What drives the world’s fastest woman?


Smart and driven, Eva Håkansson is a woman with a mission. Not only is she breaking one speed record after another (usually her own), she is also doing it on an electric streamliner motorcycle that she built herself. In 2014, the racing red KillaJoule reached an incredible 434 km/h (270 mph) on Utah’s legendary Bonneville Salt Flats, making her the world’s fastest female motorcyclist.

But it’s about more than speed alone. Trained as a mechanical engineer with a PhD from the University of Denver, Colorado, USA, Håkansson is out to prove that eco-friendly electric vehicles can be fun — and fast. IRMA was intrigued by this Swedish visionary and chatted with her about fast bikes, sustainability and what drives her.

IRMA: What motivates you? Is it the thrill of speed?
Eva Håkansson: I have an inner force that drives me to do things that nobody else has done before. I get an incredible joy from pushing the boundaries of engineering and pushing my own capabilities. I enjoy being the best in whatever I do, but the journey is actually more important than the goal. It may sound like a cliché, but it needs to be that way because your goal is in reality a moving target. There is always somebody else that is faster. You better enjoy the journey, because the journey is life-long.

But there is also an important purpose underlying the KillaJoule. I call it “eco-activism in disguise”. My mission is to show that eco-friendly can be fast and fun. Speed is a great way of showing the potential of battery power, because fast is always in fashion!

I also want to demonstrate that women can be excellent engineers, and to encourage girls and women to choose a career in science and technology. Setting world records in a vehicle that you built with your own hands and that you ride yourself is really satisfying.

IRMA: How do you prepare for a race? Do you follow a certain diet or sports/health regimen?
Eva Håkansson: Preparing for a race is a year-long effort. I race at the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah, USA for five days every August, and work on the bike in my garage the other 360 days. It is no secret that I am a complete workaholic. My husband says that I am like a Border Collie; if my energy is not directed towards some useful end, I will start chewing on the furniture. While I am highly productive, I have to be careful to not burn myself out. I am very picky about eating and workouts. I eat regularly and quite healthily. I don’t follow any special diet, but I typically eat plenty of veggies and a bit of organic meat or wild caught fish. I work out at least 5 times per week, but only about half an hour or so. With a fairly active life in general, that is enough to keep me in shape. I am also almost religious about my sleep. I need at least 7 hours or I turn into a monster. I guess I can sustain being a workaholic because I take quite good care of myself.

IRMA: After a major rush of adrenaline that I am sure accompanies such a race, how do you relax and calm down?
Eva Håkansson: I love to create things with my hands! There is nothing more relaxing than seeing an idea materialize. I have always loved arts and crafts, and engineering is just arts and crafts for grown-ups! I am currently almost obsessed with 3D printing. While I do 3D print parts for the KillaJoule, I also do a lot of 3D printing just for enjoyment and relaxation. I recently 3D-printed myself a handbag, for example. And a bunch of glow-in-the-dark Halloween decorations.

IRMA: When you have achieved a record, do you always set new goals for yourself? What is next?
Eva Håkansson: The goal is always to be faster! No matter how fast you go, there is always another record to be broken. Right now I am on the quest for 300 mph (482 km/h). When I reach that, I will aim for 400 mph (643 km/h).
The same is true for the rest of my life. As soon as a goal is reached, I set a new one. My big goal for many years was to get a PhD in engineering. I reached that goal in June. While I always stay busy with racing and other work, I feel a little bit in limbo right now. I have applied to NASA’s astronaut program, but so have 18 000 other qualified applicants. I am certainly not holding my breath to get one of the eight available seats, but it would be way cool. The space program is the ultimate engineering project and the space station is the ultimate corner office. If I don’t get that job, I have several other exciting engineering projects that I work on. One of them involves a brand new motorcycle with the goal to be the fastest in the world — period. That’s certainly an exciting goal.

IRMA: I heard that you are involved with the Nobel Prize. Can you tell us more about your role?
Eva Håkansson: Almost straight out of high school I received the great opportunity to work at the Royal Swedish Academy in Stockholm, Sweden, which awards the Nobel Prizes in chemistry, physics and economy. I was the project leader for a youth science symposium in conjunction with the centennial celebration of the Nobel Prize in 2001. I was during the Nobel celebrations invited by Countess Bettina Bernadotte to help her with the Meeting of Nobel Prize Winners in Lindau, Germany in 2002, which is a similar type of youth science event. We clicked immediately and I worked for her every summer between 2002 and 2007. I built up and organized the VIP service for the attending Nobel Prize winners and their families. When I relocated to the USA in 2008 it simply wasn’t practical to be involved anymore, otherwise I would still be.

