Going faster and faster
Thirteen-year-old Shahalie Peters sits at the wheel of her half-scale dragster.
About 30,000 cheering spectators zero in on her upcoming race. This last contest will determine who will be the Northwest Division's Junior Thunder Champion.
But she's blocking it all out. She has to focus on her mental checklist.
First, a glance at the one-eighth mile of track before her. Next, a look at the starting lights — the Christmas tree, as it's called in the drag racing world.
The lights will count down in sequence — yellow, yellow…
"You want to go on the third yellow with our cars," she recalls.
Yellow — she hits the gas and the engine roars.
It only takes her 8.9 seconds to cover the short stretch of track, her dragster approaching nearly 85 miles per hour. Yet in the midst of the race, time mysteriously slows.
"It seems like a long time to get down there," Peters remarks, "and it's really not."During those precious seconds, her attention is meticulously divided. Where is her opponent? Will she reach the finish line too late and face defeat? Or too soon? – because in this type of racing, that can happen and it's an automatic loss.
Finally, after a few impossibly long ticks of the clock, she flashes past the finish line.
She looks up at the results board, waiting to see if she crossed first.
Joining the racing ranks
Peters possesses a need for speed that was evident at a very early age. The Crook County Middle Schooler and Powell Butte resident remembers watching her stepdad, Billy Ledford, drag race and she was immediately captivated.
"I was like, 'That's so cool!'" she remembers.
But it wasn't just the adults racing down the dragstrip at the Madras Speedway. Kids were getting in on the action.
"I always saw the juniors and I was like, 'I really want to do that!'" she said.
She finally got her chance when the daughter of a family friend decided to sell her dragster.
"I was super excited," Peters said.
Not yet 10 year old, Peters entered the world of drag racing. She would race her new car for the next two years while learning the ropes.
"I did pretty well in it," she said. "I won quite a few races."
But it didn't fully satisfy her quest for speed. At her young age, at this level of competition, the rules dictated she not complete the race in less than 11 seconds. Approaching a speed of 65 miles per hour wasn't thrilling enough.
"I'm a daredevil," Peters said. "I want to go faster and faster."
The natural course of aging would eventually make this a possibility, but something else would need to change. Her car wasn't quite what she wanted or needed. It broke down frequently. So when another family friend, with another daughter drag racer, was selling her car, Peters upgraded.
"When I got in it, I knew that it was my car. I was gonna win with it," she said.
The young lady who sold her the car wanted to keep the body, so her parents bought her a new one ?— a black body in search of a wrap that would add some color and show off her sense of style.
Online she designed and ordered what would cover her dragster, a predominantly purple design featuring long, orange, hot rod-style flames, and an assortment of different colored skulls and crossbones.
"I was like, 'Man, I like this one,'" she remembers. Her mom, Rhonda Ledford, wasn't so sure.
"She did not like it," Peters says, glancing at her mom with a coy grin. "She does not like it."
More to it than speed
Peters competes in what is known as bracket racing. Billy Ledford explains that the competition is structured in such a way that reaction time and driver skill matter far more than vehicle speed. Cars capable of covering an eighth-mile in 10 seconds can compete against ones that can finish in eight seconds.
Each competitor dials in a number before the start of the race, a time that they intend to finish the race. For instance, the person with the 10-second car might dial in a 10.00 while the person with the eight-second car might opt for an 8.00.
"The car that runs 10 seconds leaves two seconds ahead. What they do is they stagger your times on the tree," Ledford said. "So, in a perfect world, if the driver cuts a perfect light, the car runs right on its number…If both drivers did that, those cars would cross the finish line at exactly the same time."
Cutting a light, or hitting the gas as soon as the correct light on the tree flashes on, is all about anticipation and reaction time. Ledford says it is probably 90% of winning a race.
"It is very important that the driver concentrates and does their job," he said.
The other crucial component to winning is running on the dialed-in number. Ledford points out that if a driver has dialed in a 7.90 and they cross the finish line in a 7.89, they automatically lose.
"It's called a breakout," he remarked.
But, if you err on the slow side, it opens up the possibility of losing to your opponent. So, about halfway down the strip, a driver has to starting worrying about the finish line.
"Let's say you are going down the track and you are way ahead, you hit the brakes or let off so you don't run a higher number and breakout," he said.
Peters knows this finish line process well, and has a keen awareness of the challenges driving the faster car or the slower car present.
"The biggest problem is when you run slower, it is harder to pedal and let off against faster cars because it has to be right at the finish line and even sometimes then, they will still pass you," she said. "Because you are getting the head start, you don't know where they are. When you are catching someone, you know exactly where they are. You know if you are going to catch them or not."
Inside her mind runs a dialogue: "OK, I'm right at the finish line. I'm gonna let off a little bit and then get back on it to make sure that I don't breakout but I get there before them."
But there is one type of car that is the hardest to race of them all, and Peters was acquainted with that fact when she opened competition at the 2019 National Hot Rod Association Division 6 E.T. Finals.
Everybody who races at a local track in their division accrues points throughout the racing season, which spans from April to August. Once the season concludes, the top six point-earners in each class from each local track go to the Division 6 Finals.
The division includes tracks in Oregon as well as southern British Columbia and Alberta, Washington, Idaho, Montana, Wyoming and parts of Utah, Ledford said.
This year, the Division 6 Finals took place at Pacific Raceways in Kent, Washington, near Seattle, drawing thousands and thousands of the best from the 2019 season — and Peters was one of the qualifiers in the mix. Over the course of the Aug. 30-Sept. 2 event, she would try to win and advance. But after drawing her first opponent, she was concerned she might not make it past Round 1.
"There are particular juniors who have electric cars with electric motors," she says. "They don't make sound, so they are almost impossible to beat. Somehow, I managed to draw them both."
She raced against her first electric car in the opening round. To her surprise, she came out on top. She faced the second electric car in the semi-finals. Again, she came out on top.
Her continued run of victories finally landed her in the finals. Win one last race and she would win her class for the entire multi-state division.
The big race
Peters returned to her mental checklist.
First, a glance at the one-eighth mile of track before her. Next, a look at the tree, where the lights will count down in sequence — yellow, yellow…
"You want to go on the third yellow with our cars," she remembers.
Yellow — she hits the gas and the engine roars.
In a span of less than nine seconds, her three years of experience come into play, particularly how to finish as close to her dialed-in 8.90-second time as possible while crossing the finish line first.
The two cars zoom past the finish. Peters quickly diverts her attention to a results board off in the distance.
"There are big boards and the boards are way past the eighth-mile," she said, "so when we juniors pass, we know who wins."
After a few more ticks of the clock, the results finally appear. She had won!
"I started crying and I started screaming," she said. "This was the first time I had been to the finals in my three years of racing. I was so happy."
As an icing on the cake, her dragster was voted Best Appearing Car, further validating her custom-designed wrap choice.
Peters was one of the few drivers at the event to walk away with a coveted Wally, a trophy that recognizes National Hot Rod Association founder Wally Parks.
"You can only get these trophies at an NHRA divisional race. Very, very few people get them," Ledford boasts.
Preparing for a new and faster season
A divisional title under her belt, Peters is gearing up for next season. Thanks to another birthday, she will be able to run 7.90s in 2020, so she and Ledford will spend the off-season removing enough weight to make the car drive one second faster. Finally, she will be racing at the top speed that the NHRA allows juniors to drive their half-scale dragsters.
Peters can hardly wait.
"I have not gone fast enough," she said.
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