Kelsey Stephens and Calvin Cooper are the squishy internals of the Cooper Autoworks M50-powered E30. Calvin pilots while Kelsey preaches from the pulpit of The Peaceful Pace Notes. We pulled a notepad out of our public radio tote bag to ask Kelsey the tough questions.

Photo courtesy of iheartfast

RYE30 Racing: Tell us about the E30! Could you give us a timeline from acquiring it to where you two are with it now?

Kelsey Stephens: The E30 started life in 1991 as a diamond-black 318is. 23 years later it was saved from landing in the salvage yard by Jesse Yuvali who turned it into a rally car. After a roll cage, engine swap, and historic inspired livery the little BMW made its stage rally debut in 2014. 

In July of 2015, Calvin and I went on our first date. We hit it off over our love of cars.
The next year in 2016 I wanted to take Calvin to see a stage rally for the first time. The rally in the 100 Acre Wood happens near my hometown. Calvin has been passionate about BMW’s since he was in tech school but we didn’t expect to see any at a stage rally. As we walked past countless blue Subaru’s suddenly the little M-striped E30 appeared. If it wasn’t love at first sight for Calvin then it was love at first straight-6. No other car sounded quite as incredible as the S50 as it flew past slinging gravel. We came home and immediately began dreaming of building a rally car of our own.

The next year Jesse posted that he was looking for crew for the 100 Acre Wood Rally. I volunteered us to help as part of his team since Calvin has so much awesome BMW knowledge. Working as crew we got to learn about the sport from Jesse who had so much rally experience. We started competing in Time Speed Distance events and rallycross with the SCCA hoping to get us closer to our stage rally dreams. In November of that year Jesse had a new project car and decided to sell the E30. We were over the moon to be able to purchase the very same rally car that had helped us fall in love with the sport from someone who taught us so much. Jesse had competed in 9 rallies with the car with various engine and suspension setups.
February 2018 the car arrived, leaving us less than a month to prepare for our first stage rally the Rally in the 100 Acre Wood! Since novice rules did not allow us to run with a 3.0L engine the car had to be swapped to an M50. We did 3 events that year with the goal of learning and finishing each event. 

2019, we decided to run our first full season to contend for a championship in the car. We decided to run under the number 723 which is the anniversary of that first date. This was such a big undertaking for us being such a small grassroots team. The season taught us so much. The car and rally community did more for us than we ever could have imagined. As driver and co-driver Calvin and I both achieved championship wins in East Open 2 Wheel Drive which was incredible.
As I type Calvin is in our shop working on an engine upgrade from the M50, we will be sharing more of that as we work out sponsorships. He had better hurry though our next event is coming up mid March! Last season we put our tired old K-sport suspension to bed by hitting a jump at over 76 mph. The landing bent a few things and when we arrived at the finish we decided the car (and our spines) had earned some real rally suspension. We now run Samsonas 3-way adjustable rally suspension. The majority of the upgrades to the car are to strengthen it to withstand the abuse and keep us safe. 

The Cooper Autoworks Crew at an ARA Rally in 2019 – Photo courtesy of Kelsey Stephens

RYE30 Racing: Did you see yourself in motorsports when you were younger? Did you have any influences that you could say motivated you?

Kelsey: My mom was a diesel mechanic in the National Guard and my dad was an engineer in the Navy. I assumed everyone’s folks made them do basic maintenance on the family cars. I didn’t realize I had a real interest. In 2012, I went to the 100 Acre Wood Rally near my hometown with folks I knew. I signed up to volunteer, they handed me a clip board, and let me help inspect cars. I was 20 years old and I saw women in race suits for the first time. Seeing women as drivers and co-drivers was so inspiring! That was when I really started having motorsports dreams.

Photo courtesy of Andrew Pescarella

RYE30 Racing: You’re the navigator in the Cooper Autoworks E30. When do you feel you’ll be ready to take the wheel?

Kelsey: There are professional co-drivers who are highly respected in the sport because co-driving is key to a driver’s success. Some folks co-drive that do wish to drive one day, but many others know that the silly seat is where they belong. When Calvin and I started, I dreamed of driving the car. After getting to know my role as a co-driver and completing 13 rallies, I have never felt more confident and successful. I would love to try driving an event at least once because it would be fun, but also I think it could help me be an even better co-driver. The excitement of racing down gravel stage roads in these beautiful forests can often feel like a dance. Calling notes is almost like music because the timing has to be just right so the driver can process them and not get confused. You have to be in sync. As for getting behind the wheel, I currently drive in rallycross and if our schedule allows I’ll start doing track days this year when we have time.

