The fact that Autoweek’s list of 12 racers on the cusp of making their mark in the NHRA is equally weighted between men and women isn’t contrived, isn’t a stretch.
Drag racing—and the NHRA, in particular—has for decades boasted an organic embrace of female competitors. That the Camping World Drag Racing Series has multiple multi-time female champions and race winners never was the result of a crafted diversity initiative.
Most notably, Shirley Muldowney (but also others, such as Shirley Shahan Bridges, Barbara Hamilton, and Paula Murphy) had the initiative and paved the path for the 63 professional female competitors and the dozens of female sportsman racers who have combined for 312 victories so far by women at NHRA drag strips.
“I wish someone would do a case study on how the NHRA has authentically normalized women competing with men in pro racing. They were DEI (Diversity, Equity, Inclusion) before it was a hashtag,” said Tami Powers, founder of PowerDrive Motorsport Futures, whose goal it is to connect corporate brands and female race-car drivers.
Powers, director of operations and business development for Alan Johnson Racing for nearly 21 years, said, “I’m excited about the future for women in motorsport across the board. There is a robust talent pool coming up through the ranks, and the data shows us investing in women in motorsports is good for business. When 85 percent of the household spending decisions are made by women and one in every two new motorsport fans are women, this is definitely something brands are taking a closer look at. Awareness is key.
“When there’s $6 billion being pumped annually into the business of motorsports, it’s about time we begin shining the light on some dedicated and marketable female drivers.”
So when it comes to gender equality, the NHRA has things covered, with plenty of ambitious racers—both male and female—waiting in the wings.
And all that’s not to mention the strong family ties several of these up-and-comers have to the sport.
Here’s a look at our 12 racers to watch:
Krista Baldwin, a 28-year-old third-generation racer and the daughter of the late Top Fuel racer Bobby Baldwin, took over grandfather Chris Karamesines’ Top Fuel dragster when he retired after 67 years of competing.
Baldwin debuted in March at the season-opening Gatornationals and the next month qualified for her first eliminations and even posted a first-round win at the four-wide event at Charlotte.
Baldwin already wears many hats in the series. She is the creative director for McLeod Racing/FTI Performance and general manager for Paul Lee Racing in the Funny Car class. Before turning pro, Baldwin owned her own Top Fuel Dragster operation and was named the SEMA Businesswomen’s Network Athena Rising Star in 2017.
The teenager from suburban Chicago made a bold move last year, enrolling at Arizona State University and embarking on a Funny Car career at about the same time. And he is keeping his nose to the grindstone to master both.
Although Bode, 19, has a Super Comp license and has driven a Top Alcohol Funny Car, he essentially jumped from a Jr. Dragster to a nitro-powered Funny Car. He inherited the Funny Car from dad and NHRA veteran Bob Bode and has received lots of instruction from perennial Funny Car contender Tim Wilkerson. Bobby has put it to good use.
In his first Funny Car race, last fall at Houston, Bode qualified seventh in the 16-car field. This year he has qualified for all five races he has entered. For years, his dad has been the hard-working and affable underdog, but he finally broke through in August 2010, at Brainerd, Minnesota.
“I definitely remember the weekend when my dad won. I was 8,” Bobby Bode said. “I remember sitting in the stands for the final, and everyone was cheering. It was funny, because before (that final) round, I got a blue snow cone, and I was eating it during the final. In the winner’s circle picture, I had blue lips from the snow cone. The picture was on National Dragster, on the cover.”
Joey Haas, a 29-year-old electrician from Middle Tennessee who owns a deluxe barn and 60-acre farm that hosts weddings, still has racers talking about his final-round Top Fuel achievement in July at Denver, when he dusted off far-more-experienced Alex Laughlin, Leah Pruett, and Clay Millican to reach the Top Fuel final in only his fourth start.
Steve Torrence, who beat him that day, said, “I was proud for that whole team. Lot of respect for ’em. I was pulling for him all day. That’s a guy with a lot of heart, and I hope I get to race him a lot more.”
