Revving their engines
Paradise women take top spots in national drag-racing championship
Last Sept. 11 Wendy Pine, an energetic, 58-year-old Paradise grandmother, pulled her souped-up, black 1964 Dodge Dart next to her opponent near the starting line at the Sacramento Raceway Dragstrip. Sweating with tension, she pushed the brake down with her left foot and slammed on the gas with her right. The car lifted up as the fat racing tires in back screeched and spewed thick white smoke, melting them slightly for better traction in the coming race.
She let off the accelerator and watched nervously as the starting light tree turned from yellow to green. Punching the gas, she flew down the quarter-mile drag strip, quickly hitting her controlled top speed of approximately 84 miles per hour, and won the race. It was her sixth race in a stellar season in which she became the first woman ever awarded the overall National Slant Six Drag-racing Championship. She competed against 70 other racers.
Earlier this month Pine finally received the trophy: 2 feet tall, topped by a large gold cup and engraved with the names of all winners since 1998. It made a flashy addition to the 3-foot trophy she’d received as the 2011 top point-getter of her drag-racing team, the Killer Bees.
To put the icing on the cake, her mentor, fellow driver and friend, 75-year-old grandmother PJ Jones Jesiolowski, was the first woman to win second place. Before this, the highest any woman had finished was 11th place. Pine said she is truly grateful for Jesiolowski’s mentorship.
“If it wasn’t for PJ, I wouldn’t be a racer,” she said.
Jesiolowski is a real-estate agent and country singer and songwriter who records as PJ Jones. The title of her 2010 CD, Chasin’ the Dream, says it all. She taught Pine well, considering Pine’s been racing only a year and a half. The races are called “slant six” because the cars all have the extremely reliable, six-cylinder tilted engines installed in Chrysler, Dodge and Plymouth cars during the 1960s and 1970s. Jesliolowski’s ride is a flashy red 1972 Dodge Demon.
“Lots of people don’t like my car because they think the name ‘Demon’ is un-Christian,” she said.
In an interview at Jesiolowski’s real-estate office, the women said they love the sport and want others to join, especially women.
“We want to encourage everyone to race, even teens, since it keeps them off the streets and off of drugs,” Pine said.
Both women say slant-six racing is a family sport that is very social and not just for men and their cars. Many families travel with their kids, have barbeques and camp overnight in tents at the race tracks, they explained.
The sport is accessible to novices like Pine because, like all drag racing, it employs something called “bracket racing,” which rewards consistency and control rather than unlimited speed and high-dollar engines. Racers must predict their race times, and whoever finishes closest to the guess without going over wins. Those who exceed their predictions are disqualified. Pine’s speeds are usually just below 85 miles per hour, whereas Jesiolowski’s are closer to 98. Contestants enter seven races from April to October, and points are counted from their four best performances.
“This year we had fun racing in places like Las Vegas, Eureka and Oregon,” Jesiolowski said. Pine and Jesiolowski both have retired husbands who serve as their crew chiefs and mechanics. Both race for pure pleasure, they said, as the monetary rewards are minimal. No money is awarded for the championship, and only nominal prizes of approximately $100 are given to individual race winners.
“I especially love the adrenaline during the lead-up and having my heart race 100 beats a minute,” Pine said.
Jesiolowski takes a calmer approach. “At my age I don’t get nervous,” she said. “I’m concentrating too hard, and I can’t take my mind or eyes off the starting lights.”
Though past winners have been exclusively male, neither woman has received anything but praise from others.
Last year was a milestone for Pine, a flower-design specialist who owns Wendy Pine Florals in Paradise. In addition to her racing championship, she climbed Mount Whitney, the highest mountain in the lower 48 states. She said it took a grueling three days to scale the nearly 15,000-foot-tall mountain.
Asked about their future, Pine beams proudly. “We both have grandchildren who think we’re awesome, and we both think we’ll come out on top again in 2012,” she said.