2011-06-23 / Sports
Racer is rising through the ranks
Last month Jessica, a leading contender in the 2011 United States Automobile Club (USAC) Ford Focus Midget season, topped the field in the qualifying lap around the quarter-mile oval at the Stockton 99 Speedway race.
“This season I’ve qualified top five every single time,” said the 17-year-old Westlake High School incoming senior who plans to be a professional driver in the National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing (NASCAR) Cup Series.
As a member of one of the top driver-development racing teams in the country, Jessica spends about 30 weekends in the cockpit of her car.
“She doesn’t have fear and she’ll do what is necessary to be fast,” said her dad, Rich Clark.
“The first time I tried to pass her going about 50 miles an hour in the straightaway, she held ahead of me and started pulling away. When we went into the first turn, my instinct was to let off the gas and pull on the brakes, but she kept going. It scared me, but from that moment on I knew there was something special about her driving that car,” he said.
In 2006, Jessica won fourth place in the Santa Maria Karting Association 80cc Comer Cadet category, and by 2007 she’d scored eight wins in the junior midget category at the Ventura Raceway.
The following year Jessica earned a spot in the Ron Sutton’s Winner’s Circle driver-development program. The Winner’s Circle program, which has 28 drivers racing in different series, identifies up-and-coming drivers from across the United States and Canada who have the potential and commitment to achieve a driving career in NASCAR.
Jessica prevailed against more than 750 hopefuls because she’s tough, smart and fast, Sutton said in a letter to sponsors.
Jeff Wennerstrand, former team manager for Ron Sutton’s Winner’s Circle, said Jessica is doing well in motor sports because she’s cautious but aggressive.
“She’s very smart and doesn’t make stupid mistakes and get in over her head,” Wennerstrand said.
In April Jessica scored her first career USAC Ford Focus Midget Series victory by winning the feature at the Las Vegas Bullring.
Although opponents stayed on her tail throughout the first 21 laps, Jessica was able to pull away from the pack during the last nine laps, expanding her lead little by little at every round.
“It was really intense,” Jessica said. “I felt very tired in the middle of that race, but I kept pushing. . . .
“It was probably the most focused I’ve been in my entire life. It was like nothing was around me, except for the track and my car.”
In addition to racing her open wheel USAC midget throughout the western U.S. this season, Jessica also began to compete in NASCAR’s full-body S2 stock car class at Toyota Speedway at Irwindale.
Jessica said the transition to full-body vehicles is invigorating.
“Every single race I learn new things. The depth perception is very different from midget cars, so you have to rely on your spotter to tell where the other cars are.”
Jessica estimated that only three girls compete in the Focus midget category throughout the U.S. She’s currently the only girl racing the Limited Late Model in the series at Toyota Speedway.
In an effort to fit in and put the boys at ease, the Westlake High student said she always introduces herself to contenders before the races.
“I’ve learned that making friends with them, you earn their respect on the track. Nobody really wants to be beat, especially by a girl. That’s why I go out there. I don’t want to them to have hard feelings against me,” she said.
Jessica is the only daughter of a firefighter and elementary school teacher. She has also played soccer and competed in freestyle swimming.
Jessica’s mom, Julie Clark, said that at first she was uneasy about her daughters’ racing endeavors.
“ But as I’ve seen Jessica progress, I realize that this is a career path she’s worthy of. So I’ve had to learn to let go and let her do what she’s capable of doing. I’m not concerned about her safety at all anymore,” Julie Clark said.
In between races and to stay at the top of her game, Jessica works out at the gym and practices on a computer, using an online training simulator that replicates the conditions on real race tracks.
Racing cars takes a great deal of preparation and physical training because it requires endurance, strategy and skills, Jessica said.
“You have to have complete focus because there are cars around you going between 80 and 110 miles an hour.”
Jessica said her biggest inspiration in motor sports is Trevor Bayne.
She’s thankful for the support of her parents and sponsors, such as Hot Rod Parts Guide, Total Woman Gym and Day Spa, and Justice Brothers.
Rich Clark said racing is one of the most expensive sports in the world.
“To have a stock car on the NASCAR track for a weekend, it costs about $1 million.”
Jessica, who hopes to compete on the NASCAR speedway in North Carolina, said it will take four more years before she’s ready to test for a team.