What people withhold about themselves is often more intriguing than what meets the eye. Your barista may be an Olympic curler in training. Your internist, a pet photographer. Your accountant, at night, a leather-clad…let’s not go there. If your neighbors are the Novacks of Morristown, you might know that Arlene, 56, is a law-firm executive director, and her daughter, Ashley, 27, a legal assistant. Poised and polished, their appearances fit their professional roles.
Then there’s their other life.
“Most people think that it’s nutty,” says Arlene. “Or that it’s dangerous.”
“If I go out and meet a guy, and he asks me about my hobbies, this isn’t something I bring up,” says Ashley.
“We are car people,” says Arlene.
The Novacks are performance-driving instructors, coaching people on how to drive their sports cars the way the cars were meant to be driven—very, very fast, with masterful precision. Although they do not race professionally, they’ve each placed in several autocross events: Ashley, an impressive third in the 2005 Porscherama; Arlene, first in several ladies’-division events. Often they simply try to pass each other on the track. Competition kicks maternal and filial bonding into the pits.
Superheroes don capes and masks. Ashley and Arlene sport helmets and vintage racing coveralls branded with the logos of Löwenbräu and Miller High Life, which once sponsored racing teams.
As car people, they spend 45 days a year at tracks up and down the eastern seaboard, from Florida’s Sebring International Raceway to Canada’s Circuit Mont-Tremblant and myriad tracks in between, including New Jersey Motorsports Park in Millville. Most of us might be reluctant to travel hundreds of miles to drive around in circles. Not Arlene.
“I’ve always loved to drive,” says the Jersey City-born, former Bayonne resident. “If I was ever upset about something, I’d get in my car and take a ride.”
The day in 1975 when Arlene bought her first car, an MG Midget, was the day she taught herself to drive a stick. Before long, she taught her new skills to a boyfriend she’d met while working as a secretary in a Newark law firm. Perhaps her nascent instructing abilities charmed him into becoming her husband.
Arlene and David, an attorney, attended their first autocross event in 1989 at County College of Morris and soon built a life around the track. Sometime between her first drivers’-education session that same year, becoming a chief instructor in 1992 and serving since 2008 in her current position as the national safety chair for Porsche Club of America (PCA), Arlene forged ahead in her career and had two children.
“Every family vacation was tied to the track,” Ashley says. She and her younger brother, Jarrett, balked at going to sleepaway camp. “We didn’t want to miss track events,” she says. Friends remember Ashley greeting people at track gates and babysitting drivers’ younger kids. But by the time she was 10, Ashley was in the control tower learning to relay instructions to the flaggers—the safety officials who signal drivers on the track by waving colored flags.
In go-kart races, she beat everyone. “She certainly has a need for speed,” says Arlene.
While attending Ithaca College, Ashley was bent on joining the Navy expressly to land fighter jets on aircraft carriers. Arlene shivers at the thought. “I’m like, I created a monster,” she says. Lacking 20/20 vision, Ashley could not fulfill that dream, but Arlene nonetheless blames the episode for her gray hair (not that any gray is visible). Ashley did not stay disappointed for long—at 21, she became the PCA’s youngest instructor.
Most of the Novacks’ cars are stored in a warehouse outside Morristown, on a road so remote it defies GPS location. The building bursts at the seams with part of their 19-vehicle collection. Among the four-wheeled treasures: a black-on-black 1985 Ferrari Mondial Cabriolet; a pearly 1955 Mercedes Benz 190SL; a maroon 1976 Jaguar XJ12C; and 11 Porsches. It’s likely a Novack has zipped past you on the Garden State in one of these gems or in their rig, a motor home that totes a three-car trailer.
“We could’ve either bought that or renovated our kitchen,” Arlene says. In the end, she got a kitchen with wheels. The 67½-foot rig would intimidate most drivers, but not Arlene, who has earned awestruck reactions while at the wheel and applause for her impressive parking abilities.
Three Porsches roll off that trailer on a chilly October day at the Motorsports Park in Millville for a Performance Drivers of America/National Auto Sports Association event. There’s a 1970 tangerine-colored 914, as loud as it looks, accented with black, blue and yellow explosive bolts. Emblazoned across the hood is TNT for The Novack Team—once voted PCA’s Family of the Year. Next comes a matching pair of white Grand Prix 1992 Carrera Cup cars with bold numbers 23 and 15. Porsche built a mere 45 of them for a race series that never happened. Arriving after her parents, Ashley pulls into the lot in a white 1992 911 Turbo S2—one of 20 in the world.
After several laps around the Motorsports Park’s Thunderbolt track, the Novacks return, not entirely pleased. A cold track surface means rubber tires don’t grip the way they need to, especially when going 145 mph or dropping into a turn called the Octopus.
“Cars are flyin’ everywhere,” Arlene says, pulling off her gloves, her rings still in place.
“It’s like skating,” agrees Ashley, combing her fingers through her hair.
Arlene still speaks with a Bayonne lilt, and, even after wearing a helmet and checking out the track, is perfectly coiffed and made-up. Ashley has a barely-there North Jersey accent and the fresh face of a former child model. Arlene drinks her coffee black, knows her limits and pushes her five yapping Havanese, each an armload, around in a baby stroller at the track. Ashley prefers tea, is an adrenaline junkie and won’t go near that dog contraption. (David hates even looking at it.)
But behind the wheel, both women are liquid smooth, demonstrating extraordinary competence and nonchalance. As they continue to discuss track conditions, a crowd slowly gathers. Arlene invites people to help themselves to coffee in the trailer kitchen. Her sensibility is mi casa motor, tu casa motor.
Between them, the Novack women have 20-plus years of instructing. In that time, they’ve observed that gender makes a difference in how people drive.
“Generally, women are better drivers as students,” observes Arlene. “They listen, they’re smoother and they get it quicker than guys.” Men, they agree, are more concerned with their lap times than learning technique. But once guys figure it out, they overtake the gals.
“Women don’t push themselves as much,” says Ashley. “Sometimes I have to constantly scream, ‘Gas, gas, gas!’ because they’re on the brake too much.”
Putting the brakes on dating “track guys” was a decision Ashley came to years ago. “I didn’t want a relationship to ruin what I had at the track with all my friends and family,” she says. But this past summer, she met another instructor and racer. A telltale sign of relationship status: The couple is planning an endurance race together.
Not to be one-upped, Arlene mentions her dream of one day retiring and driving cross-country with David to visit racetracks, culminating with California’s Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca. When asked how long she can keep driving competitively, Arlene pauses.
“I do worry about when I’m going to say, ‘Enough is enough,’ ” she says.
“I’ll tell you,” says Ashley. “Don’t worry.”
“I have no doubt you will!” Both women laugh.
Then Ashley relents. “If you’re having fun doing something, why should you stop?”
Ada Lee Halofsky is a journalist and speechwriter in New York City. She is (re)learning how to drive but is an exceedingly skilled subway rider.