With Danica Patrick on the pole for this Sunday's Daytona 500, there's never been quite as much attention paid to women in racing. Here's an example of someone who's following Patrick's lead: Erin Kelley, a 16-year-old racer in the Bandolero series of midget full-body cars. For a photography project called "100 Strangers," Xavier J. Peg shot Kelley last summer, and caught some insight into what drives her:
While I was shooting photographs at the racetrack yesterday, one car stood out from the pack. It was a pink Bandolero with peace signs, hearts and "Love" stickered all over it. "Girls Rule" was painted across the rear spoiler. The driver had no fear. Bandolero cars reach speeds of 90MPH and as the tire marks on the side of the pink 03 car testify, they can get quite close together.
I spotted Erin in the pits. At the time, she was raising dust cutting donuts on her 4 wheeler. Her father and grandfather were dialing in the two Late Model cars they were racing that day. I asked them if I could speak to Erin. They were enthusiastic about it, even inviting me to take in some of the air conditioning inside the huge trailer/shop they traveled with from Houston Texas. Erin's grandfather called for her, and the dust settled as she shut down her four wheeler.
Erin had been knocked around quite a bit in her last race. She had been spun out twice, each time while attempting to pass the leader. Bandolero cars are kept very much the same. They use sealed engines and have little room in the regulations for tweaking the vehicles for more speed. They use an entire complement of racing safety gear from the helmet and firesuit to the HANS device. The idea is to keep the machines equal so young drivers develop skills.
I asked Erin about her last race. She told me the back turn was kind of choppy. I had noticed her shooting sparks from underneath her car as she hit the high spots of the slightly uneven pavement. Banoleros travel less than an inch off the pavement. Drivers are allowed to adjust their tire pressure to compensate for this, but there is an optimum tire pressure that varies from track to track, between different areas of the same track, and even with the ambient temperature.
I asked Erin about being the only girl on the track, if she thought it made her a target. She agreed that no boy wants to be passed by the girl in the pink peace car. Not surprisingly, Erin told me her hero is Danica Patrick. We talked some more, and while she never verbalized it, one could detect that Erin was bothered by being spun out twice and not winning her last race. During the day's qualifying runs, she had secured pole position and wasn't using it effectively. She ended our conversation by telling me to be sure and watch the featured race later in the evening, and then she was off to a compulsory driver's meeting.
Erin had lost her coveted pole position in the featured Bandolero race. As the cars entered the first turn after the green flag, Erin attempted to pass the leader from inside. He tried to knock her into the grass. As a result he was flung headfirst into the concrete barrier at 70-80 MPH. Erin was stopped with the remaining racers on the back turn as paramedics made certain the driver was uninjured. His car was hauled off the track by the wrecker, while the driver rode off in a golf cart waving to the cheers of the crowd. While the wreckage was being cleared Erin's father ran out on the track to check on Erin, his own firesuit tied around his waist. After making certain his daughter was OK, Erin's father pulled her rear bumper out and quickly resecured the bodywork on the back of her car as best he could. As he exited the track, he passed me and I asked him about Erin. "She's shaken, but she's OK," he smiled.
Once the track was cleared, the pace car got the drivers started again. I watched with trepidation as Erin's rear bodywork seemed to become more insecure with every lap. Finally, on her last lap Erin's rear bumper became unfastened, spraying sparks behind her as it contacted the concrete at speed. Erin finished the race, placing third with a message. Girls Rule.