Women in Motorsports: Cristy Lee - Engine Builder Magazine

Women in Motorsports: Cristy Lee

According to Cristy Lee, Garage Squad is as real as car TV gets. “What we’re doing on the show and what you see on TV, that’s exactly what we’re doing.”

Co-Host, All Girls Garage / Garage Squad / Barrett-Jackson

What seems like a lifetime ago in 2011, Cristy Lee was working the Auto Show circuit for Chrysler/Dodge/Jeep as a narrator. It was there that a tv producer saw her doing her thing and liked what he saw and heard.

“He asked if I would be interested in All Girls Garage,” Cristy Lee says. “You always take offers like that with a grain of salt, but six months later they had me come down to the set and audition and I became the third cast member on an all-female, how-to automotive show.”

Of course, Cristy had done plenty of work in and around the industry prior to that big break, but fast forward to 2020, and Cristy Lee is a household name among automotive enthusiasts and professionals alike. Despite that jump into automotive stardom, Cristy remains very humble.

“It’s hard to believe I am where I am right now,” Lee says. “I’m just doing my thing and trying to get through every day and have some fun while I’m doing it and stay involved in the automotive industry and motorsports industry. It’s always crazy to look back and reflect on how far I’ve come because sometimes I forget that. I’m grateful for opportunities to reflect back on where I came from and what I’ve been through the past couple of years – in a positive way of course.”

In case you need a refresher on what Cristy has done, she got her start in broadcasting in 2008 and turned her focus to motorcycles and the racing scenes of AMA and Motocross. From there, she began covering Off-Road Truck Racing, Supercross, Monster Jam, Flat Track Racing, and even the X Games. In between those gigs, Cristy continued to rep brands as an ambassador too. Then, she became co-host of shows such as All Girls Garage, Barrett-Jackson auctions and Garage Squad.

“In-studio hosting is very different than in-field reporting, but what I love about it the most is we have the opportunity to showcase our personalities and make the job fun,” she says. “It’s not just about building cars and cool projects and showcasing products, but it’s also a chance to showcase what we’re about and what we love and what we know.”

All Girls Garage recently wrapped up its ninth season and Garage Squad its sixth. Cristy’s busy schedule had finally caught up to her, provoking changes in 2020.

“I was hosting All Girls Garage, Barrett-Jackson and Garage Squad last season,” she says. “Barrett-Jackson is no longer on MotorTrend this season, and All Girls Garage, I decided to take a step back from that. Last year was my last year as a co-host of that show. Honestly, that was mostly for personal reasons. Last year was insane with traveling and scheduling and TV production. I was on the road constantly and living out of a suitcase in hotels and on and off airplanes – I was exhausted.”

For 2020, prior to the pandemic, which nobody saw coming, Cristy’s goal was to take a little more time for herself and not travel as much. That didn’t turn out to be the case.

“I am still hosting Garage Squad this season and that was the plan,” she says. “I’m on the road every single week. I’ve been on the road since June 1st and I’m on the road every single week from June until mid-October and weekends. It’s like a repeat of last year, but I’m really excited about a new season of Garage Squad.”

Due to her still crazy schedule, it’s nearly impossible for Cristy to do what she does without the aid of air travel.

“I hate to say it’s like business as usual, but I can’t do what I do without air travel,” she admits. “I’m kind of just getting through it. It’s not ideal. I don’t really think anybody wants to fly right now. I was never a big fan of flying before all this, let’s be honest. It’s not as glamorous as one may think. I’m just trying to put my head down and muscle through it.

“I do a lot of driving as well. I’m commuting back and forth to Metro Chicago from Detroit, but also all over for Garage Squad on a weekly basis. I do kind of mix things up with driving and flying. This week, for example, I actually rode my motorcycle from Michigan to Chicago. I’ll have it here for the week and then the end of this week when we wrap shooting on Friday, I’ll ride it back home.”

