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Where are they now? Catching up with Shawna Robinson

Shawna Robinson has worn a number of helmets as a race car driver. But she’s also worn an equal number of hats in her life and career as a trailblazer, role model and entrepreneur.

As one of the more notable female race car drivers in the 1990s and into the mid-2000s, Robinson set an example for other aspiring female drivers, instilling in them the confidence that racing doesn’t have to be an all-male sport.

In a sense, she was Danica Patrick before Danica Patrick came along, inspiring female drivers and female race fans.

RELATED: Shawna Robinson career stats

It wasn’t easy by any means. She had to show fellow racers — almost all of them male — that she had the talent, competitive drive and desire to succeed. What’s more, she wanted to make it on her own in racing, not just because she was a female first, but rather as a race car driver first.

“Whatever car I’m in, whatever series I’m running, whatever track I’m racing, I want people to know Shawna Robinson was there,” she famously said to Sports Illustrated for Women in 2002.

And that’s the way she has lived her life, be it on or off the race track, embodying the song “My Way” written by Paul Anka and made famous by Elvis Presley and Frank Sinatra, most notably with these lyrics that speak so much to Robinson’s personality, character and demeanor:

“Yes, there were times, I’m sure you know
When I bit off more than I could chew.
But through it all, when there was doubt,
I ate it up and spit it out.
I faced it all and I stood tall,
And did it my way
The record shows, I took the blows,
And did it my way.”

Even today, more than 15 years removed from last being behind the wheel of a race car, the Des Moines, Iowa, native remains involved in the racing community in several ways, including serving as a noted interior designer who has worked for a number of NASCAR luminaries such as Dale Earnhardt Jr. and sister Kelley Earnhardt Miller, Kasey Kahne, Martin Truex Jr., Clint Bowyer and Ray Evernham.

Until recently, she also served for several years on the National Motorsports Appeals Panel, a former race car driver who understood racers and provided a fair and balanced analysis when drivers, owners, crew chiefs and others appealed penalties they were assessed by NASCAR. To illustrate how much the NASCAR community respects Robinson, she was originally nominated to the appeals panel by NASCAR Vice-Chairman Mike Helton.

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Unlike many athletes not just in racing but across the entire pro sports spectrum, Robinson was cognizant that her racing career would end one day and she developed several post-racing career plans to support herself. Always having a knack for interior design, she has become one of the most in-demand designers in the Charlotte, North Carolina area. She also started a company called “Happy Chair,” which produced ultra-colorful chairs for people to sit in.

“I love big, bold, crazy color. I love art. I love animals and as is evident from my past as a NASCAR race car driver, I love the thrill of taking risks,” Robinson said in a quote from her website.

While she’s slowed down on her production of Happy Chairs, it’s because the Catawba, North Carolina, resident has become so busy in her interior design and event production business, designing a myriad of things such as driver homes and vacation getaways, their motor homes, offices and shops, and has even served as a planner for such things as Kelley Earnhardt Miller’s wedding.

But for as popular and successful as she’s become as a designer, Robinson will always be known for her racing career. She started racing semi-tractor trucks — as a teenager, no less — and eventually graduated to the ARCA Series, and then into NASCAR’s top three competitive series: Cup, Xfinity and Trucks.

She became the first woman in history to win a NASCAR-sanctioned event, when at the age of 23, she captured the 100-lap Charlotte Daytona Dash at New Asheville (N.C.) Speedway on June 11, 1988.

Robinson spent parts of nearly 11 seasons in NASCAR, competing in 72 combined Cup, Xfinity and Truck races, as well as 27 ARCA events. She became a fan favorite who, even today, 16 years after her last race, still gets a number of letters and emails from fans who remember her and her racing career.

“It amazes me how much fan mail I still get,” Robinson told NASCAR.com. “People are still very interested in what I’m doing and they remember me.”

While she has plenty of good memories of her time in NASCAR, Robinson considers her win in 1984 in a Great American Truck Series semi-tractor race in Milwaukee as perhaps her favorite memory.

“It was amazing,” she said. “It really made me go to the next level, winning on a speedway. Then there was Michigan in 2001, that was also my first 500-mile race in NASCAR.

“Then, going to Daytona the next year with a brand new team, no sponsor, brand new crew chief and team manager without experience, I mean, can you say underdogs? That was one of the biggest moments knowing that I qualified for the Daytona 500 on time and I finished. I finished 24th, but I ran the whole race.

“And then later that year at Texas, I qualified 16th in a Cup race, which was huge for a rookie and all the odds against you, when you don’t really have the best of the best but you do with it what you can.”

Robinson has few regrets from her racing career, although she admits she does wish it could have been longer, that more sponsors would have been open-minded and supportive of backing a female driver and that she could have competed with better equipment that could potentially have provided chances to be even more competitive and offer opportunities for wins.

“I wish I could have done more,” she said. “Stepping away from it when I did, in a couple of more years, the world was different. Being competitive, I wanted to do more, and for me I had to kind of shut it off if I wasn’t involved in it. So, I shut it off and created another passion in my life.

“You always say, ‘What if?’ and I hate that. You never say, ‘What if? — you take what you’ve done and give it a big hug, grateful that you were able to do it.’ ”

But at the same time, Robinson paved a way for female drivers who would follow in her footsteps, including Patrick and modern-day up-and-coming stars like Hailee Deegan.