Josh Hart, who pulled off his own Top Fuel stunner in the season opener by winning the Gatornationals in his first pro race, said, “That’s pretty awesome. I can’t express how hard it is to get that far with this level of competition. Anybody that makes it to the final round, they definitely (deserve) the ‘Attaboy!’ They work just as hard. They’ve put in the time. It’s terrible to go all the way to the finals and lose, because you’ve put in just as much work as the other guy. But it’s still an honor to be there.”
If all Josh Hart had to his credit this rookie season was winning the season-opening Gatornationals, this Ocala, Florida, Top Fuel racer still would be considered one to watch. But he definitely belongs on the list for his business acumen and how he has been using it to help grow not only his team but the entire sport of NHRA drag racing.
Hart, 37, has brought on board several marketing partners who had never previously invested in NHRA racers. During an idle August weekend for Hart, at least away from the drag strip, he took his R+L Carriers Dragster to the World Equestrian Center in Ocala, less than 20 miles from his shop. There, several thousand patrons had the chance to attend his eight-hour meet-and-greet and take a close look at his 11,000-hp race car with the R+L livery on it. The family that owns R+L Carriers also owns the World Equestrian Center, and Hart used the chance to give the crowd a close-up look at another kind of horsepower.
Hart is integrating local business partners with his racing program, and consequently, he has added more races to his 2021 schedule while being an excellent ambassador for the sport.
Mom Adria Force Hight, chief financial officer at John Force Racing, said neither she nor Autumn Hight’s father, three-time Funny Car champion Robert Hight, ever pushed Jr. Dragster driver Autumn Hight into the sport.
The younger Hight, 16, seems to be a natural at it, as she starred earlier this summer at Frank Hawley’s Drag Racing School. Maybe one day, she and her cousins Jacob and Noah Hood will be the third generation at John Force Racing.
Autumn has a ways to go, but she’s surrounded by the best in the business at John Force Racing, and we’re not betting against her.
Top Alcohol Dragster ace Julie Nataas, 24, wasn’t like her peers in Norway, not even the ones who happened to be racers.
“Over there, it’s just a hobby. It’s more for the fun part over there,” Nataas said. She even had to convince her father, European/FIA and NHRA Top Fuel racer Thomas Nataas, that she was serious.
After hours of practice three to four times a week after school and on weekends, she was wrapped up in karting as a youngster, then stepped into Formula Basic for two years. But her heart, she said, always was in drag racing. So she moved to the U.S., to Santa Barbara, California, where she earned a degree in business and marketing from Antioch University.
Her hidden “major” while at college was shopping her talent to the world of elite drag racing. She said she came “here for school, but in the back of my mind, I was like, ‘Well, if I’m over here, there’s a bigger chance of me getting to go racing here.’” Her plan worked. Swedish Funny Car racer Jonnie Lindberg helped her, introducing her to decorated sportsman team owner Randy Meyer.
She finished ninth in her first season, steadily improved to fourth, then third, and through mid-August was second in this year’s standings behind teammate Rachel Meyer.
“My dad, when I told him, ‘I want to be a race-car driver, and I’m going to try to do it,’ he was like, ‘No, you’re not going to be a race-car driver’—like ‘just realize it’s too hard. You’re not going to get there,’” she said. “I was like, ‘Well, I’m going to get my marketing and business degree, and I’ll go do it.’ I think I’ve had him realize I want this by now. So now he’s like, ‘Okay. If you can get sponsors, you’ll make it. You’ll be fine.’”
Matt Sackman, a Top Dragster driver who shares his ride with brother Zach, is sharing an exciting venture with three-time Top Fuel champion Antron Brown as Brown is poised for a move from Don Schumacher Racing to his own independent operation next season.
And Sackman, the established cylinder-head specialist for Brown’s dragster, is a valuable piece of the puzzle. Brown told Autoweek this summer that once he gets comfortable in his role as team owner and driver, he’ll add a second nitro car to the mix. Brown always had thoughts about driving a Funny Car, so could he be planning to slide into the full-bodied 11,000-hp car and let the Top Fuel-licensed Sackman have his first go at a dragster for the new enterprise?