All the seat time Cristy gets gives her time to reflect back on her many memories of doing hit shows such as All Girls Garage.

“We did well over 100 episodes in nine seasons – eight seasons for me – with 16 or more episodes per season,” Lee says. “We worked on so many different things. There were so many projects that we did that were for great charities that supported things like breast cancer, the Wounded Warrior Project, veteran memorials – those were always beyond rewarding. We even had some projects where we have some guest hosts or co-hosts come in and work on a project with us. Of course, we like to highlight females as much as we possibly can, so we had women builders that we would spotlight or other female car owners that we would bring in.”

No matter how Cristy’s TV persona has grown over the years, she has remained an advocate of the industry and of women being a big part of it.

“I am beyond honored to have been part of a movement where spotlighting women in a show that was specific to women was a thing,” she says. “I think now as the years have progressed, having women within the industry is continuing to grow. You’re seeing more and more of it, but for us to be part of All Girls Garage circa nine years ago, I couldn’t have been more honored to be on a platform like that.

“As far as working with women, I had a chance to work with several women on the show as the show progressed over the years. I worked with Jessi Combs, Sarah ‘Bogi’ Lateiner, Faye Hadley, Rachel de Barros. We’ve had a chance to work together and to promote women within the industry in the same way, but also in very different ways.”

All Girls Garage hosts were shop owners and fabricators and were able to represent that side of the industry. Someone like Cristy brought more of an automotive enthusiast aspect to the show.

“I was able to represent that side of it for women,” she says. “I think with all of that combined, we had so much to offer in such a positive way for other women, whatever their path might be.

I’ve always been a huge advocate of cars and everything automotive and motorsports. My entire life is about it, even outside of shooting TV. I’ve always been a positive advocate of women can do anything. Maybe turning wrenches or riding motorcycles or racing cars isn’t for every woman. But that doesn’t mean we can’t appreciate other women doing it and use that as a tool to do whatever we want and not allow any boundaries to prevent us from being who we want to be in any way.

“I think us breaking through those boundaries of women in automotive specifically can hopefully show other women that there are no boundaries if they don’t let them be there. That’s always been my mantra. It’s more than rewarding to be around so many women and I think one of the most amazing things for me has been such a positive influence from others, not just in the industry, but the fans as well saying, ‘Hey, you’re a positive role model for my daughter or my granddaughter.’ That’s not something I ever really imagined I could be or that people would be telling me that I am. They’re pretty big shoes to fill, but I’m so honored and so proud that that I can use my life and the things I do professionally to create positivity for other women.”

While Cristy has certainly been able to fill those shoes as a role model for women and others in the industry, she has also been able to use these shows to build upon her own know-how when it comes to working on cars, trucks and motorcycles.

“[All Girls Garage] in general was a learning experience for, not just myself, but for all of us, because some of the cars and projects that we worked on aren’t things that we would ever have a chance to get our hands on or even think about getting our hands on normally,” Lee says. “My background in wrenching was mostly in motorcycles, so being able to transition to cars is a relatively easy transition at first because using tools and knowing how to use tools is a big part of it and being comfortable in a garage setting, of course. But learning a lot of the things that are different between cars and bikes was a huge learning curve for me with All Girls Garage and also really cool at the same time, because some of the projects we worked on are not things that we ever would have worked on before.

“We’re working on brand new cars that just came out. We worked on some prototype projects that one else got a chance to do because that was the only one. On the other side of the spectrum, we also got to work on collector cars. Having a chance to work on a real GT 500 – how many people can say that they’ve turned wrenches on one of those cars? We had a lot of opportunities that were open to us because of the show and because of some of the product integrations that we did with the aftermarket industry that we never would have had outside of that.

