Getting your foot in the door of the automotive industry isn’t easy. It’s already a small space and it’s extremely competitive. But if you’re talented and you want in badly enough—and you’re willing to gamble anything and everything you have to get it—you just might score that dream job of building race cars, like certified badass Juliann Pokorny.
Currently, Juliann is a race services specialist at a race shop in Austin, Texas, called Winding Road Racing. It’s a pretty awesome gig, one where she gets to do things like build roll-cages that keep people from dying when they go racing.
In her free time, she founded a charity called Boobster Club, which devotes its efforts to helping get more women interested in motorsports, and, once they are there, assists them in paying for things like entry fees and being their role models.
But the path hasn’t always been easy for Juliann. She gave up her stability and a well-paying job to chase after this dream, flinging herself into what seemed like free-fall before finally catching a break and starting the climb to the top.
You could say she got lucky. But, really, it was because she was prepared.
(Note: This conversation has been edited for grammar, brevity and flow.)
Kristen: How did you get started at Winding Road?
Juliann: I moved to Fort Worth, Texas in 2006, following a professional sports car driver I was in a relationship with, and formed a team in Cresson, Texas, Team MER at Motorsport Ranch Cresson. And through the volatility of the sport that business kind of turned into CJ Wilson Racing, which then turned into my relationship and I breaking up, so I found myself unemployed, moved back to Austin, Texas, started working for Ed Gilfus at Gilfus Racing, and then Ed decided to move to Houston and I decided to stay in Austin.
At that time, I found out about Winding Road Racing, which had just recently started their online business of selling things for race cars and things for racers, and they decided to open up an actual fabrication and race car maintenance shop to supplement their online and retail sales, and were hiring me for a position.
Only they just didn’t tell me about it right away. So for about a couple months I’m like, “Wow, okay, I’m kind of doing some freelance cage work for this Gilfus Racing entity that’s now in Conroe, Texas.” And I was pretty despondent and then they’re like, “Okay, we’re building this shop, when are you starting?” And I’m like, “ Wha-, could somebody have told me about this?” And they’re like, “Oops, we thought we did.”
And that was in July of 2014, so I wrote the business plan for the race services shop at Winding Road Racing, we shopped around for a bigger space than the retail and web-based business that they were in at the time, we found a space and I built the shop in November, and then July of this year we moved into a 21,000 square foot megalopolis place, and Winding Road is doing amazing, and I’d like to think that I had something to do with that. So, here I am.
Kristen: And what’s your role there now?
Juliann: I was the shop manager, but I didn’t really want to be the shop manager, my background is in Art and Architecture and I really just... I didn’t want to be mired in spreadsheets, and brake jobs, and clutches, and engine swaps, and things like that.
I really wanted to create my sculpture, which was roll cages and making things safer, and keeping people from dying in fiery wrecks, and so I’m basically just doing fabrication of cages and seat installs, and safety equipment installs as well as helping the marketing department. I have the Art background, which allows me to do a bunch of their graphic design in house now, that they were sending out, as well as I’m doing safety and gear sales.
So, happy to be out of the muck and the mire of labor, and rates, and flat rates, billing things, and kind of doing the stuff I really love more, which is keeping people safe, and making stuff to do that.
Winding Road Racing wasn’t just some online business that was fly-by-night, run out of somebody’s like dorm room. We had to work hard to let people know that we actually had retail, and then a shop coming in Austin. That we were real brick and mortar not just some web-based portal to drop ship things from manufacturers, posing as a race business.
Kristen: What brought you into racing?
Juliann: My mom was a road racer in the early 60's. For a woman, that’s kind of a big deal. And my dad was a drag racer, but they both stopped racing when I was born. Which I find really sad, but that car culture never really left my family. We grew up on snow mobiles and dirt bikes, so I originally wanted to race motorcycles, and then the older I got I realized that’s just crazy. And so that’s when I found out about autocross, and got into motorsports that way.
And in 2004 or 2003, I had started autocrossing and had met the significant other and we both started autocrossing. And he had a dream to go road racing, and I’m like, “Wow, I always wanted to road race. And so, I sold a very nice piece of property on Lake Michigan, quit my six figure tech job, and bought a 48-foot goose-necked trailer, and an F-350 dually, and learned how to build Spec Miatas. At that point I really did not know much about mechanics, cars, fabrication.
