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Meet Karen Heyse: TEP trainer by day, racecar driver by night

Standing in a picturesque Vail neighborhood as the sun begins to set, I witness two awesome sights.

The sky above is streaked with beautiful hues as a metallic-blue 1986 Ford Mustang sits sparkling in the fading sunlight. Karen Heyse starts its engine.

Heyse is a wife, mother, employee and racecar driver.

Her 13-year-old daughter, Melissa, stands by the car with her 11-year-old friend Mariah. Both girls smile broadly as the engine rumbles. Their faces radiate excitement.

There are no gender restrictions here--just women and a racecar.

Women and car racing are practically an oxymoron, especially in NASCAR. While Danica Patrick has gained fame in the IndyCar Series, few women have graced the tracks in NASCAR's 60 years.

This isn't the case with local stock-car racing.

Heyse started racing last year, putting a longtime desire into action. While watching a race at Tucson Raceway Park, she voiced her dream aloud.

"I've been wanting to race for more than 20 years. ... We were watching the races, and I said to my husband, 'I really want to do this.' He said, 'Do what?' 'I want to race.' He said, 'If that's what you really want to do, I'll support you. Just find the car.' We found the car in two weeks; we were on the track in three. ... We've had blood, sweat and tears working out here on the car ourselves and building it into what it is today."

The Heyse's hard work paid off: In her first season, Heyse came in fourth in the sport-compacts class; she won her last two races and was named Rookie of the Year. Her husband, Paul, won Mechanic of the Year.

Beyond the honors, what's most impressive about Heyse is her spirit: Her inexperience on the racetrack didn't matter. She went after her dream at full throttle.

"I had never been in a racecar before. I purchased it, got my racing equipment, went out there for one night of practice and was racing the next night." In a matter of weeks, the Tucson Electric Power training and development supervisor had become a racecar driver.

Heyse speaks the part of driver as she tells me about her initial troubles at Turn 4 of the 3/8-mile asphalt track at Tucson Raceway Park. She recounts how she used to approach the turn too fast and would spin out. Eventually, she mastered it.

Heyse also speaks the part of a mechanic as she describes an overheating problem: A newly installed fan needed a shroud so the radiator would stay cool and wouldn't overheat the car.

All of this is explained to me without condescension. Ah, if only more women were mechanics.

Fortunately, there isn't an absence of women at TRP. According to general manager Dan Ruth, there are 10 registered female drivers out of 67. Sure, it's not a huge percentage, but consider the number of women drivers in the 2008 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series--zero out of 41.

"It's pretty much a male-dominated sport," Ruth says. "It's cool that we have quite a cross-section of female drivers, from the youngest of 13 to the oldest ...who I believe is Karen." (Heyse is 41.)

"I've worked with young girls, getting them through the initial stages of racing. ... We don't make any concessions here. They have different restrooms, and that's it. We don't treat them any differently."

While Ruth admits that the rough economic times have hit TRP hard--they had to reschedule their Hot Summer Nights opener twice; it's now slated for Sept. 13--he is hopeful the track will succeed. He says Heyse is their poster child.

"She is ... articulate and attractive--with the will to succeed and a great driving talent. ... She is the whole real deal."

As Heyse looks forward to her next race, she stops to reflect on her dream and its potential effect on young women.

"After the races are over at night, they allow spectators to come into the pits. ... I have so many little girls ask me the same questions: 'How did you start racing? Why do you want to do it?' I explain to them if you want to do something, you put your mind to it. You can do anything you want. You just need to stay focused."

Heyse gives the same advice to her daughter, who says she wants to race one day. With any luck, we'll see Melissa Heyse and other young women herald in a new generation--where stock-car races have a large number of female fans and drivers.

More by Irene Messina

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