“It was a huge learning experience for all of us and definitely a massive learning experience for me, which is awesome because now I can say I have worked on this and I learned. I love learning and that is probably one of my favorite things about the automotive industry and the mechanical side of automotive, where you get to learn about the parts and pieces. You dissect them, you take things apart, put things back together, you use the tools to assemble and disassemble. That’s what I love about it. Power tools are the best, let’s be honest.”

Currently, on set of Garage Squad, Cristy has been actively learning to weld, among many other jobs surrounding these sometimes very immersive car builds shown on the series. The show selects specific classic cars and owners to get the chance at having the Garage Squad come to their location and restore their classic car in the span of one week. According to Cristy, Garage Squad is as real as car TV gets.

“What we’re doing on the show and what you see on TV – what the final episode looks like – that’s exactly what we’re doing,” Lee says. “We are showing up at someone’s garage – yes, we’re ordering parts ahead of time – but we show up to someone’s garage, we assess the vehicle and we start working on it. We start tearing down and then we start putting new on.”

The cars on the show aren’t meant to be SEMA showroom worthy. They’re meant to be better and significantly better than when Garage Squad first gets there.

“We get them back on the road and make them look as best as they possibly can within the time that we have,” she says. “We have basically six days to work on these cars and it’s just the six of us. There’s no midnight crew that sneaks in and finishes the project for us while we’re not there. It’s just us six and we’re in there grinding away, literally, getting these projects done. Sometimes we have projects that are a little bit less intensive. Sometimes it’s basically a full-blown restoration.

“This show is so rewarding because we’re taking something that was essentially just forgotten or in shambles and making it amazing again for people who generally have either fallen on hard times, whether it be financially or physically, and turning this project around in a much more positive way. The word rewarding doesn’t even begin to describe this because some of the stories are more challenging than others. The return on it for us as hosts and as members of the show, it’s just so amazing because a lot of times with these projects it’s changing people’s lives. To take this car that they have that’s worth something, and most of the time it’s worth something more sentimentally than financially, and to completely change that and make it something amazing again is really the best. I cry all the time.”

Another thing Garage Squad does to differentiate itself from other restoration-type shows is it allows the owners of the vehicles to work right alongside the crew.

“This isn’t like a typical reveal show where we meet the owner of the vehicle the first day and then say, ‘Bye, we’ll see you in a week,’” Lee says. “They’re in there with us. Yes, we reveal it to their friends and family, so it’s a surprise for them, but we get to work side by side with the owners. They become part of the squad.

“After seven days, this has to be a completely overwhelming experience for the owner. We just come in, we completely invade their space, there’s cameras everywhere, we’re working and grinding and putting in a ton of hours ­– after seven days, they’re ready for us to go. But you know the day after we leave, they’re secretly staring out their front window into the garage wishing we were still there. I’ve just got to think it’s such a cool experience for the owners to have us come in and literally take over their lives for a week and then leave them with this amazing car.”

With only a week to accomplish what is often a ton of work, the Garage Squad production crew works well in advance to line up each episode, location and project.

“I obviously have a little less involvement with the logistics of production and the scheduling of production, but generally speaking, the locations and cars are scouted well before we get there, so we’re not picking things out a few days before we get there,” she says. “We’re not publishers clearing house, like surprise, Garage Squad is here. We’ve done 10 episodes for the last two seasons and they pretty much scout out the whole season beforehand.

“A lot of it is location – do we have places where we can park a lot of vehicles, where we can park the production truck, where we can park an RV and the van with all the tools? There’s a lot of factors that go into that besides just the story and the vehicle.

“Sourcing of parts is important too. Obviously, you can’t just run up to your local auto supplier and grab parts for a ‘69 Camaro. You need some lead time on that. They’re not selling door panels for a Cutlass at Auto Zone, so we work in advance with getting parts and materials. Of course, as anybody knows in automotive, there’s a lot of ‘oh shit’ moments where something breaks or doesn’t work. We all know that OEM replacement parts for old classic cars are never perfect. We’re always thrown for a loop on that stuff.”

