Takes Aim at NASCAR
Erin Crocker ’03, an engineering graduate from Wilbraham, Mass., has spent more than a decade racing cars, competing on dirt tracks in quarter midgets, mini sprint and winged sprint cars, and trucks. In 2003, Crocker became the first female in history to qualify for the Knoxville Nationals at Knoxville Raceway in Iowa. Last December, she became the first woman to win a World of Outlaws sprint car feature event. Now the 24-year-old is seen as one of the most promising drivers on the NASCAR circuit. In March, Crocker became the first woman to sign on with Evernham Motorsports to a driver development program, positioning her to work her way up the ranks in racing as she competes in the ARCA RE/MAX Series and the NASCAR Busch Series. This year, she also will race six United States Auto Club (USAC) Silver Crown events in a car owned by champion driver Kasey Kahne.
Q: When did you start racing?
A: I got into a quarter midget go-cart when I was 6 and raced when I was 7. My dad never raced himself, but he was always involved in cars and he helped out some teams when he was younger. He got my [two] older brothers into go-carts. That’s how I got involved.
Q: Who was your biggest influence in shaping your desire to become a race car driver?
A: My brother, Seth. We were best friends growing up. We were always out in the yard racing with our mountain bikes, and we had a golf cart we used to ride around in.
Q: In your first attempt at the ARCA RE/MAX Series in March, you won the Pork Pole Award at Nashville Superspeedway for the PFG Lester 150 race, making you the third female driver in the series to qualify for a pole position. Knowing that the series is a springboard for NASCAR racing, how did you feel about the possibility that in the near future you may be competing with the likes of Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart?
A: It was definitely big. [It was] my debut driving a stock car, my debut race driving for Ray Evernham, and he’s one of the top team owners in NASCAR. He’s only seen me race a time or two. He knows my accomplishments. But, it’s another thing to actually see someone you hire do something well and he was thrilled that day, and that goes a long way.
Q: You qualified for the pole position racing 165 mph. What’s it like driving that fast?
A: That’s the average speed of the lap. On the straightaways, you’re going upward of 190. It’s pretty neat going that fast, but at some point you forget about it. You’re focusing on your job. I’m more worried about making perfect laps and getting the most out of the car, so I don’t even realize how fast I’m going.
Q: Do you weigh the risks involved in racing? Are you ever afraid you’re going to fatally hit the wall, for example, such as what happened to seven-time Winston Cup champion Dale Earnhardt in 2002?
A: You can’t think about that as a driver. If you did, you’d never be successful. Obviously, there are risks involved in racing, but when you really look at the stats, you’re probably safer in a race car than you are driving down the street. And, they’ve made a lot of safety improvements over the last few years, which decrease the impacts when you hit the wall. There’s a new harness device that holds your head in place, which Dale did not have. If he had, it would have saved his life. Your neck muscles just aren’t strong enough to withstand 13 Gs when you hit a wall and that’s what killed Dale. You’re never perfectly safe, but you’re never perfectly safe doing anything.
Q: You participated in 102 races last year. You must have had a few wrecks.
A: I’ve had a few. Sprint cars, when they tangle, very often flip. So I’ve gone over a number of times. I had a pretty bad wreck in Washington [state] last year. I flipped a few times and I backed into the wall. I tore a ligament and messed up my back pretty bad. One time last year, I broke a front axle on my [sprint] car at a big half-mile track and it just shot the car right in the wall probably going something like 140 mph.
A: I always watched the NASCAR races on Sundays. My dad was a big NASCAR fan. We also used to watch the sprint car midgets every Thursday on this two-hour show called Thursday Night Thunder. On that show, I watched Jeff Gordon win a lot of races. I watched Tony Stewart. I watched a lot of guys who are now in the Nextel Cup series.
Q: When did you realize that you wanted to make a career of being a race car driver?
A: It wasn’t until I was in college when I started racing in sprint cars that I realized that this is what I wanted and it could happen.Q: What was your first big break?
A: Going into my freshman year in college, a friend of the family from Connecticut owned a sprint car… and he gave me the opportunity to make some laps in his car. In the meantime, Dave Miller from Connecticut, who also was there and saw me, said ‘hey, if you want to run a few races next year we’d love to have you drive.’ It was how I first got my start. From there, I met the guy who I have driven for for the last three years, Mike Woodring. At the time, he was the eight-time champion of a fairly small series out of New York, but a very competitive series. He offered to run me in a second car, and that was a big break. 2002 was the first year that I drove for him. I ran every race as a teammate to Mike, and won five races that year. So, that was the beginning of the success and the beginning of the whirlwind.
Q: Much of your experience is racing on a dirt track in sprint cars. How different is it now racing on pavement in stock cars?
A: A stock car weighs 3,400 pounds, and a sprint car weighs 1,200 pounds. A sprint car probably has a little more horsepower as well. So, on the dirt, you’re really trying to control something that’s out of control. After a while, the dirt track gets dry and dusty, and you’re trying to find any moisture you can to get traction. When you’re on pavement, you can only push a car so far before the rubber on the tire is going to stick on the track. You don’t really want to slide your tires too much in a stock car because the tires can get too hot. So, you’re trying to get the same feel you’re looking for traction but it’s a totally different type of racing and a totally different type of car.
Q: Your mission statement says: “To utilize my engineering education and acquired skills to reach the highest levels of success as a professional race car driver.” How do you use your engineering degree in race car driving?
A: Every time we go to a track to practice, we use all sorts of data acquisition, which monitors everything I do throttle, break, steering. Every time I come off the track, I’m looking at this data to figure out where I can improve, where the car can improve. Just to understand how the car works and how a change to a spring can affect the car. I mean, it’s all physics and engineering. So, I think pretty much every time I go to the track, I’m utilizing my engineering degree.
Q: How did you balance college with car racing?
A: It was really difficult. In my junior and senior years, I raced a lot. Starting in January, I raced in Oklahoma. In January and February I raced in Florida. Even though it was the off-season, you still raced. But luckily, through my sponsorship with RPI, the university paid for my airfare and it definitely helped me get back and forth to class. But, it was hard. I’d go away for a weekend racing, and I’d come back and, you know, I’d have a report due or a project or some homework, and the last thing I wanted to do was to come home and sit down and try to figure it out. But I knew it was something I had to do.
Q: Now that Danica Patrick has placed 4th in the Indy 500, do you think more women will consider entering the sport?
A: I do think you will see an increase in women trying to make careers in auto racing since Danica’s success. Any young girl who had aspirations of becoming a race driver before will now see that it can happen and there are opportunities. I think Danica’s success has probably opened up parents’ eyes as well; they may now encourage their daughters to pursue racing where they might not have in the past. However, I don’t think you will see a huge jump in numbers for females in the higher levels of this sport, just because it is such a male-dominated sport. There are probably 100,000 young men trying to make it in race car driving, and probably 200 girls. So, in looking for the fastest drivers, the pickings are much better looking at the guys.
Q: You moved from your hometown in Massachusetts to Charlotte, N.C., last year to start your program with Evernham. How long do you plan to stay in North Carolina?
A: Hopefully for life if things continue to go well. Most of the NASCAR teams are based out of this area.
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