Teenage phenom Isabella Robusto is accelerating the future of racing

"Learn something every day. If it's in the gym or the shop or the track, make sure you learn."

Paid for by Toyota:
On college applications around the country, guidance counselors use the word “driven” to describe teenagers. But the word couldn’t be more apt for recent high school graduate Isabella Robusto. After graduating from high school a year early, the 17-year-old from Fort Mill, South Carolina, is taking a semester off before heading to college to take her racing to the next level.

The teen is already a stock racing champion — in 2018 she became the first female to win a national qualifier race in a Legend Car, and recently picked up her first late model stock win. But in these next few months, Robusto is going to use her inner drive to bring her to the next level. Here’s how her career started, where it’s going, and what it takes to become a racing champion.

How it started

Young Isabella Robusto gearing up for a race.
"I've been driving since I was five," says Isabella Robusto, pictured in one of her early races.
Isabella Robusto and her twin, Will.
"Being competitive is part of your nature when you drive. But it amplifies when your twin is also racing," says Isabella Robusto on her best friend and 'built-in teammate,' Will.

From push carts to scooters, Robusto was always comfortable on wheels. It ran in her family: Her grandfather did short track racing, and her dad brought her to watch races from an early age. She and her twin brother, William, would race each other in their driveway on their toys, almost as soon as they could walk. And when Robusto got into her first go-kart at five years old, she knew she had found her passion. “I knew that was what I wanted to do. I just got that feeling,” she says.

A year later, Robusto went to a race featuring kids just a few years older than her. At that point, her dreams solidified. “I said to myself, ‘In three years, I’ll be racing here, and I’ll be up front, and I’ll win.”

Isabella Robusto is driving a go-kart.
From go-karts to stock car racing, Isabella Robusto has grown up on the track — and has only gotten faster.

Watch for number 55 in the tie-dye car
Robusto's dad and grandfather brought her and Will to as many events as possible. Her grandfather also gave Robusto her number — 55 — a subtle nod to the connection she has with her twin, who also races.

Isabella Robusto with her family.
Isabella Robusto celebrating a second place win with her family: Dad Chris, brother Will, and mom, Kerri.

“I’m 55, and he’s 22, because they look the same when they’re flipped,” Robusto explains. “They’re similar, but different, just like us. And I got 55 because I’m the older twin. I’m going to keep 55 for as long as I can choose my number.”

Isabella Robusto and her grandfather
"My dad and grandpa always loved racing. We grew up around it, and it became a family sport pretty quick," says Isabella Robusto, pictured here with her grandfather.

Robusto’s grandfather also gifted Robusto her first car when she was nine years old — a tie-dye Legend Car Bandolero. “I loved tie-dye as a kid, and I still try to keep some tie-dye on me, whether it’s my race suits or helmets,” Robusto says. “But back then, you couldn’t miss it when it was out on track, which was probably my favorite part about it.”

A young Isabella Robusto with her tie-dye car.
"Now, it's not really practical to have a tie-dye car, but I'll always keep a bit of tie-dye on me or the car," says Isabella Robusto about the first car she began racing with.

Training with Toyota
For the past year, Robusto can often be found at the Toyota Performance Center (TPC) in Cornelius, North Carolina, which is about an hour away from Robusto’s South Carolina home. With the support of its sponsor partners, Toyota Racing Development built the state-of-the-art TPC, the focal point for all health, nutrition, and performance aspects of Toyota’s Driver Development (TD2) program. It is the primary place for Toyota drivers to learn, train, and connect.

Isabella Robusto at the track.
"In ten years, I definitely want to be racing in the Cup Series in a Next Gen car," says Isabella Robusto on her future race goals.
Isabella Robusto first race at Hickory Motor Speedway with Lee Faulk Racing.
Isabella Robusto pictured at Hickory Motor Speedway driving a Toyota Camry late model.

Now that Robusto is taking a semester off from school before college, training and racing is her full-time job. She wakes up at 5:30 every morning to head to TPC, where her schedule is full. In addition to working out with a trainer, she’ll have weekly sessions with a sports dietitian and a mental health and wellness clinician, all to get her mentally and physically prepared for the grueling physical and mental experience of racing.

“It’s hitting all the points I never would have thought about,” Robusto says, adding that sessions with the mental health and wellness clinician have helped her mentally prep prior to a race. She has created playlists of music to help her get in the zone prior to a race, and has learned techniques for focusing and clearing her head. But one of the best things about TPC is the chance to be surrounded by other serious drivers. “This is the first time I’ve been able to talk to drivers in a higher series than me. I can ask them for advice about tracks, which has been a huge help.”

