Junior drag racers enjoying life in the fast lane

Alex Paul

While other 10-year-olds are whiling away the last few days of their summer vacations lounging by a pool or riding their bicycle, Sweet Home’s Jessika Stewart has been putting the pedal to the metal at the Woodburn Drag Strip, competing in the junior drag racing program.

The Holley School fourth grader recently won her first plaque in the bracket racing season, covering the one/eighth mile course in about 11 seconds.

She is the daughter of Randy and Joey Stewart of rural Sweet Home. Perhaps her fascination with cars comes naturally, since her parents own the NAPA auto parts stores in Sweet Home and Lebanon.

“I watched a movie about two sisters who were involved with junior drag racing for girls,” Jessika said of how she came to be a drag racer even before she is old enough for a learner’s permit. “I told my dad I wanted to try it. About a year later, I told dad I really wanted to do it so he took me to the Woodburn Drag Strip.”

Her dad thought a trip down the track in a borrowed dragster “would scare the pants off her” and put an end to her pleas. He was wrong.

“After the race she was grinning from ear to ear and told me she wanted to go faster,” Randy said.

The Junior Drag Racers compete in vehicles that are about one-half scale of modern top fuel vehicles. The pint-size versions gain top speeds of about 60 miles per hour whereas the pros are turning 300 mile per hour quarter mile runs thanks to 1,500 horsepower engines and high-tech design.

Jessika’s dragster is powered by a five-horsepower, single cylinder Cheetah engine that uses both belt and chain drives to put power to the rear wheels.

Although she can’t pull the front wheels off the ground at takeoff, Jessika says she can “burn rubber” when the red and yellow staging lights turn bright green and she hits the accelerator. The single gear transmission eliminates a need to shift gears during the run.

But, as Jessika quickly points out, bracket racing isn’t totally about top speed. Bracket racers “dial in” a time for their race. Their goal is to beat their opponent but they must do so without making the run below their “dialed in” time. For example, if Jessika dialed in an 11.1 second run, and she actually ran the one-eighth mile track in 11.0 seconds, she would lose the race even if she crossed the finish line ahead of her competition.

“So, sometimes you have to pedal it,” she said. “I have to let up on the gas pedal for a second or two, but keep ahead of the other guy.”

The Stewart family, which includes brother Garrett, 13, is Jessika’s pit crew. Her dad works closely with her on each run, talking about safety plans should anything go wrong. He also helps her “test and tune” the dragster based on each day’s track and weather conditions. Her mom helps with oil changes and team support. Brother Garrett is crew chief and makes sure the fuel system is a go. (Garrett will soon get his turn on the track in a 1972 Nova that is under construction.) The family goes over a check list of items before and after each race.

“There are actually guys with hand-held weather centers who use that information and a computer to help their kids dial in for that day’s conditions,” Randy said.

Some 50-100 youngsters compete every other Saturday at Woodburn. The Stewarts missed the first four events of the season but are awaiting the final five matches.

“Our goal was for Jessika to win a race and she’s done that,” Randy said. “It’s been a lot of fun.”

Jessika’s dragster is painted iridescent pink that changes hues depending on how the sun is striking the body. It is called “Pretty in Pink.”

Because the car runs on alcohol fuel rather than gasoline, Jessika wears a complete fireproof racing suit from head to toe.

“Basically, the kids use the same safety equipment as top fuel drivers,” Randy said. “The junior racing is sanctioned by the National Hot Road Association.”

Some of Jessika’s friends have accompanied the Stewarts to the drag strip and are highly supportive of her.

“I did have one boy at school who didn’t believe I was racing,” Jessika said. “So, I took my suit and stuff to show and tell and he changed his mind.”

Jessika said she hopes to continue to race, improving her reaction time off the starting line with each event.

“I just think about getting off the line without red lighting and about being safe,” she said of what goes through her mind during the race. “Mostly, it’s just fun.”