Drifting a Power Wheels Jeep around the house as a child might have been the start of a now impressive career for Canadian-born Samantha “Sam” Tan, 23, a professional race car driver, owner of a professional racing team, child of immigrants and recent college graduate.
While racing BMWs for five years, Sam balanced being a full-time college student on top of developing her career, graduating with the Class of 2020 from the University of California, Irvine, with a degree in economics, according to Forbes. Although she possesses an impressive work ethic, Sam still feels a lack of respect in the largely male-dominated sport of racing.
It took the support of her family to help Sam as she faced hurdles while moving from Canada to California to pursue her dream.
Sam’s family history is a story of struggle, drive and humbleness. She told NextShark that her great-grandparents left China and moved to Southeast Asia due to civil unrest and widespread poverty in the early 1900s. Her parents, a Malaysian mother and Filipino father, Kenneth Tan, immigrated to Canada where they both met. Sam’s mother left Malaysia and sends money to her parents for a better life, dedicating herself to her studies at the University of Chicago. The family of four includes Sam and her younger brother, Kevin Tan, who is pursuing a career in STEM and has no interest in the racing world, Sam says.
Her need for speed might have started when her father bought her a child size jeep at age five to drive around the house, according to Wheels. It wasn’t until a couple of years later at age 12 when Sam’s father leveled her up and taught her how to drive a road car. Sam recalled when her father, a big “car guy,” would drive Sam to school in his beloved car among other things he did to expose his daughter to the fast life, The Gentleman Racer (TGR) reported.
“He used to drive me to school every day in his Eurospec E36 M3, take me to track days and watch Formula One races with me,” Sam told TGR.
At 14, Sam was the youngest person to be a part of a Ferrari Driving Experience at Circuit Mont Tremblant in Quebec. She was hooked after catching the rush of adrenaline from G-forces of a ride-along in a 458 Challenge car with a pro-driver at the event.
At 15, Sam wanted to learn manual driving, perhaps not a common request for teens her age who might want to drive automatic. Her dad lent her a BMW 1M as her first car after she earned her learner’s permit, learning how to maneuver it to school every day. Before even receiving her full driver’s license, Sam was already attending the Jim Russell racing school in Mont Tremblant.
At 16, Sam participated in her first races in March 2014 with the National AutoSport Association before participating in the Canadian Touring Car Championship later that same year, according to BMW Motorsport. Driving a 1991 Honda Civic in the first of six regional races to qualify her for a national racing license, Sam was awarded Rookie of the Year in 2014 after placing fifth out of 22 in the Canadian Touring Car Championship with a Mini Cooper S JCW.
Sam’s parents wanted her to prioritize her education while looking at schools for college. She looked for universities in California that would allow her to race all year, unlike Toronto with its frigid winter weather. Sam set out to conquer the academic hurdle of the SATs to enter the education system in the United States.
Balancing both racing and college for five years was not easy, but made her “stronger,” Sam shared. Although both of her parents wanted her to finish her education, they were supportive of her racing in different ways.
“My dad always re-affirmed that school came first before racing, and it was quite difficult balancing both, but it has made me stronger as a person and I’m proud to have finished university. Needless to say, as long as I was able to manage my time effectively, I always had room to pursue my passions,” she said.
Later on, her father would become a manager of her own professional racing team.
Her mother’s commitment to hard work seemingly played a role in helping Sam navigate the world as a racer and a student. Although Sam mostly mentions the support of her father in multiple interviews, Sam still views her mother as a major role model.
“My mom actually doesn’t come to my races, not because she doesn’t support me, but more because she’s worried about me. It doesn’t help that the last time she came to watch, as soon as she saw me on track, I got hit by another car!” she told NextShark.
“I think I definitely inherited my mother’s tenacity and commitment to hard work. Learning about her success as an immigrant inspired me to pursue my ambitions and helped me develop into the strong woman I am today.”
Sam’s commitment to time management allowed her to support her passions. At one point during her undergraduate years, she worked with a coach in the season before her last year of college to establish a solid training program.