Brown hasn’t even hinted at that, but Brown also said he eventually wants no more than two cars in each nitro class. Sackman, 28, might just be in the right place at the right time.
Jasmine Salinas, 29, one of Top Fuel racer Mike Salinas’ four daughters (and former crew member for his Scrappers Racing Dragster), is a Top Alcohol Dragster competitor who proved her toughness, rebounding quickly from a nasty-looking, over-the-wall crash this March at the Gatornationals at Gainesville, Florida.
She’s the subject of a video documentary titled Five Foot 280 that has received global acclaim, works daily as a leadership and studio coordinator at an innovative San Francisco tech-solutions firm, and even learned Mandarin Chinese on her way to a degree from the University of San Francisco.
Dad Mike built his own businesses from the ground up and “eye of the tiger” mom Monica just picked up her diploma this summer from Harvard University. So Jasmine Salinas, like her Pro Stock Motorcycle racing sister Jianna, has no problem being motivated.
A certified “sand rat” who raced quads in the Southern California desert from the time she was 8 until she was 18, Ashley Sanford, now 27, has had her cup of coffee in drag racing’s major leagues—and wants to gulp every drop in the pot.
Sanford burst onto the pro scene on the NHRA’s biggest stage, at the U.S. Nationals at Indianapolis, driving the Nitro Ninja Dragster for brothers Bobby and Dom Lagana. But most of her experience has come with Australia’s Rapisarda Autosport International, both in the U.S. and overseas.
With COVID-19 putting the kibosh on her 2020 and 2021 plans, she’s still slinging “ginormous sandwiches” and beer to the patrons at Tony’s Deli in Anaheim, just across the freeway from Disneyland. And just like the blue-collar heroine in the 1980s Donna Summer hit “She Works Hard for the Money,” Sanford socks away her earnings to fund her dream as she seeks fresh opportunities. Right now, she told reporter Thomas Pope, “I need to go smell some nitro. It’s been weird.”
If the NHRA awarded trophies to those who have a deep understanding of the business aspects of motorsport and the principles of marketing/sponsorship procurement, San Diego entrepreneur Brandon Welch, who years ago caught the eye of legend Don “The Snake” Prudhomme, would have a case full of them.
Welch is a former Funny Car driver who is reestablishing himself in the nitro ranks as a Top Fuel competitor, owning and running a dragster with cousin Tyson Porlas. They’re the grandsons of late West Coast racing legend Chuck Beal.
The energetic father of three children age 6 and under said that between each of his part-time appearances, “We want to add something to the toolbox that makes us that much closer to being a threat.” He has been methodically preparing for each step of this journey for more than half of his 38 years.
Madison and Toby Payne—a brother and sister from Claremont, Calif., in the shadow of the fabled Pomona drag strip—are just establishing themselves in the sportsman-level Lucas Oil Drag Racing Series. Madison, 19, is in veteran Duane Shields’ Top Alcohol Dragster, and 17-year-old Toby in the Super Comp class.
They have the ideal pedigree to make it in the NHRA. Grandfather Brad Anderson won 24 national events and three series championships in Top Alcohol Funny Car. Many would agree that he has played a key role in many other victories and titles in the Top Alcohol Dragster and Funny Car categories, as well as in Top Fuel and Funny Car, with his quality-crafted cylinder heads and other high-performance parts.
Toby Payne, 17, has plenty of places to go for advice, as his parents are no strangers to the sport. Mom is Shelly Anderson-Payne, the gritty former Top Fuel driver who had four victories in a career interrupted more than once by wrecks and rehabilitation. She also served as a drag-racing commentator for ESPN and as a crew chief and crew hand on family race cars.
Dad is Jay Payne, whose four decades of drag racing have yielded two series championships and more than 100 victories in four different categories. Madison and Toby Payne have plenty of experts, just around the dining table alone, advising them.
Even their former babysitter—Ashley Force Hood—won the U.S. Nationals twice and became a four-time Funny Car winner. And that was years after Shelly Anderson babysat Force.
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