Written by Kim Furlow, communications manager for the Institute for Public Health
As an associate professor of medicine and director of both the Public Health Data and Training Center and the Center for Population Health Informatics at Washington University in St. Louis, Randi Foraker, PhD, is focused on applying data and informatics techniques to solve problems in the population and public health domains. She’s also keen on speed, horsepower, torque, power-to-weight ratios and “staying in the nines” (or racing a quarter mile stretch in less than 10 seconds).
In her off-campus hours, Dr. Foraker is one of a growing number of women in a primarily male dominated sport: drag racing. In fact, Foraker currently holds the ranking of seventh in the world for the fastest quarter-mile pass in an unmodified Dodge Demon: 9.79 seconds, just .14 seconds off the world record.
Dr. Foraker began her love-affair with cars in high school when she started driving a silver Toyota MR-2, which she promptly painted deep purple (her favorite color.) “I definitely had no trouble being spotted,” Foraker says. She wasn’t however, interested in racing just yet.
At that time, men held the top positions in the NASCAR circuit as well as in other types of auto sports including drag racing. Foraker says the phenomenon of women as auto racers didn’t really catch on until well after Shirley “Cha Cha” Muldowney, known in racing circles as the “First Lady of Drag Racing”, set the stage as the first woman to receive a license from the National Hot Rod Association (NHRA). Foraker went on to follow the careers of top women competitive drag racers such as Leah Pritchett and Brittany Force.
By the mid-2000’s, Dr. Foraker and her husband Greg were collecting cars and attending “Cars and Coffee” events, “cruising” (taking day-long car trips with other auto aficionados), and becoming happily entrenched in their hobby among a friendly clan of fellow road warriors. “We have made so many great friends—it’s really one big family.” Foraker explains.
Once she and Greg purchased a Dodge “Hellcat” in 2016, everything changed. Dr. Foraker had the “need for speed.” She took amateur speed-driving courses, eventually competing in drag racing events all over the U.S. and at Gateway Motorsports Park in her newest racer—a 2018 limited-edition Dodge “Demon” capable of producing 840 horsepower—where she beat the race times of Ferraris and Porsches.
Dr. Foraker, a PhD who works with students on data mining for public health research and on informatics techniques to solve problems in population health, today works with data both on the racetrack and in the classroom. She admits the value that assessing data has on her passion as well as on her craft.
“When you know you will be traveling at more than 140 miles per hour, reviewing the data that can help you get there can effectively optimize your performance,” Foraker says. “Weather conditions (especially extreme heat or cold) can effect speed and tire traction. ‘Density altitude’ or the altitude at which the track physically sits along with atmospheric conditions, can have an impact on how well the car performs.” Race location then, becomes a factor. “Denver for example, at its high altitude, would not be optimum for drag racing,” she adds.
Foraker also attributes racing as an outlet and the achievements she’s had therein, to her success as an associate professor of medicine and director of two centers at Washington University in St. Louis. “I’ve been able to take more risks, overcome work challenges and create more vision for what our public health data and informatics centers can be,” she says.
As far as her future in racing, one day Foraker plans to purchase her “dream car”, a Dodge Viper, and she’ll continue to use data to hone her skills and excel at her lifelong passion. Says the associate professor, “I just want to figure out how I can go faster.”