My mom actually passed away when I was 25, so she really didn’t get to see me race at all, and my dad passed away about five years ago, so he hasn’t really gotten to see a lot of my career, me being a part of Winding Road Racing, which I think he’d really really enjoy.
But anyway, so, my parents were probably disappointed that I decided to get a degree in Fine Art, and they’re like, “ Well what are you going to do with that?” And then they were probably pretty happy when I was making six figures in the tech industry designing databases, and then when I decided to sell everything and build race cars, my mom had passed away, and my dad didn’t talk to me for about a year.
And then, we finally got through that, and he ended up helping me crew on the race teams, he was our cook, and he would drive the big truck across the country with me. He really struggled with my gypsy lifestyle at first, but then was really excited to see what it had become.
I started going to school and to get certified as a welder, and so the next cars we built, I did weld those cages. And I painted the cars, out of a necessity. It was like, “Wow, I’m watching my little nest egg just evaporate, by paying other people to do things, I need to learn how to do these things.”
At that point, I was the chief mechanic, and fabricator and builder of cars because I couldn’t afford to pay somebody $5,000 dollars to build a roll cage, or $5,000 dollars to paint a car. I’m like, “This isn’t rocket science, people do this, I’m a trades person, I’m good with my hands. I just need to buy a welder and a really good paint gun.” Which I did.
Kristen: That must have been a scary moment for you, quitting your job and taking this huge risk and then things not looking too positive at the moment.
Juliann: I didn’t have anything else to do. And I couldn’t find a job. I’m like, “I have a degree in Fine Art, I used to be really good in Tech.” But I hadn’t been doing it for 10 years, Java Beans weren’t even a thing anymore, I’m like, “The code I know how to write, doesn’t exist.”
I was mildly freaking out and thinking, “All right, well I’ll just sell everything and you know, maybe I’ll rent a room from somebody, and you know, be a Barista.” I was not leaving Austin, and that’s when Winding Road realized that I was no longer employed in Austin, and that’s when they asked me to come work for them, and I was just like, “Wow, okay.”
Kristen: What’s it like being a woman who builds race cars? I’d imagine that it’s mostly men doing it.
Juliann: I’m extremely active on social media, and as a woman welder, as a chick that builds race cars, a lot of people remember me. Like, “Hey, it’s that girl in Texas that builds race cars.” “Oh I’ve heard about her.” As opposed to, “Hey it’s that guy in Austin that builds race cars.” “Well which of the 10? I don’t know.”
But there aren’t a whole lot of women building race cars. In fact, I don’t know any others. So, I feel like just the fact that my gender is not male, all of a sudden I have a lot more notoriety, or I have a brand, almost. I think it’s helped me as a fabricator, get my name out, as well as Winding Road associating their self with me. Because I’m this thing—this woman race car builder, which is a little odd.
Kristen: And why do you think it’s like that, that there are so few women doing what you do?
Juliann: That is a great question. And I really wish I knew the answer to that.
I mean I’m almost 50 now, and I’ve been doing this since I guess I was, I don’t know, late 20's. And when I was younger, there was a stigma of, “Well you’re just some girl, what do you know?” And then they come by the pits and I’ve got a transmission on my chest because, you know, we lost third gear, and somebody’s got to pull it out of the car. And the older I get, the less I have that stigma of, “Oh you’re just some girl.” So, I wonder if that is keeping women out of motorsports, fact that it’s assumed you can’t know anything, you’re just a girl.
And I’m hoping that’s changing, in the 25 years that I’ve been doing this. I really really do. Because it’s happening less and less to me, although I do answer the phones a lot at Winding Road and get the, “Oh, um, Hi, yeah, I’m really hoping I could talk to somebody about a helmet.” And I’m just like, “Hey, I can totally help you with that.” And they’re like, “Uh, okay.” And then they ask me a question, and I actually know what I’m talking about, and I think they’re surprised.
Kristen: It’s changing a lot for sure. I’m sure you’ve seen changes in the way people speak to you and the way you’re received, things like that. But it’s not a 100 percent where we’d like it to be.