As a teenager, Sam was vulnerable to people’s opinions and comments. She cited both a lack of experience in racing and life as she handled a typically male-dominated environment.
“Even though I was fortunate to have started racing in a supportive community, I certainly wasn’t immune to the occasional negative comments I would receive at the time, such as ‘you should stop taking photos with cars and practice more so you stop crashing into walls,’” she said.
Comments hurled at Sam telling her she wasn’t a real race car driver influenced her racing as she was working to find confidence in herself and her skills.
“I think people’s opinions and comments about me held too much weight in my mind and self-image.”
Being her biggest hater led her to painfully learn throughout her racing career that being liked by everyone does not lead to success.
Sam previously told Forbes about how being a woman has almost discredited her as a racecar driver, recalling moments at autograph sessions when she was seemingly ignored. Although no one has directly told Sam she could not race because she is a woman, Sam has seen her gender as an obstacle for people underestimating her, seeing a female driver as an attraction rather than celebrating what they have accomplished.
Sam has been literally pushed off the track by other male racers as they became overly aggressive, taking both drivers out of the race.
“Only when we are able to realize and see our own self-worth and value are we able to start pursuing true happiness.”
Today, more men being an ally to female drivers in the racing industry is a growing issue. It comes down to faith and not segregating females into a separate racing series, Sam told NextShark. Men and women can compete at an equal level she affirmed.
“The beauty of racing is that the car doesn’t care about who the driver is; it doesn’t care about your gender or your race, it only cares about how well you can handle it,” she said.
Sam added educating and putting oneself in another’s shoes allows an understanding of privilege and how it can be used as a tool to speak up for those that “lack opportunity.”
She has certainly found a voice for herself in her budding career in her own time.
“I think we should define success on our own terms,” she said.
And finding success on her own terms she did, forming her professional team ST (Samantha Tan) Racing in 2017 which drives high-performance BMWs. The Canadian team has won back-to-back championships and races both in the U.S. and internationally, including the 2019/20 Pirelli GT4 America SprintX W & Silver Championships and the Dubai 24H, according to the team’s about page.
Going to the gym four times a week allows Sam to endure the long racing times that the team has accomplished, with races that go from one-hour, two-driver races to 8-hour and 24-hour endurance races.
Sam races the #38 BMW M4 GT4 within the high-performance team. It’s a competitive family unit, but the racers and team members praise each other for the contributions they made during a competition win last year.
She described fellow driver Jon Miller as down to earth, charismatic and a “great driver.” Their ambitions have clearly helped in marketing themselves for funding, an essential part of professional racing if a young racer dreams of following in Sam’s footsteps, she advised.
Sam’s recent performance certainly speaks for the high caliber of her work, with a win of 2020’s Pirelli GT4 America SprintX Silver Class Team Championship. The team recently took first at the Creventic Series Hankook 24H of Dubai. This is one of eight events of the 24H Series season the team is competing in 2021.
In one interview, she talks about getting pit stops perfect as she switches with another racer in Sprint X.
“If you come into the pit lane just one kilometer per hour faster, you get a drive-through penalty, so you aim to nail it perfectly,” she said.
A part of the BMW Sports Trophy, what’s next for the lifelong BMW fangirl? Sam has her eyes set on the 24 Hours of Le Mans, the world’s oldest, most prestigious car endurance competition, according to TGR.
It takes more than one quality and accolades to really succeed in the racing industry. Sam lists unwavering determination, discipline, consistency and commitment to constant self-improvement. Making mistakes and accepting failure still equals an attempt.
“Whenever you try anything new, you’re going to fail a lot of times and you’re going to make mistakes. You have to learn to be okay with that. Failure means that you’re trying. You fail and you eliminate a method that won’t work. From failure, we learn, grow, and succeed,” she said.
From going on light night drives in her 1M loaned by her father to racing BMWs professionally with her own team, Sam is overcoming all the obstacles facing her in her own way.
When someone tells her she can’t do something or something won’t work, Sam has one response — believing in the potential of everyone to succeed.
“Take these instances as motivation to prove them wrong. The real question is how badly do you want it?”