bereavement, which resumes next year, so that may affect my availability. We have dreams to compete in the full ARA National Championship next season, but it will depend on financial support and what the schedule looks like. Getting to the west coast can be a bit of a challenge as we are located in MI, but Stitch and the majority of our crew is located in NC.
You can follow my personal racing blog on my website www.ralygrl.com or follow our social media for our many adventures as well.
Shout out to my 2019 partners-
Over the years, I have built some amazing relationships with companies who have given me the opportunity to continue to pursue my dreams and compete in stage rally. I just want to say THANK you from the bottom of my heart for the support and opportunities, both past, present and future!
TurboTime (Sanford, NC)
The Florida International,Rally & Motorsports Park (FIRM)
Restoration Race Works (Raleigh, NC)
5Star Design Window Tint & Graphics (Raleigh, NC)
BRAID Wheels USA/Team Illuminata Motorsport (MI)
Tire Streets/MRF Tyres
Turtle Gloves (MI made company!)
Rocky Mountain Autosports