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Gabby Hits the Gas

Laying in a big, white bed, wrapped up in a big, white bathrobe, picking at room service from a big, white hotel room, Gabby Downing stared at the big, white, empty ceiling imagining she was somewhere — anywhere — else.

She had been living in Thailand for months, working there as a fashion model, and had never been lonelier in her short, 16-year life.  

“I was miserable. When you’re modeling, you can't have bruises, scratches, scars, dark circles, dirty fingernails, or even tan lines — brutal for a girl who grew up on a farm and loves to play outside. I was so limited during what free time I had. I couldn't pursue anything else until I officially quit.” – Gabby Downing

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I’m Sad, But This Makes Me Happy

After years of traveling the world for fashion, Gabby did leave behind the lonely modeling world. It became the first chapter in a whole career of self-seeking trial, error, and a healthy dose of failure. The value of which, although painful, was a lesson she learned at a very young age. 

“As a model, I would go on 30-plus auditions a day and I would maybe hear back from one or two of them from a week. I was failing and being rejected left and right. That's just life. It doesn't define who you are. It doesn't mean that you stop. It just means that it wasn't your time or your place. And you need to keep searching.”

Back home in Northern Virginia, living with her mom (Gabby’s father sadly passed away when she was 14), she thought about what to do next. She didn’t grow up with any motorheads in the family but had always been fascinated about cars and how they worked. Wanting something easy to work on and cheap to insure, she bought a 1987 Honda CRX (not a Civic! Everyone had one of those.) It had over 300,000 miles on it and needed some TLC. The previous owner had added flames along the sides. 

Grabbing her late father’s toolbox, Gabby got to work. Using service manuals and YouTube, she taught herself to change a tire. Then, to change the oil. And replace a distributor cap. And fix a water pump. And how to diagnose a problem with an alternator. 

“My mom shook her head when I bought that car, but it ended up being really reliable. It was my daily driver for like six years and it taught me so much. I fumbled a lot with it but got so excited when I accomplished something. I felt so fulfilled. Every day I'd go out and work on that stupid car on our gravel driveway. My mom would come out and be like, what are you doing? And I just said ‘I don't know, but this is what I wanna do right now. I'm sad, but this makes me happy.’”

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Working on cars made her so happy, she started going to school for it. But that didn’t end up being quite as fun as she’d hoped. It wasn’t the right path for her either. The right path, as it turned out, was one that was being invented right before her eyes.

“I was already in the garage all the time and I knew I was comfortable in front of a camera, so I started some car accounts on social media. This was before the word ‘influencer’ was a thing. I had no idea there was a ‘job’ somewhere in this. I was just dabbling. Then, things started to happen and I blew up a bit. I was miserable at school, and that momentum gave me the confidence to focus on social media for a while.”

Gabby’s social channels, paired with working on cars, gave her a bigger creative outlet than she’d ever found at school or on set as a model. It was the perfect mix of learning, performing, and experimenting. As she taught herself to tinker with her car, she also tinkered online with her content, quickly gathering a following — and with it some attention from brands — along the way. 

Throughout the following years, true to her trial-and-error spirit, Gabby dabbled in many types of motorsports competitions and worked on many types of vehicles. After that 1987 Honda CRX came a tuner-style Subaru WRX, a BMW e46, and she even helped build a 1951 Chevy 3100 truck for a TV show. Today, Gabby primarily competes in drift competitions with her 1999 C5 Corvette. She also off-roads for fun in a 2023 Ford Bronco, and has also competed in the Mint 400 race in an off-road limousine. Her one constant is that she always stays open to new possibilities, and follows what works for her.

With both working on cars and building a personal brand on social media, Gabby approached her work much like she did modeling. Instead of going on loads of auditions each week, she wrote loads of outreach emails and created loads of content, knowing that only a few of these opportunities would “blow up” or lead to a partnership. As a budding “influencer,” that attitude served her well. In one year, she attended SEMA, got a TV gig in Utah in the automotive space, attended her first Mint 400, and hit 70 thousand followers.

Suddenly, Gabby was no longer dabbling.

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Clarity, Goals, and Donuts

Come 2016, the word “influencer” was definitely a thing, and Gabby definitely fit the bill. Her tinkering around in the garage and on social media was no longer just tinkering. It was her life. It was a path forward that made her excited to get out of bed every day. But she needed to get serious about things if she was going to keep her needs met and her online momentum alive and well.

Out of a period of reflection, Gabby came up with the following personal creed — her secret to staying the course on the road to success: clarity, goals, and donuts.

Clarity: Step one to achieving your dreams is getting crystal clear about what they are. Ask yourself: where do I want to be? Get very specific. Imagine it. What are you doing? Where are you living and working? What does it feel like? Smell like? Sound like? Hone in, and envision it every day.

Goals: Step two is to create incremental goals that can help you get there. If one goal feels too big, add a few subgoals beneath it. Write down your goals. Make them specific. And make sure you celebrate when you reach them.

Donuts: Step three is to enjoy the process. It’s a cliché because it's true: life is a journey, not a destination. And if you’re not finding the journey fun, you won’t find the destination worth it. The feeling of putting one foot in front of the other should be enjoyable. If it isn’t, that’s okay. All it means is that you’re not on the right path. 

Gabby knew that she wanted to do social media and marketing for a living. She wanted to work on cars every day and inspire others with her love of all things automotive. She knew what she was capable of today, and what she might be capable of in the future, with some effort. And finally, she knew that she was on the right path because she was enjoying herself, even in the midst of the grind. With clarity, goals, and donuts by her side, what couldn’t she do?

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Hitting the Gas

In spite of how much she’s blown up since those days on her mom’s gravel driveway, to this day, Gabby is still a one-woman show. 

“I do just about everything myself. I do all my own editing. I do all my own filming, I do nearly all my own building — there are things that I have to outsource like a roll cage or tuning, but the foundation of all of it, I do all of it myself.”

While she used to feel a bit jealous of folks who grew up around cars or had a lot of help with their builds, these days, she feels grateful that she’s had to do everything from scratch, all on her own. It’s taught her not to rush or take shortcuts with anything, whether it's the metal under the hood  — or the rubber under the chassis. 

“Every automotive event I’ve dabbled in — from autocross to off-roading to drifting, drag racing, and more — tires have always been the most vital element of every build. You can race a total rust bucket if you put nice tires on it first. Whatever you’re working on, there's no point in doing power or suspension upgrades until you’ve looked at a tire upgrade first.”

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Gabby won’t be a one-woman show forever. With the momentum she’s managed to build in the years since she first blew the dust off her late father’s toolbox, she’s destined for bigger, better, and faster things soon enough. When asked about that momentum and where it comes from, Gabby just has to laugh. Her successes, driven by a good internet connection and sheer will, also impress her.  

“The most pleasant surprise that’s come from this chapter of my life is the realization that I cannot be stopped! With consistency, persistence, resourcefulness, and just being darn stubborn, I've been able to kind of accomplish everything that I've set my mind to. It continuously surprises me.”

From the runway to the raceway, Gabby has come pretty darn far, pretty darn fast. And if you think that she spends any time looking back, you’d be wrong.  

“I don't miss that life of glamor at all. It made me pretend to be something that I wasn’t. In the driver’s seat, I am my most authentic and most fulfilled. Plus, there's just something really cool about being able to perform well in a vehicle that you've built in an industry that looks at you and is like, ‘What the hell is she doing here?’”

To set the record straight: what is Gabby Downing doing here?

Donuts, of course.

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