If you’ve never been to the world-famous Daytona International Speedway in Daytona Beach, Florida, you have to put it on your bucket list! The massive grandstands, the 31-degree bankings that look almost like a wall, and the smell of gasoline in the air speak to all the legendary races have taken place there over the past fifty-odd years.
Whether you ride the track or not, there’s overwhelming feeling of excitement as soon as you walk in. That’s the feeling I had when I went there in 2010 for my first professional motorcycle race, and I’ll never forget racing there the third weekend of March, 2012. In fact, that 2012 AMA Pro SuperSport race is my favorite race weekend of all time. I expected to do well, but no one was more surprised than I was when I crossed the finish line first, becoming the only woman ever to win any professional motorsports event at Daytona.
It was a thrilling victory, involving a last-ditch strategy decision on the final lap, the fickle finger of those 31-degree bankings, and a whole lot of preparation leading up to that one perfect moment. And yet it almost never happened. Here’s the story.
Practicing on the podium
Daytona isn’t a place you get to race very often. Up until 2015, Daytona hosted only three motorcycle roadracing events a year–The CCS (Championship Cup Series) Amateur Races the first weekend in March, followed by the AMA (American Motorcycle Association) Pro season opener the next weekend, and a second CCS amateur event in October.
In 2011, I got the opportunity to ride in the October CCS event. I was racing in the AMA at the time, and this was a chance to race against some of the top guys in the AMA class above me. As an amateur event, it was a little more low-key, which allowed me to work on the setup of my bike and test it for the following season, as well as really develop a feeling for this unique track.
Those 31-degree bankings make for some serious speed. At any other track, 150 mph is a fast clip. At Daytona, if you get into a draft with three or four other riders, you can get up into the mid 180s. The tried and true strategy here is to work the draft, and pop out at the latest possible moment to overtake the leader and cross the finish line first.
As you can imagine, executing that strategy requires split second timing and impeccable control. The banking leading up to the finish line in particular allows for an incredible amount of drafting. Even with as many as ten riders approaching the start/finish line in a group, the lead can go back and forth several times. Until the checkers are crossed, the winner is almost impossible to predict. Some races are so close that you have to watch the slow-motion video to see whose wheel touched the stripe first. It’s very exciting racing, and it’s part of the reason Daytona enjoys such prestige.
It’s also the reason that nothing can prepare you for Daytona except Daytona. But I was starting to get the hang of it. At the CCS event, in one of my races against the really fast guys, I placed second behind the late Dane Westby, and got to stand on the podium in the middle of the speedway. That feeling was so cool, especially knowing who else had stood up there in years past. This really set the tone going into the offseason, and I was optimistic about my chances in the AMA season opener in 2012.
An unlucky break
Before the 2012 season, the team I was racing for, Team Hammer, rented a track called Jennings GP. It’s in a little tiny town in northern Florida between Jacksonville and Tallahassee, right on the Georgia border. In late February, I flew out to the test with my dad and spent a couple days getting back up to speed and getting familiar with the crew I was set to work with for the season. Eric Gray would be my crew chief. Phillip Doyle would return as my mechanic. Everything went well–except for one little thing.
While entering a really fast switch-back off the back straightaway, I pushed hard with my left arm to steer the bike. Out of nowhere, I got this shooting pain straight up my arm, originating from my wrist. It didn’t last but a second, but it was so sharp I had a feeling something was very wrong. I pulled off the track and explained what had happened, and my team told me to rest for a bit. When I went back out, I found that I had barely enough strength in my arm to even ride my bike. At that point, I called it a day thinking I may have just strained something.
I flew home to California the next day and took some time to rest to make sure I was healthy for the season opener in a couple weeks’ time. While lying in bed one evening, I put my left hand on my pillow to push myself up and all of a sudden I got the same excruciating pain in my wrist–only this time it didn’t go away.
A shot in the arm
The next day I went to a highly-recommended orthopedic doctor named Maury Harwood. After a quick set of x-rays, he diagnosed me with a broken scaphoid, one of eight bones that make up the carpal bones in the wrist. I was devastated.
I had never heard of the scaphoid, and now this tiny bone was threatening my racing season. Dr. Harwood informed me that although it’s an easy bone to fracture since typically your hand is where you hit first trying to break a fall, it’s also one of the slowest to heal because a lack of blood flow to the area.
In order to fix it, I would need to have the bone screwed back together. I didn’t have time for that. I had a season opener to go to! Dr. Harwood gave me the option to get a cortisone shot to get me through the race weekend. I opted for that and hoped for the best. Two weeks later I was on a plane to Daytona, feeling very little pain.
This would be my third season with AMA, and I’d be riding my Team Hammer Suzuki GSX-R 600. With over 40 entries in the SuperSport class, I knew I was going to have some tough competition, including James Rispoli, the previous year’s champion, and several other great competitors I’d raced with for the previous two seasons.
The weekend would consist of two ten-lap races, one on Friday afternoon and one on Saturday morning. It was going to be short, but full of excitement.
A different feeling
This race weekend had a different feel about it from the beginning. Things were clicking with my crew. I had been training hard and I felt like I was able to do exactly what I wanted with my bike. I was immediately comfortable with my bike and the track, which was a new feeling. It was almost as if six months hadn’t gone by. I was calm, cool and relaxed.
Thursday’s practice session went well, but I got an unlucky break in first qualifying. A few minutes from the end, I was on a flying lap when the red flag came out as I crossed the start/finish line. The lap I had put me in 5th position, but since the flag came out before I passed the line, they didn’t count it and I ended up further back for provisional qualifying.
They deemed the session complete since we were so close to the end, so I would only have one more shot the next morning.