Kelsey’s stage notes – Photo courtesy of Kelsey Stephens

RYE30 Racing: Ideally, everyone you’ve encountered in motorsports culture has treated you as a competent and motivated peer, whose impression of you on first-sight is unprejudiced by preconception of gender. Has that been the case for you?

Kelsey: I honestly feel that once we are in the car we are all equals. I feel that age, experience, and confidence has helped me become more respected. Occasionally, I meet someone who has the assumption I just came along because my boyfriend drug me. After a few minutes talking with them and pointing out all the other women who came to compete in what is one of the toughest forms of motorsports in the world, I can usually turn those assumptions around. If anyone has hateful comments, I remind myself I am too busy trying to make a positive impact. I don’t have time to deal with hateful people and move along.

If you are a woman in motorsports, remember you never know who might be looking up to you as an example. The first time I was approached by a couple of young girls to sign autographs and answer questions about women in racing, it was a real wakeup call. I realized these girls would be watching me and my actions and behaviors had the potential to shape their image of motorsports as a whole and potentially their place in it. Just as those women I saw shaped my view at my first rally.

A group photo of all the female drivers and co-drivers at the New England Forest Rally in July 2019 – Photo courtesy of Kelsey Stephens

RYE30 Racing: I hate to say it, but the RYE30 crew may be outliers as far as believing women have as deserved a role in motorsports as any man. In researching for this interview, we’ve come to realize that some people view female drivers as gimmicks or marketing ploys. And frankly, we’re quite upset about that. What would you say to a female driver who might be discouraged when they hear something like that?

Kelsey: You can find plenty of women who genuinely kicked booty all throughout history if you go searching. One of the reasons I love rally so much is because women have historically been involved in the sport at all levels. Perhaps this makes me out of touch with other forms of motorsports because rally is its own bubble. From my perspective, I believe attitudes are changing. One of the best things you can do is surround yourself with the people who believe in you. Focus on your own goals and the work you are putting in to achieve them. Stay confident, motivated, and passionate. If some folks choose to be negative about your motorsports journey, remember that is their decision and do your best not to let it affect you. Set a positive example of what being a woman in motorsports means to you. As I stated above, you never know who is looking up to you as the example or who might relate to the way YOU drive.

Kelsey and Calvin – Photo courtesy of R1 Images

RYE30 Racing: How can we get more women into the seats of racecars and what can the average person do to support that effort?

Kelsey: Here in the US as the sport of stage rally grows so does its inclusion of women. In 2019 the number of women registered as competitors with the American Rally Association surpassed 100 which was a growth of 62% in one year. Of the 30 championship winning drivers and codrivers 9 were Ladies, including myself. What an honor to be surrounded by so many amazing women!

If someone seems genuinely interested in motorsports, support them. If you hear people saying things or behaving in a way to make others uncomfortable, find a way to call out those actions. Support others with your words and actions and set a good example of how motorsports enthusiasts should behave. Don’t underestimate anyone who wants to be involved or has an interest. 

Kelsey represents a woefully underrepresented and highly underestimated segment of the racing community. Sponsors and teams will often dispose of women the same way the rest of society does and it’s deliberately detrimental to the progress of 51% of the world’s population. Don’t let women and girls like Kelsey just be statistics by supporting them in any way you can. Take Kelsey’s suggestions to the racetrack, and you’ll have the opportunity to make the sport better. Take Kelsey’s suggestions to heart, and you’ll make lives better.

Kelsey: If you are interested in our team’s story and following us through the 2020 season, find our video series “Flat Over Crest” on YouTube.
YouTube – youtube.com/cooperautoworks
Facebook – facebook.com/cooperautoworks 
Online – cooperautoworks.com/

Cooper Autoworks 2020 Rally Schedule – Photo courtesy of iheartfast and Kelsey Stephens

Thanks for reading and don’t forget to follow us here on the blog, Instagram @rye30racing, and Facebook @rye30racing.

We’ll be racing plenty over the summer so we can bring you more high quality content like you read above. Our partnership with Diagonalt is still new and exciting, like that of a new romantic relationship, so check out Diagonalt.com for classic BMW prints and coasters (16% off using code “RYE30” at checkout) and calendars for the new year.

Special Thanks to Lyndsay Kirkham, contributor to the Racing Insiders podcast. Follow her on Instagram @captainlkirkham.

One thought on “The Future is Flat Out – An Interview with the Cooper Autoworks Stage Rally Navigator, Kelsey Stephens

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