“When I was growing up, my dad was a huge influence, he was a racer,” Robinson said. “I grew up riding motorcycles and snowmobiles. It wasn’t anything odd to me or my sisters or my brother. It’s just what we did. When I graduated from high school … it kind of all just happened by natural reasons.

“And then when I started racing trucks, those were battle days. Those guys were not all friendly. Some of them were, but most weren’t and they definitely didn’t like an 18-, 19-, 20-year-old being in their little competitive world. So I learned to be tough and it wasn’t about that I was a girl. I never looked at it that way. It was just the fact I loved what I did and I could do it well.

“It was when I went into NASCAR, that was where I really earned some respect as a driver. You would get all this media and the owner may have signed you just because you were a girl or you brought a sponsor. It was all the hype, but I didn’t want the hype. I want the hype to come to me because I did something for it. Give me good engines or good equipment. If you’re putting me out there to start-and-park, it wasn’t going to work.

“I earned respect from drivers I raced against and I think that said it all to where I really tried to put out there that I’m not out there because I’m a girl, I’m out there because I’m a driver. If I would have had opportunities to race for Tony Stewart or Jack Roush or Rick Hendrick, who knows what could have happened?

“I’m thankful for things like running the 2002 Daytona 500. When Danica made the Daytona 500, it was ‘first woman ever’ and I was like, ‘hey, wait a minute.’ ”

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Robinson survived a nearly two-year bout with breast cancer in 2014-2015, but after a lengthy treatment with chemotherapy and radiation, she has been cancer-free for the last six years, something she takes great pride in.

“I’m doing good,” Robinson said. “We’re going on close to seven years (cancer-free). I still get checked all the time. I’ve had a few scares, but it was all fatty tissue. So yeah, I’m pretty lucky and pretty happy. Overall, I can’t complain.”

One of the most significant elements of her cancer battle was the support Robinson received from the NASCAR community. Earnhardt Miller helped kick off a GoFundMe fundraiser to help with medical bills, while others from NASCAR helped her in countless ways, including some who volunteered to keep her business running while she was undergoing treatment and countless other ways that showed how respected and loved Robinson is in the NASCAR world.

“Kelley was a huge support, as was the overall NASCAR community,” Robinson said. “My life was basically put on hold and all that mattered was I had to conquer this, I had to go after it. I’ve been very, very grateful. Everyone is so supportive in the NASCAR community. I’ve been very lucky.”

Robinson says she “loves to stay busy” and would like to “go to the track more. I miss it very deeply,” she said. “I also wonder why I didn’t pursue the TV aspect of it.

“What do I miss? The driving. I felt like I lost my identity, when you’ve been this person who did something for 20-some years that had this life, that was what my job was, and then you don’t (race anymore).

“That’s kind of how Happy Chair happened. I kind of dove into another passion. I went in that direction where textiles and fabrics and creating things that were different were a route to where, alright, I’m still somebody in the fact that I found a second passion.

“But I’ll never, ever lose my passion for motorsports. It was my life for so long. I miss the whole driving thing. I wish the new SRX series would call me (she said with a laugh).”

As a result, the mother of two adult children has been thinking about adding another element to her career: she’s considering the possibility of coaching drivers, particularly up-and-coming female drivers.

“I wish I could have done more with coaching, like trying to work a little harder to get involved with teams that are involved in bringing up-and-coming drivers,” Robinson said. “If I would have had that person in my ear who said, ‘Don’t let them see you cry’ or ‘don’t let them see you angry.’ A guy can get angry and it’s cool and tough. But if a girl gets angry, she’s emotional and out of balance and unstable.

“The reason I’d have anger about something or speak out about the cars I was in is because I was passionate about it. If you give it to me, it’ll come. I wish I would have started an organization or something to really help up-and-coming girls … but they seem to be doing pretty damn well on their own, so it’s OK. … But I’m open to it.”

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The Shawna Robinson file:

* Age: 56

* Hometown: Des Moines, Iowa.

* Notable: She is the first woman to have ever won a NASCAR-sanctioned event (100-lap Charlotte Daytona Dash at New Asheville Speedway on June 11, 1988).

* NASCAR Cup career: 8 starts, 0 wins, 0 top-five and 0 top-10 finishes. Best finish: 24th (2002 Daytona 500).

* NASCAR Xfinity Series career: 61 starts, 0 wins, 0 top-five and one top-10 finishes (10th at Watkins Glen in 1994). Also earned one pole.

* NASCAR Camping World Truck Series career: 3 starts, 0 wins, 0 top-five and 0 top-10 finishes.

* ARCA Menards Series career: 27 starts, 0 wins, 5 top-five and 14 top-10 finishes.

Veteran motorsports writer Jerry Bonkowski is writing a number of Where Are They Now? stories this year for NASCAR.com. Check out stories he’s already done on Sam Hornish Jr., Bobby Labonte, Greg Biffle, Ricky RuddDarrell WaltripMark MartinMarcos Ambrose and Juan Pablo Montoya. Also, follow Jerry on Twitter @JerryBonkowski, his @TheRacingBeat podcast and his email newsletter, TheRacingBeat.substack.com.