Isabella Robusto at the Toyota Performance Center.
Isabella Robusto laces up for a morning of training at the fitness center within the Toyota Performance Center.
Isabella Robusto analyzing performance.
"Understanding the car will help you handle the car, which is where your speed comes from," Isabella Robusto explains.
Isabella Robusto on her bike.
"When I have free time, I love to get on my bike," says Isabella Robusto. "I get a workout in, but I also clear my head and reset."

While mornings are made up of coaching sessions and workouts, afternoons are often spent with her team at the race shop, working on her car. A session in the shop might include adding a new wrap to her car, fixing a crushed panel, or just setting things up for the weekend. “I learn something new every time,” she says.

The team mentality
Robusto may be alone on the track on race day, but she is surrounded by supporters. First up: Her team of four who help prep her for race weekend in the shop. And she says that being part of Team Toyota has been huge for her career. Not only does it give her access to TPC, it has allowed her new ways to approach racing through access to a simulator, as well as plenty of track time prior to race day. The simulator, nearby at the Toyota Racing Development facility Salisbury, North Carolina, has been crucial in bringing Robusto’s performance to the next level.

Isabella Robusto with her team.
"My team and I feel like a family," says Isabella Robusto. She will spend her afternoons in the race shop with her team, working on her car and learning whatever she can.
Isabella Robusto on the track.
"People may race me a little bit different because they don't want to be beat by a girl, but it's just more of a challenge for me," says Isabella Robusto.
Isabella Robusto with Lee Faulk.
Isabella Robusto has seen a difference in her racing in just the past few months. "I want to figure out how to be better each time I go out," Robusto says, pictured here with Lee Faulk, team owner and crew chief of Lee Faulk Racing and Development.
Isabella Robusto rolls up to the green.
"When you're rolling to the green flag, you've got so many emotions. You're focused and hyped and excited. I just try to stay calm before the green," says Isabella Robusto on her race day rituals.

“You can talk about it, you can be on the simulator, but it’s not like you’re actually sitting behind the wheel,” Robusto says. “What helps you learn the best is seat time. So I’m on the track in a go-kart during the week, and it’s helped so much. Our performance has just gotten better and better, and Toyota has been a huge part of that. We went from fighting for wins to winning.”

One to watch
With all of her early success, Robusto is still the first to acknowledge that, as a female racer, she’s especially scrutinized. And she hopes that her being on track will inspire others. “It would be great if more females entered the sport. Not just as drivers, but as crew chiefs and engineers.”

She also sees herself in the young kids that clamor for autographs after each race — and has some words of advice that she would also have given to her younger self: “Don’t give up. You’re going to have hard times. Everyone around you wants the same thing, so give 110%. And learn something every day. If it’s in the gym or the shop or the track, make sure you learn.”

Isabella Robusto winning her first late-model stock win.
Isabella Robusto after her victory lap on her first late-model stock win at Tri-Country Motor Speedway in August, 2022.
Isabella Robusto signs an autograph for a young fan.
Isabella Robusto greets a young fan. "If people want to become drivers, I tell them, 'Don't give up, especially if you're female.'"
Isabella Robusto pushing out on track.
"The team is a huge part of what goes into the weekend. I might be the part that everybody sees, but they do a ton of work," says Isabella Robusto on what it takes for race day victory.

And Robusto is just getting started. “In 10 years, I want to be racing in the Cup Series. I want to graduate from college with a degree in engineering. I want to win. And I want to compete and fight for the wins in all the series along the way.”

Because for Robusto, drive isn’t a verb — it’s her identity. And she’s just getting started.

From Toyota:
Toyota has been a fixture in motorsports for over 40 years, competing across multiple motorsports platforms to much success. Toyota Racing uses on-track knowledge to make advancements to the Toyota vehicles you see at dealerships across the country. The new Toyota GR Corolla Hatchback Formula DRIFT car, which made its debut in 2022, is the latest example of motorsports and Toyota vehicles coming together to achieve the best driving experience for Toyota’s customers. Learn more at ToyotaRacing.com or on Toyota Racing’s Facebook, Twitter or Instagram pages.

This article was paid for by Toyota and created by Yahoo Creative Studios. The Yahoo Sports editorial staff did not participate in the creation of this content.