With basically seven days per episode, Cristy says one day is fully devoted to basic production things such as beauty shots of the cars, general lead ins and lead outs with the host, the storyline, closing the show, etc.

“We really only have six days of meat to work and get that done,” she says. “It’s no more and it’s no less. That’s pretty much it. Rock Auto is a show sponsor, so every episode we have, not only an abundance of parts, but usually a specific integration for Rock Auto. We are sourcing a lot of parts from them. Some of the aesthetic parts aren’t available through something like Rock Auto. Most of the mechanical aspects we can get through them. They’ve even supplied us with an entire crate engine before for a project, which is super cool.

“We’re kind of all over the board with what we need and it’s so specific to the project. It’s really contingent on the build. A lot of the other suppliers we use are familiar names that you would expect in the aftermarket industry. We use those companies mostly for aesthetic pieces – interior, door panels, dash, consoles, seats, upholstery, headliners – those types of things. Sometimes, the guys are sourcing stuff straight up from Facebook Marketplace. Whatever it takes.”

You can catch Cristy and the whole Garage Squad gang in new episodes on MotorTrend network starting August 28.  


Q: You mentioned some exciting side jobs and future plans. Can you elaborate?

A: I can talk a little bit about it. Interestingly enough, I have kind of a crazy background. I’ve had a lot of jobs and I’ve done a lot of things in my life. To me, I don’t think it’s crazy, but probably to a lot of other people, they’re like, ‘Wow, you’ve done a lot of things.’

One of the things that I used to do, which actually brought me from Florida to Michigan was investing in real estate. I moved to Michigan in 2005 to invest in real estate and essentially flip houses. Now this was way before flipping houses was a super trendy thing. This was a little less glamorous. I was buying up really inexpensive properties in Detroit and renovating them and flipping them for profit.

At that time, the resale value was very high, so the purchase prices were low. There were a lot of very low-value properties in the city of Detroit, but you could fix them up and sell them for eight, nine, 10 times the cost. I’d find properties for like $6,000 or $7,000 sometimes and flip them for $60,000 or $80,000.

Obviously, my career took me in many different directions and now coming full circle, working in television, I think it’s a natural transition to dig up my real estate roots and do some home and garden type programming. I’m working on some new projects in that arena and tapping into my real estate roots and I’m really excited about it.

Hopefully there’ll be some very exciting news showcasing a very different side of Cristy Lee.

Doing home renovations with tools is just as cool as working on cars with tools.

Q: Favorite engine and favorite car?

A: This is such an interesting question because I do get asked this a lot, especially by fans. Everyone wants to know what’s your favorite car? I’m so not a favorite person. I don’t have a favorite food. I don’t have a favorite color. I don’t have a favorite movie. I like a lot of things and I feel like, especially with cars, there are so many different cars and they all kind of have a different side. Because of that, I could never pick just one. It would kill me to pick just one.

I’ll give you my short list of some of my favorites. I’m a big fan of Gen I Mustangs. If money was not an obstacle, a ‘69 Boss or a Cobra Jet 429. I really like C10 trucks – ‘69 to ’72 – that’s my favorite timeframe. I really like import cars as well. I’m really big on Porsches. That’s what I grew up with. That’s what my dad worked on was Porsches and BMWs. The e36 is probably my favorite model for BMW. Of course, Mopar is also on the list. I love old Mopar such as ’69, ’70 and ’71 Chargers or Challengers, but also new Mopar too. There’s something to be said about hopping in a car and it just fires up with the push of the button. It’s got all these modern amenities and this amazing automatic transmission that drives way better than you ever could think about driving. I’m a huge fan of new Hellcats, Challengers and Chargers too. Anything that’s fast.

I got a chance to drive a GT 500 at the track a few weeks ago. A Ferrari 488 too. I just love cars. I love them all, I can’t pick. I like diesel trucks too. I’ve got two diesel trucks in my driveway.

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