If Stephanie Mockler ducks low on the Toledo Speedway track, then squeezes past a couple of her male competitors tomorrow night, don't read too much into it.
This isn't some speeding suffragette carrying the banner for her gender. This isn't her mobile rendition of "I am woman, hear me roar."
"I just like the competitive part of racing, and the adrenaline rush you get from the speed and the split-second decisions," said Mockler, who will run with the boys in one of tomorrow night's United States Automobile Club (USAC) National Series races at the Benore Road asphalt oval.
"I'm just out there trying everything I can to beat the other cars. Once the flag drops, none of that boy or girl stuff matters - it is all about racing."
Mockler, just a month removed from her high school graduation, is taking advantage of Ford Racing's Women's Driver Development Program. She thinks the association with a top manufacturer puts her in the best position to be successful since she started racing at age 6.
"The biggest difference between this year and the previous years is that with Ford, the equipment is the best - top dollar - and that is a big difference," she said. "The additional publicity you get from being associated with a major sponsor is nice, too, but mainly it is the equipment that gives me the best chance to learn as much as I can, and to be competitive."
Mockler, a native of Indiana, got her start from her racing father, who ran in the American Sprint Car Series and in the Silver Crown Series. She has worked her way up through the ranks into the USAC Midgets. This season she has won twice in the regional ranks and finished third at the USAC event at O'Reilly Raceway Park in Indianapolis, held the same weekend as the Indy 500.
"She has progressed really, really well," said Bob East, Mockler's coach and crew chief. "She ran third in one of the biggest races of the year after starting toward the back. She is showing she is able to run in the front with the best Midget Car drivers in the country, so I think that is saying a lot."
"I feel like I've learned a bunch, but there is still so much more to learn," Mockler said. "Every track presents different challenges, and each one has its own distinct feel. You can never get too much information, and it all helps contribute to your chances for success."
Mockler, who has raced primarily in the Midwest thus far, tested at Toledo Speedway last week and said she thinks she can compete for a win in the 30-lap USAC event.
"You see very strong fields in these national races, but I'm convinced that one of the keys to success is to stay in the car, stay in the seat, and keep driving week-to-week," she said. "I'll put in the time and do whatever it takes."
Breaking into the male-dominated sport of racing can be a harrowing experience, but Mockler said she understands the ground rules and can work within them.
"There are very few girls out here trying to make a go of it in racing, but the challenge isn't only gaining the respect of your competitors, but keeping it," she said.
"If a guy does bad in one race, then people tend to say he just had an off-day. But if a woman has a bad race, the reaction is different. I feel like I'm starting to earn the respect of my competitors, and they've been fair in their treatment of me. When I strap in the car, we're all just the same."
Mockler said she has no doubt been helped by the female race car drivers who have come before her, but racing skill has to ultimately carry her up the ladder in the sport.
"That theme of a girl against mostly guys is always out there, but you have to stand on your own abilities sooner or later," she said. "I want to make it to the Nextel Cup Series eventually, and the only thing that will get me there is being a great driver."
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