Hand-me-downs are a staple of most sibling relationships. When an older child outgrows anything, a younger child often receives it.
Families the world over do it with clothes and toys.
The Mike and Angela Stewart family of Washington does it with junior dragsters.
When older brother Sam, now 14, outgrew the car he had been racing in since he was 9, his younger sister Sarah, whose nickname is “Goose,” eagerly jumped behind the wheel.
That was three years ago, when Sarah was 8. Now 11 and a fifth-grader at Washington West Elementary, she has advanced to her older brother’s second car, a blue 2015 JR Race Car Hercules Chassis with a Pure Power Pro-Stock Engine.
And she’s burning up the one-eighth of a mile race track with it.
The junior drag racing season just started earlier this month, and Sarah is already the points leader because she did so well in opening weekend races at Gateway Motorsports Park in Madison, Ill.
“I won the Junior Thunder Class, and then they have a runoff against the winner of the older class, and I won that too,” she said, with a smile. “Then on Sunday, I got runner-up in my class.”
Sarah’s skill in drag racing comes naturally. She’s had a front row seat watching her dad and older brother compete and work on their cars, patiently waiting until her parents would let her get started.
“It’s in her blood,” her mom remarked.
Sarah and her brother, Sam, are third-generation drag racers. Their father and grandfather both raced, although they were not quite as successful.
“My dad and I always joke that it took three generations to figure it out because they’re so much better at it than we were,” said Mike.
Sam already has made a name for himself in the junior circuit, winning many races and trophies, and Sarah seems to be following in his footsteps.
At the end of her first season, although she didn’t win a lot of races, she was named Rookie of the Year in the Midwest Junior Super Series (MJSS), an award voted on by the other racers of all ages. Since then, her racing resume has grown.
At Gateway Motorsports recent banquet of champions, Sarah was named the 2018 Junior Dragster Driver of the Year, an award voted on by other racers to recognize the driver who performed best at Gateway and at other tracks. Other awards in 2018 include:
Sarah ended the 2018 season second in points in the Midwest Junior Super Series for the 10-12 age group, which runs at tracks around the Midwest. She finished in the top five overall with an 8.90 index.
She was third in the Junior Thunder Class at Gateway last season, and she reached the final race in seven consecutive events over five weekends, winning five of the titles.
She also won the Gateway Fall Bracket Battle, beating a 17-year-old boy in the final round.
That was a proud moment for her.
“I have to admit, I do kind of like beating the boys,” Sarah remarked.
But her favorite part of drag racing is probably doing a burnout — when a driver spins the tires to clean them off and get them ready for the race before pulling up to the starting line.
“She gets a big grin on her face,” Angela said, with a laugh.
Grew Up at the Track
Sarah was 6 years old when Sam started competing in junior drag racing and the family began spending most of their weekends between April and November at race tracks around the Midwest. But even before that the family had been regulars at race tracks, where Mike would compete with his 1964 Ford Fairlane.
“I grew up at the track, really,” said Sarah, recalling how the family was at one of Modern Auto’s Car Cruises when she was a toddler and she pointed to a Ford Mustang and said, “Mut-tang! Mut-tang!”
It’s still one her favorite types of cars, said Sarah.
Through drag racing, Sarah has learned a lot about cars and repairs, and she works on her own car as much as she can.
“When we are at the track, after we get back to the trailer after a pass, I normally go and grab the weather station to take an air sample, and then I start prepping my tires,” she said. “I get all the rocks and dirt off of them. Then I clean the tires.”
Sarah also helps with changing her car’s oil after every race and knows the other jobs that need to be done to keep her car running its best, even if she can’t physically do the work herself just yet because she’s not strong enough or doesn’t have large enough hands.
Learning to Race
When Sarah was first learning to race, her dad took her to the parking lot at his work, Melton Machine.
“They adjusted the throttle, so I only had half-throttle,” said Sarah. “So I would hit the gas for a few feet, then let off, and we did that a couple of times.
“I was definitely scared at first,” she said.
Her mom was too.
Sarah started out competing in the 11.90 index, meaning the fastest she was allowed to drive the 1/8-mile track was 11.90 seconds. That’s around 55 miles per hour, Angela noted.