I’ve always been a great starter, but you’ve got to have a good starting position, especially with such a large field. I was incredibly frustrated to have turned in such a good lap and not gotten the position. Yes, I had another chance in the morning, but the track surface is never great in the morning, so the chances of going faster weren’t very high. I admit I was rattled. Could I do it again tomorrow? It felt like the odds were stacked against me.
I spent the evening with my crew, downloading my frustrations and going over my splits and comparing them against my competitors, looking for adjustments to my bike that could help in certain parts of the course, without hurting me on others. I turned in early to get a good night’s sleep in preparation for the next day.
Smooth and perfectly timed
As expected, Friday morning the track was coated with a light dew, but I was determined to put in a faster lap than the day before. I put my head down, and ended up fastest in the session on my final lap, which put me third overall going into the first race that afternoon. It didn’t feel like an extraordinary lap, just one that was smooth, and perfectly timed. Seeing my race number–21–at the top of that pole from the banking restored my confidence. At this point, I had almost forgotten I had a broken bone. Maybe it was all the adrenaline kicking in.
A few hours later, I was lined up for my first race of the season from the front row. I got a great start and battled for the podium with several others all race long, with many great passes back and forth.
Going into the last few laps, everyone started playing a little cat-and-mouse. Nobody wants to lead coming out of the last turn, because you’re pushing your own wind while everyone drafts behind you. It’s very hard to break away far enough that no one can catch you, especially on this course. Even if you’re faster in the infield, the banking brings everyone back together. So, you’ve got to get yourself in position and wait for an opportunity to pass the leader. That’s what we were all trying to do.
On the last lap, I was sitting about mid-pack coming out of the final corner. It was a good position, but I made a mistake on timing. I pulled out of the draft too early to try to pass a couple riders at the finish. I couldn’t make it happen and ended up crossing the line in fifth. Not a bad result for the first race of the season, but certainly not the big “W” I was looking for.
I went to sleep early that night to be ready for the final battle the next day. I felt good about my starting position, and as I said I had always been a good starter. But I hadn’t been as consistently good at following it through aggressively. Either I wasn’t aggressive enough and I got passed, or I was too aggressive and I crashed.
The key to tomorrow’s race would be to start well and follow through aggressively to stay in the lead group throughout the race. If you fall behind, it gets harder to catch up with every lap. I would have to get a little ahead going into the corners, and not be afraid to get close to people and show them my front wheel
The race for the podium
I woke up Saturday morning, March 15th feeling strangely calm, and eager to get back on the track. This would be the last race of the weekend, the race for the podium. The warm-up session went smoothly, and I felt ready to go for the race to follow.
For the second time that weekend, I lined up in the third position on the front row. I got a killer start off the line and all was going according to plan. I was in the top three as we exited turn one. But before we even made it halfway through the first lap, the red flag came out, indicating there was a crash. The race stopped and I returned to the pit lane to wait for the track to be cleared. Once all the debris had been picked up, we took a warm-up lap and gridded up in our original positions for the restart.
I got another flying start, and protected my line, braking as little as possible to prevent anyone from showing me their front wheel, keeping myself in the lead group hitting the bank. This time I was in second coming out of the first corner. After a few laps, the packs of riders separated and I was able to break away from the rest of the field with three other riders, James Rispoli, Corey Alexander and Hayden Gillam.
We all went back and forth, trying to size each other up, and see where each other’s strengths and weaknesses were. Who’s getting off the corner fastest? Where can you gain a few seconds on them and make a pass? We were all so close so it was clear it was going to be a four-rider draft to the finish line.
Coming into that last lap, I came out of the second-to-last set of corners in second. Rispoli was in the lead, but suddenly he slowed up, so I passed him, hoping someone else would then pass me. Nobody did, and here I was leading out of the final chicane. I was completely unprepared for that. I remember thinking, “Oh sh*t, now what?”
Not according to plan
At this point I remembered some advice one of my prior crew chiefs had given me: Don’t grab all your gears while going through the banking. Let the other guys go by, and then immediately get back in that draft and try to pass them right before the checkered flag. Plan!
I headed towards the top of the final banking, praying that this would work. About half way around, while in the 4th of 6 gears, I saw Alexander and Gillam at the bottom of the banking. They were not following my plan. They were holding off and not going by. Rispoli was nowhere to be seen.
I grabbed my last two gears and hoped for the best as I came down off the banking headed for the finish line. I was still out in front three-quarters of the way there, but I knew they still had time to come by me. This was Daytona. There was no way I would cross the line first. Until all of a sudden I did. I won!
I couldn’t believe it! All I could do on the lap back into the pits was cry, do wheelies, and then cry some more. This was my first professional race where I crossed the checkered flag with the win, and at Daytona no less!
When I came into the winner’s circle, I was surrounded by so many people with tear-filled eyes. I made history at the historic speedway! There was no better feeling in the world than that moment right there. As I waved to the crowd and held up my trophy, my wrist felt absolutely fine.
After the awards ceremony, champagne spraying and press conference, I found out the rest of the story. It turned out that Rispoli had an issue with his bike on the last lap. Alexander and Gillam had both tried to get into my draft on the final stretch, but neither of them got completely in. They couldn’t get by me, and ended up 2nd and 3rd respectively.
Obviously there’s an element of luck to every race, and sometimes it breaks your way and sometimes not. But there’s far more to it than that.
This win was a culmination of all the hard work and preparation I had put in for over a decade, and the preparation I did specifically for Daytona. As a young racer in my early teens, I had always dreamed of winning, and at Daytona. It’s such an iconic place–the kind of place that racing dreams are made of.
That weekend in March of 2012, everything came together–my team, my bike, Daytona and seeing the checkers cross for me in the stunning, joyful, historic finish to my favorite race weekend of all time