At least twice a month, 105-lb. Kathleen Coburn hoists her Suzuki GSXR 750 Superbike into her beat-up 1978 van and, with her two huge dogs, Bear and Kawi, heads out into a man’s world. The 24-year-old Toronto statistician is one of only a handful of women who compete professionally on the North American motorcycle racing circuit. Coburn is by far the most successful among them, and she routinely gives her better-financed male competitors a run for the prize money. Later this month Coburn plans to travel to Atlanta to compete against more than 200 of the world’s top sprint racers— shorter-di stance contestants—for one of the 30 spots in the U.S. Camel Pro Series road race. “Atlanta is a big goal,” she said. “All of my heroes will be there—and I am ready for them.” Because of the initial wariness of men in the sport, the outgoing Coburn has worked hard to succeed. Two years after launching her career as an amateur racer in 1983, she had become the first woman to win a Canadian national event—and had worked her way up to third place overall in Canadian amateur racing. Since last April she has competed as a professional in road races and endurance series—longer races that last up to 30 hours—across North America and stacked up an impressive record. Last year Coburn placed in the top 15 in every Canadian race she entered—and in the top 25 in six U.S. races.
Coburn’s consuming interest in motorcycles had an unlikely beginning: with a childhood passion for horses. When she was eight years old, a family friend gave her what she calls a “broken-down race horse” that she stabled on the outskirts of Toronto. “Riding a horse is not all that different from racing a motorcycle,” she said. “The balance is the same, and you feel reckless and out of control at times.”
That feeling can lead to disastrous consequences. During her first race in 1983 in Shannonville, Ont., Coburn broke a knee and cracked a shoulder bone. And her mentor and live-in boyfriend, Roy Hare, retired from competitive racing last year after a serious accident in Atlanta resulted in a dislocated hip and a broken hand and shoulder bone. Still, Coburn dismisses the hazards. The biggest obstacle confronting her, she said, is financing. Despite her success, Coburn says, it is difficult to find sponsors who will help pay annual expenses of more than $30,000—80 per cent of which comes
out of her own pocket. “It all boils down to money,” she said. “I have one bike and one engine, and I am racing against guys with several bikes and lots of financial support.”
Coburn refuses to sell herself as a feminist role model—or as a piece of cheesecake. After agreeing to pose for the Toronto Sun Sunshine Girl series last year, she walked out of the photo session when the photographer asked her to trade her racing leathers for a swimsuit. And she also spurns speaking invitations from women’s groups. “I am just not a women’s libber,” Coburn said. “I am doing this for me.” Still, the diminutive racer acknowledges that the memory of her father, who died of cancer in March, also spurs her on. Coburn credits her parents with encouraging their four children to “grow up rugged.” She added, “He understood why I’m doing this.” Her male competitors were initially less understanding. “The first few times, these guys did not take me seriously at all,” she recalled. Now, although her competitors still do not like to be beaten by a woman, she says that they accept her on the basis of her ability. “It was hard at first,” she said, “but I have got their respect now. I think you could say that I earned it.”
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