When Sarah turned 10, she was bumped up to the 8.90 class, meaning she couldn’t drive the track any faster than 8.90 seconds, which is around 72 to 74 miles per hour.
For each race, there are only two cars on the track racing against each other, and they are only driving in a straight line, which makes it easier, but they are going very fast.
One of Angela and Mike’s big concerns was making sure Sarah knew how to exit the track safely.
“That’s where you see a lot of problems,” said Angela. “A lot of times it’s because they haven’t practiced turning the car, and they are going too fast getting off the track.
“We told her it’s just like if you were flying down the street on your bike and turned really quickly, what’s going to happen? It’s the same with the car.”
“So we tell them to almost come to a stop and idle off the track,” Mike noted.
Sarah has learned a lot of other good drag racing tips from her brother.
“He’s a pretty good role model,” she said. “I do look up to him . . . he encourages me a lot.
“One of his phrases is, ‘You can go from hero to zero very quickly in drag racing,’ so keep your head level and don’t get cocky,” said Sarah.
He’s also imparted lessons on the importance of good sportsmanship to her and how, win or lose, it’s important to shake the other driver’s hand at the end of a race.
“When I first started, I was unsure. Then Sam, Dad and Mom showed me how to play the finish line, to not go too fast because I could be disqualified.”
Reaction Time Wins the Race
In drag racing, the Stewarts explained that winning isn’t so much about how fast a car goes as it is about the driver’s reaction time off the starting line, where a series of lights indicate when a driver is allowed to take off, combined with how fast they get to the finish line.
Leave too early, and you can be disqualified, or go too fast for your bracket or “dial in” time (8.90 seconds is the fastest Sarah is allowed to go right now), and you will “break out” and lose the race.
“At the starting line, when they see that last yellow, that’s when they let off the brake and floor it. A perfect reaction time is .000,” said Angela.
“The trick is to get to the finish line as close as you can to your ‘dial in’ time without going too fast, or breaking out.”
When Sarah “plays the finish line,” it’s because she had a better reaction time than her competitor, so she’s already got a jump. She can slow down a little, to make sure she still beats the other driver, but doesn’t go too fast and get disqualified.
When an older racer competes against a younger racer who has a slower “dial in” time, the slower car will get a handicapped start so that, in theory, both cars will hit the finish line at the same exact time.
If one car is “dialed in” at 7.90 seconds and the other is dialed to 8.90 seconds, the lights on the slower car’s side will come down one second faster than the faster car’s side, allowing the slower car to leave one second before the other, thus making the race fair.
Adding to the challenge of getting a good start is that race days are long. Earlier this month, there were 14 hours between Sarah’s first pass to her last, Angela noted. So for Sarah to stay mentally ready for each race requires focus.
That’s definitely one of her skills, her parents said.
“When she flips her visor down, she gets in a zone,” Mike remarks.
“And we know to stay away,” Angela added, with a laugh.
All kidding aside, the Stewarts said they are proud of both Sarah and Sam for their accomplishments on the track.
“It’s not as easy as it looks to do what they do,” said Angela. “As fast as these kids react and then keep their head in the game, the whole day, sitting there, and they both, once they are strapped in, they tune everything out and they have insane concentration.
“To do what they do, round after round after round, takes a lot. They are in firesuits in the heat of the summer on asphalt, and these kids are sweating it out, but they still can do it.”
Not Just for Boys
Although junior drag racing used to be a boy-dominated sport, there are just as many girls competing today as boys.
Many, like Sarah, are sisters who have followed their brothers into the sport, but others may have been inspired by women like Erica Enders, a professional drag racer who actually had her start in junior dragsters.
Enders started when she was 8 and moved up the ranks to professional, said Mike. She is the first female to win a professional pro-stock championship, and she did it twice.
Sarah looks up to Enders and dreams of being able to make it to the professional level someday. But for now, she’s looking ahead to turning 13 and moving up to the Lightning class of 7.90 seconds.
“I’m excited for that,” she said. “I like 8.90, but I’m excited.”
Stewart Racing is sponsored by Flying A Motorsports in Cuba, Mo., and Dave Lause with Shelter Insurance.