IRMA: How does it feel as a woman in a male-dominated industry such as engineering and motorcycle racing?
Eva Håkansson: Building racing vehicles has always been a man’s world. It’s the man and his machine. Gasoline and testosterone. Loud noises and greasy hands. That’s the way it always been and that’s the way many thought it always would be… Until now! I don’t think there is any other female builder-driver that has achieved my level of success. Not that I know of anyway.

They talk about cracking the glass ceiling. If there ever was a glass ceiling, I went after it with a sledge hammer years ago. Being a woman has never slowed me down. Well, except when I try to reach something on the top shelf. Being tiny (I am 158 cm / 5 feet 2 inches) is great when you try to swish through the air at 400 or 500 or even 600 km/h, because your vehicle can be smaller and that means higher speed for the same amount of horsepower…

That said, there is still an awful lot of sexism in both racing and engineering, but if you are talented and your vehicle is the fastest, there in not much that the sexist folks can say, and they give you a seat at the head of the table. I am faster than most of the sexists and that makes them shut up. If you have the talent, drive and the ambition, as a woman, you get more attention and it is typically easier to find sponsors.

IRMA: Raising awareness and passion for electric vehicles is one of your main passions. How does sustainability and an eco-friendly lifestyle play a big role in your life in general?
Eva Håkansson: Sustainability is very important in my life. Actually, pretty much my entire existence is centered around sustainability. It is really the guiding star in my life, and has always been.
My pursuit is to show that sustainability doesn’t have to mean sacrifice. I have solar panels on the roof that generates the electricity for my electric car. If you don’t want to go that far, there is still always something you can do without sacrificing your current lifestyle. It is unrealistic to demand that people go from a comfortable suburban life to live in a hut and grow their own food overnight. But most people can choose an energy efficient car, such as an electric or hybrid car. Most people can choose locally produced food, minimize their waste or choose sustainable clothing. Even simply buying an LED replacement for an incandescent bulb. All that is needed is really just information. And of course, a bit of a coolness factor. That’s why I race. Nobody who has seen my bike can claim that electric vehicles are boring, or slow… 😉

IRMA: Are you interested in sustainable fashion and cosmetics, and do you have any favorite brands?
Eva Håkansson: Yes, absolutely! Although I cannot claim to be a fashionista, I have always found fashion highly interesting. My mom taught me to use a sewing machine when I was 4; I started by creating clothing for my dolls, and later for myself, but unfortunately I have not had the time to create clothing from scratch during recent years. (There are only so many hours in a day, after all.)

I am very much of a second-hand shopper; that is the ultimate sustainable fashion. However, I try my best to choose sustainable fashion when I purchase new items, but the sustainable and ethical brands that I have found have often too much of a hippie feel or they are simply plain boring. I don’t want to live my life in over-sized cardigans, hemp shirts and yoga pants. I need office attire, work pants, racing crew team shirts and occasionally a nice gown. I think there is plenty of opportunity if somebody wants to specialize in sustainable and ethical clothing that is fashionable for professional women (and men). Count on me being a frequent customer!

IRMA: When did you last sing to yourself? To someone else?
Eva Håkansson: Every day in the shower! 😉 I actually also take singing lessons, but I am far from ready for any stage appearance. Singing is great practice for public speaking, because singing is harder than speaking.

IRMA: Which means of transport do you use when you are not racing?
Eva Håkansson: The American cities are unfortunately designed around cars. I live in a regular residential area and I don’t even have a grocery store within walking distance. Because we are so dependent on cars, my husband and I have a Nissan Leaf electric car and a Toyota Prius hybrid car. The electric car is our primary car and is used much more. It is so much fun drive, cleaner, and cheaper. It is also perfect for winter use; it comes with an app where you can turn on the heat (or air conditioning) while it is still plugged in. That way you never have to sit in a cold car.

Because I have my office and my workshop at home, I currently do not commute to work. If I lived more centrally and had a regular commute, I would definitely consider getting an electric scooter or motorcycle. The weather here in Colorado is perfect for two wheels, and it is also much easier to park. And of course, an electric motorcycle combines the fun of riding with sustainability.

Find out more about Eva on her website, http://evahakanssonracing.com/ and on Facebook.