For a long time, no name was displayed on the sides like there are on other machines. It goes to the line, and the starting lights click down in rapid succession to the most important one of all.
Just like that, tires light up and dragsters hurtle down the quarter-mile strip. The one in all black wins, and Nikki Bennett gets to add another trophy to her collection.
“You wouldn’t think it would be a girl’s car,” said Bennett, a sophomore back/midfielder on West Chester’s final four field hockey squad. “Guys would just think -- you can’t see me in the car -- that I’m a guy.”
It’s at this point when she laughs at the memories.
“When they would come up after I would beat them, I would take off my helmet. I’ve got the long hair, their face is kind of in surprise,” she continued. “I really haven’t had any run-ins exactly, where I’ve been discriminated against or anything like that. But it’s definitely the best feeling when you win against a guy in this sport. Cars were a guys’ thing but not any more.”
Racing, as they say, is in her blood. Kerm Shindledecker, her maternal grandfather, was a racer before Bennett’s mom was born and he’s been in and around the sport ever since. It wasn’t long before Bennett got the bug herself, running her first race when she was just eight years old.
South Mountain Dragway in Carlisle, Pennsylvania is her home track, and she’s also competed at Mason Dixon Raceway in Boonsboro, Maryland. This season was her last in junior dragsters, and she plans to move up to a bigger and more powerful car at Mason Dixon in 2015.
To this day, Shindledecker races a sweet 1955 Oldsmobile that he built. At some point, the ultimate goal is for his granddaughter to take it over and race it. She graduated from Gettysburg High School, and her paternal grandfather, Gerald R. Bennett, is a historian of the hallowed Civil War battlefield.She’s apparently the independent sort, and that’s what first attracted her to drag racing.
“I like that it gives kids at an early age an opportunity to be a part of something that usually you wouldn’t be a part of,” she began. “When you start out at eight years old and you’re going 40 miles an hour down a track, it’s only you.
“At that age, you have your parents around you at all times. They’re watching what you eat, they’re watching this, they’re watching that. But [while racing], it’s just you and the track and the car. It’s all up to you. It’s your own responsibility. That’s what I loved about it.”
Her West Chester teammates sometimes aren’t exactly sure what to make of Bennett’s racing, at least not until she describes what it’s like to go ripping down a race track from zero to 90 mph in no time flat.
Then, it’s kind of cool.
“It’s awesome, it’s different, it’s surprising, especially because I am a girl,” Bennett explained. “It’s different to say, ‘I’m a drag racer.’ I work on my own car. I know what an engine is. I know the parts and pieces. [Teammates] just think it’s weird, but it’s awesome.”
She adds one more description.
“It’s bad ass,” she concludes, and then laughs again.
Asked about her driving style on public roads, she sounds as if she isn’t quite sure how much she should actually admit.
“I would say that I’m a speed demon,” she said, hesitating just a little bit. Then, she passes the buck. “Like I said before, it kind of runs in my blood. I’m kind of the girl who’s pedal to the metal. But people do know me, and if they’re going to give their car to someone, it’ll be me because I know how to drive. But yeah, I would definitely say I like to get places as fast as possible.”
It’s not hard to imagine Bennett picking up a West Chester teammate or two. They’re late for class, and Bennett lays tracks out of the parking lot.
A drag racer, she’s in good shape if it’s a straight shot to campus. If there any turns, left or right…