Juliann: That is absolutely true. Absolutely true. And I struggle with it, too. When I was younger, I would have been like, “Hell yeah, I’ll wear something slinky if I can get somebody to pay my entry fee. I need to get behind the wheel.” And now I’m just kind of like, “Ugh, does it have to be that?” Can’t we as women be fast enough or talented enough without lowering ourselves to having to show some skin to get some Instagram followers?
Kristen: Yeah, it’s something that we’ve been talking about a lot here Jalopnik, the whole “Grid Girls” thing. It’s inherently stupid that we still need to be having this conversation. But it’s there and every time we write a story about it, we’ll get commenters being like, “So what? It’s part of the tradition.” Well, your tradition sucks, so it should go away.
Juliann: Slavery was a tradition. We moved past that.
Kristen: Exactly! So, what kind of advice would you give to women who are looking to get into what you do?
Juliann: No matter what you love, just do it. Don’t let people tell you you can’t. Or you shouldn’t. And whether that’s motorsports or basket weaving.
I guess women and girls get a lot of, “Oh no, you can’t have a motorcycle, or no you can’t go go-karting.” And yet, if that’s something you love, hopefully you’ve got good role models, or good parents that might let you go K-1 and do an electric go-kart.
And the older you get, the more you can find a way to make what you love happen. For example, there’s cheap ways to get into motorsports: Autocross. There are track events, where you can get your car out on the racetrack now. Try and find a mentor, try and find somebody who’s doing what you’re doing, or what you want to do, and who knows, maybe at some point Boobster Club will be big enough that we can have more mentors across the country and we can help answer some of those questions.
Kristen: What’s your favorite build that you’ve ever done?
Juliann: I built a 350Z for NASA’s SpecZ class. The customer came to me with his original car, which had an okay cage in it.
He said, “You know what, I’m going to sell this car to my brother and I want to build a new car, and I want you to put the cage in it.”
And I said, “Awesome. Can we do a really good cage?”
And he said, “Absolutely.”
So, I built this cage to the rules that Spec 350Z allowed us to do, and I got to do A-pillar gussets, which are the really cool, dimple-dyed things that tie the front tubes down to the windshield frame, and I got to do some rear tie-ins to the rear strut towers. There’s a lot of tube in that car.
And I guess the reason why it was my favorite build is because he took it out on the track, and he said, “This platform doesn’t even feel like my old car.” Because the chassis was so stiff, he was so in tune with it, just the difference my cage made. This is a Spec series, these cars are all supposed to be the same, but because I gave him a better chassis, he knocked two seconds off his time.
Kristen: Holy shit!
Juliann: He was like, “The car doesn’t even feel like a 350Z. I don’t know what you did. This is thing is so planted, it feels like a car with ground effects.” It doesn’t push, it doesn’t oversteer, there was no chassis flex and he was able to put the power down and get through the corners. Same suspension, same tires as his other car, the only difference was the roll cage. That was my favorite build because the customer was so happy.
Kristen: And is your daily driver that E46 Touring you linked me? You still rescuing dogs in it?
Juliann: I’m not rescuing dogs right now. I’m not driving as much because, well, I actually blew my motor up last month, and was daily driving my motorcycle for six weeks in winter here in Texas, which did involve some sleet, below freezing temperatures, and rain. A lot of rain. But anyway, I didn’t want to put a lot of miles on it, cause I knew my motor was about to explode, and it finally did explode in the beginning of January. So, I do carry my two boxers around in it, and I do a lot of dog-sitting for my boss, so there are usually at least three boxers in it. But I do want to start doing rescue pick ups, now that I know I have a reliable S54 in it, or a newer lower mileage S54.
Kristen: And what’s your dream car?
Juliann: I get that asked all the time, and truly, my dream car is my E46 wagon, as lame as that sounds, once all the maintenance is done. My dream car would be that wagon, with M3 rear quarter panels, M3 front fenders so I could put bigger tires under it and a nice front spoiler. And I can’t fit my toolbox in a Ferrari FF. I took my wagon to Home Depot last year, and I fit three sheets of three feet by six feet green board.
My dream car is that car, to its fullest realization.