A DENVER RACE CAR DRIVER SPEEDS 20,000 MILES ACROSS SEVEN CONTINENTS ON A GLOBAL MISSION TO END HUMAN TRAFFICKING.
Renée Brinkerhoff discovered a passion for rally racing late in life. PHOTO COURTESY OF VALKYRIE RACING
THE CHALLENGES OF DRIVING A 1956 PORSCHE 356A across Antarctica cannot be overstated. Crevasse fields, sastrugi, -40℉ temps, 200 mph winds. In 2021, Renée Brinkerhoff, Valkyrie Racing founder and driver, drove 356 miles across blue ice and snow-covered glaciers toward the South Pole. The Antarctica trip was the final drive of her Project 356 World Rally Tour (valkyrieracing.com), a bid to race the vintage car on all seven continents to raise money and awareness to end child trafficking.
What’s even more implausible than the project itself is how Brinkerhoff found herself in the driver’s seat. The Denver local spent 15 years homeschooling her four children. “That was my full-time job. I wrote the curriculum. It was my intellectual pursuit,” she says. “But I also put my own passions in a box on a shelf.” When her kids were grown, she finally found time for herself and decided to become, of all things, a race car driver. “Decades ago, for whatever reason, I told myself I wanted to race cars,” she says. “I don’t come from a car background. It was a wild hair. In my mid-50s, I realized that I’d been having a subconscious conversation about it. I just had to go do it. I imagined myself on my deathbed saying, ‘You never did that thing.’”
Valkyrie Racing’s Project 356 World Rally Tour culminated in a 356-mile drive in Antarctica. PHOTO COURTESY OF PXG
Her husband’s cousin took her for a ride in his Porsche 356. “It sounded and felt just like the little souped-up VW bug my dad got me in high school,” she says. In 2012, she paid for a seat in another driver’s car to experience La Carrera Panamericana, a rally race in Mexico. “I did three days of driving, four days of navigating.” She was hooked.
The following year, Brinkerhoff returned to Mexico, at 57, in her own car, with her own team. “I was totally naive. I’d picked one of the most notorious races in history,” she says. She thought she’d do one race and cross “race car driver” off her bucket list. “I thought I’ll just do that race, check the box and get back to life, right?” she says. But rally racing was transformational. “I realized I had to do it again, and it took off from there.”
She continued to compete in the Mexico race for three years. “We were having this amazing success, beating big horsepower cars with experienced drivers and teams. I was the only woman competing. We were a total anomaly,” she says. The Valkyrie team was gaining global media attention. “I started asking, how can we use this voice and do something that will make a change in the world?”
Thin air was a challenge during the Caminos del Inca rally in Peru. AFRICA AND PERU PHOTOS COURTESY OF VALKYRIE RACING
A longtime philanthropist, Brinkerhoff set out to find a cause to get behind. On a tour bus in Hawaii, she met an FBI agent whose work was centered around child pornography. “He shared with me how prevalent it is and that it goes hand-in-hand with child trafficking,” she says. “I was gut-wrenched.” A few months later, on another bus (this time a rental car shuttle at the L.A. airport), Brinkerhoff was sitting next to a man looking at his phone. She glanced over his shoulder and saw an image of child pornography on the screen. “He quickly swiped it away,” she says. “I realized this issue was knocking at my door.” Brinkerhoff didn’t adopt the cause lightly. To understand the issue more fully, she got involved in undercover work, coordinating with foreign law enforcement to find kids who were being trafficked.
Brinkerhoff established Valkyrie Gives, the race team’s nonprofit arm, with a goal of raising $1 million to aid women and children at risk with a focus on ending child trafficking. To get people’s attention, the Project 356 World Rally Tour was conceived. It kicked off with the 2017 La Carrera Panamericana. In 2018, Brinkerhoff raced Australia’s Targa Tasmania. Next, she entered the Caminos del Inca in Peru, the 9,000-mile intercontinental Peking to Paris rally and the East African Safari rally. The only continent left on the list was Antarctica. But with no sanctioned race on the continent, Brinkerhoff created her own challenge: drive 356 miles on blue ice and snow toward the South Pole.
The East African Safari Classic was a nine-day race over rough terrain. AFRICA AND PERU PHOTOS COURTESY OF VALKYRIE RACING
She enlisted Jason De Carteret as expedition leader and navigator and Kieron Bradley as design engineer, two polar explorers who set the world record for fastest overland journey to the South Pole in a motorized vehicle. Over 18 months, Bradley, a senior chassis design engineer for British carmaker Lotus, re-engineered the Valkyrie Porsche for gliding across ice and snow—and to make it carbon positive. “He’s an engineering genius,” Brinkerhoff says. Bradley designed specialized crevasse bars, a ski-and-track system in place of wheels so the car wouldn’t submarine in the snow and a framework of modern metal alloys underneath to attach the ski-and-track system.
“THE CONSISTENT COLD, DAY AFTER DAY, WAS LIKE A GREMLIN—IT FOUND ALL THE WEAKNESSES IN THE CAR.” –RENÉE BRINKERHOFF, VALKYRIE RACING FOUNDER AND DRIVER
Even with careful retrofitting, the Porsche struggled in the conditions. “The consistent cold, day after day, was like a gremlin—it found all the weaknesses in the car,” Brinkerhoff says. The carburetor iced up; bolts sheared off; the throttle cable iced over. The team used a Garmin GPS to navigate in total whiteout conditions. “In some places, they tell you not to deviate more than five yards from the track because there are crevasse fields on either side,” she says.
Prior to the polar expedition, Brinkerhoff reached out to Bob Parsons, founder of Parsons Xtreme Golf (pxg.com) to share her world record attempt and the humanitarian goal behind it. “Within five minutes, he was on board,” she says. PXG sponsored the expedition, and Parsons made a generous donation to Brinkerhoff’s campaign.
As of today, Valkyrie Gives has raised $820,000 toward its million-dollar goal to fight child trafficking. Brinkerhoff’s Porsche 356 is currently on a world tour, making appearances at automobile museums and vintage car shows from Paris to Dubai to L.A. “It’s a rock star right now,” she says. “People love the story of this little car.”