Each time I describe myself as a BMW of North America/IHG Rewards Club driver, I can’t help but think, Is this real? To say that I am thankful to have support from such huge and well-respected companies is just a fraction of the way I actually feel. Having worked extremely hard to get to where I am today—and to have them behind me—is a gift.

It all started when I was thirteen years old. Auto racing was never something that ran in my family, but I grew up a total tomboy, very competitive, and I played sports. It was natural for me to want to try racing when it was introduced to me, and I instantly fell in love with it the second I sat in my first go-kart. The most prominent moment in my mind is driving around with a smile so big I could barely see. From then on I was hooked, and my racing journey began.

Unlike most racers who start in sprint kart racing, I raced on long road courses like Road America and Road Atlanta. Although I won several championships in just my second year of karting, when I look back, I wish that I had gone sprint racing, because it is much tighter and teaches a driver more wheel-to-wheel skills.

But I didn’t realize this until I moved up into an open-wheel car in the Skip Barber Racing Series, where all of the drivers came from sprint racing.

Skip Barber was a tough series, as many of drivers who raced there had goals like mine—to make racing a career—or who were older, with years of racing under their belts. All of the cars were equal (or as equal as they could be), and for each race you literally pulled a number out of a hat to choose your car for the weekend.

At fifteen, I can’t say that I walked into this series instantly running well.

I had my fair share of challenges, mistakes, and just flat-out embarrassing moments, but I can say that I worked relentlessly to improve myself in all aspects of the sport, and took every moment as a chance to learn, understand, and be a better driver. In my career so far, my biggest breakthrough moment came in 2009, when I won my first Skippy race at Sebring. It made me realize that if you really put your mind to something, if you want it badly enough, if you work hard and stay positive, you can achieve anything.

This win opened the floodgates for me in so many ways. If I could work to achieve a race win, why couldn’t I work to win the championship—or to achieve any of my goals?

In 2010, I won more than twenty Skip Barber races, and two overall Skip Barber Championships, among many other driving awards; but in order to move up to the next level, I had to find a hefty sum of sponsorship dollars. At eighteen, I didn’t know much about the business side of racing—but after realizing that I would not be driving at all if I couldn’t find funds, I put my head down and got to work.

In 2011, I spent the entire year learning about and working on sponsorship, as well as staying in physical shape in case I got the call to drive. I made a list of contacts and called and e-mailed at least ten people a day—usually more—and kept rotating through my list as well as adding new contacts in the process. I had a lot of people turn me down, but on my desk I wrote myself a note: Each No is one step closer to a Yes. I would read that and pick up the phone again.

At the end of 2011, I was able to put together my very first big sponsorship deal with TrueCar to race a full season in the Pro Mazda Series, as well as my personal sponsor, Bell helmets, with whom I still have a relationship today. At nineteen, this was a huge deal for me—and it confirmed the belief that hard work, determination, and a positive, persistent attitude can take you places.

My Pro Mazda season was a tough one that definitely built on my mental toughness. I was crashed out in over half of the races by the same few drivers—and being responsible for my own crash-damage costs didn’t help the situation any. As some of you who race will understand, trying to drive at the limit with money on your mind is not an easy task—but I learned a lot that season, particularly how to cope with those outside pressures and focus on only what I can control.

In 2013, I found the newly created United SportsCar Championship to be a very exciting prospect, so I made the switch to sports-car racing and put together a deal with a new sponsor and team, Effort Racing, in the IMSA GT3 Cup Challenge. It didn’t take me long to get used to driving the Porsche, and after many podiums and a win, I was leading the overall championship six races into the season. But at the next race following my win at Watkins Glen, I had an accident in qualifying, and the team decided not to finish the season with me. Needless to say, I was absolutely crushed; championships are not easy to obtain, and I had earned a real shot at it.

This brought me back to what I had been learning: Sometimes things happen that are out of your control and can’t be changed, but you can focus on what is in your control—which for me was to work on getting back behind the wheel. I spent the rest of that season back to my list, making calls and writing e-mails, as well as going to the track, making connections, and looking for a ride.

Last year I was able to put together a deal with new sponsor and team Fall-Line Motorsports in the IMSA Continental Tire SportsCar Challenge. In my first-ever endurance race—my first race in CTSCC—I won overall at Daytona.

Despite that win, I was only able to race a few more events due to a lack of funds, but I never let it phase me. Every race I attended—including Daytona, I was literally notified just days before the race if there was sponsorship for me to drive or not; as you can imagine, it was an interesting experience in trying to stay focused on my driving. But regardless of whether I was driving or not, I went to every race I could afford to travel to, as well as continuing to spend lots of time on the phone and e-mailing, trying to stay in the seat as well as put together a deal for 2015.

Without a doubt, times were tough. Nothing is more heart-wrenching than watching from the sidelines as other drivers head out for that first practice or get the green flag for the race. But every time I would feel even slightly discouraged, I would think about my love of driving, the sensation of hitting a corner right, getting lost in the moment, and the feeling of winning a race. Nothing can ever stop me from chasing this dream, and I refused to let anything stand in my way.

By the end of last season, through hard work and the stars aligning, I had managed to put together a deal with BMW of North America and the IHG Rewards Club. When I first realized that this was actually happening, I was like a little kid in a candy store. On the day I received my official BMW USA Motorsport suit in the mail, I put it on and went running outside, dancing and screaming like a total crazy person. I couldn’t help it; I had worked so hard for this opportunity. That suit was earned through blood, sweat, and tears, and I made it happen.

I look back at all the rough times, and even though in the moment it’s hard to realize it, I understand now that it is ultimately those rough times that gave me the strength to be better and stronger than I was the day before. I have showed myself that if you want something badly enough, and believe in yourself and in your abilities, then you can make it happen. I still have a long career ahead of me, with lots of unknown twists and turns, but I am ready for them, because my eye is still on my ultimate goal—and I’ve learned that that sort of determination is a force that can’t be stopped.—Ashley Freiberg