Since the 1950s, there's consistently been a handful of female drag racers, observes John Raffa, a born-again beatnik who's been racing since 1964. Way cheaper than road racing, the sport's do-it-yourself dynamics make it a family thang, with Mom changing the mag wheels and Sis shining up the front-end flames.
"A guy puts every dime in his car, and he ain't got the money to pay help," the ponytailed 65-year-old muses. "So the wife, daughter, and granddaughter have always been there" as the pit crew. Eventually, they ask to race the car, and since they've worked for free, their request preempts any misplaced machismo.
Not counting the Camaro named Marilyn (driven by a hairy fiend with Popeye forearms), two women idled their chrome soliloquies alongside the boys' on a recent "Whup-Ass Wednesday" at Norwalk Raceway. As Cheap Trick and Twisted Sister pumped from the speakers, Sarah Heurner, 18, leaned on the hood of her parents' grocery-shopping car, blinking candy-apple-pink eyeshadow. She had made it through three rounds with the white Dodge Intrepid, which her father lent her in good conscience, since she's the only family member who voluntarily accompanies him to car shows.
The winner of two trophies at Dragway 42, Heurner first tore up the strip a few years ago (kids as young as eight race in the junior class). A friend brought her in his car. "He stopped coming, and I kept coming by myself," she says.
Tedium put Rita Stang, co-owner of a wooden pallet company, inside the stripped-down belly of a red street rod. Marriage was a compromise, meaning that her husband would go camping and ride ATVs for her, and she would sit in the stands in the scorching heat for him while he burned rubber.
"I always found it a little bit boring, being on the sidelines," she says. "In drag racing, a lot of times the women are helping their spouse line their car up, get the car in the water box. I used to do that kind of stuff, and then my husband started pushing me toward 'Why don't you race?'"
Thanks to the demon self-consciousness, working up the courage took years. "I was worried about what people were gonna say; what if I missed the [starting light]," she remembers. "But it doesn't matter. No one cares."
Which is good, because this time, she loses fearlessly in the first round, being spared the 45-minute parade of heavy machinery after a canary-yellow Pinto dribbles oil down the track. With the help of repeated men-and-their-toys treatments by a sweeper truck, a water-sprayer go-cart, and what appears to be an asphalt Zamboni, the strip is made pristine again.
No one gets the rush of racing -- and cleaning up someone else's mess -- more than Kathy Powers of Mansfield, a 49-year-old mom who got into the mercurial sport for nurturing reasons. When her sons reached revving age, Powers and her husband decided to let them sow their wild horsepower legally, buying them a matched '68 Camaro and Chevelle painted Bahama blue with pink, yellow, and aqua pinstriping.
"We said, 'Here's the deal -- we'll buy you a wonderful car, and you take it to the track and get the speed out of your system there,'" Powers says. "So many kids lose their life at that age. They get that big testosterone rush. We decided we're gonna do this, and we're gonna do this as a family, in a controlled situation."
It was teamwork that rivaled The Berenstain Bears Eat Dust, or something like that. While the little lightning bolts raced, Dad worked the pit and Mom did the math, calculating the cars' optimum mph by figuring in temperature, barometric pressure, and wind speed. The boys lived past puberty, going off to college and families of their own -- and leaving their parentals with two sweet sets of wheels.
Powers's husband didn't want to race, so all that trigonometry and cloud-watching helped prepare her to put tread to topcoat. By the time she took two practice trips down the track in a pickup truck "to see where everything was," she knew exactly how the starting line worked and the timing on the red, yellow, and green "Christmas tree" lights that measured the all-important reaction speed.
"They say that women react faster and have a better reaction time to those lights," says Powers. But men, by design, have more focus, she says. "'I hunt it, I kill it, I drag it home.' That's good. Just block out everything else and not let it affect you. It's different for us -- we're so used to focusing on 10 things at once. You've got dinner to make, a paper to get out, a phone call to answer."
Lisa Edwards's father, a weekend mechanic, greased her segue into the motorhead world. One of her earliest memories is of holding a wrench with a "shit-eating grin across my face." Dad called her "son," as in "Son, hand me that screwdriver." Together, they restored her dad's 1979 Monte Carlo.
No sooner had she left home than she bought and started modifying a Honda CRX, racing it in the sport class. "I love the sound of the loud cars, the smell of the gasoline, the feel of the motor in your chest and in your heart," she says. "You get to go out there and make a serious statement."
Edwards, who lives in Twinsburg, works on her car on the sly. When her husband and his buddy arrive, they take over, chastising her for being too slow. Then she's playing "Heidi the Tool Girl" all over again.
But when she's on the strip, she owns it. "People pull up and laugh at me," she says. "And then I kick their ass." Words to grunt by.