It is an early-winter morning at the modest shop that turns out the Rocket sprint car chassis in Snohomish, Washington, about a half-hour north of Seattle. Two cars are being finished up on platform jigs. Enough tubes to build 10 more are cut and piled neatly below the twin tables.
"I don't know how we'll get it all done," says Shawna Wilskey, who with Ben Curtis are the only two employees of the fabrication shop. "We have orders for seven cars already."
Wilskey squeezes her trim, muscular body around the steel tubes that make up another chassis in for repair, and begins attacking the bent car with a cutoff tool. Suddenly, she is lost in a shower of fireworks coming off the spinning blade.
On or off the racetrack, Wilskey makes sparks fly. She is the most successful woman driver in sprint cars and one of the top women racers of all time. But that's not what she wants to be.
"I know that who I am and what I am draws a lot of attention," Wilskey says. "I got into this because I wanted to be known as a good racer . . . one who just happens to be a woman."
Driven To SucceedWilskey, of Everett, Washington, is a three-time champion in the Northern Sprint Tour, a close cousin to the World of Outlaws. She has won more than any driver in the six-year-old series that races on tracks throughout the Pacific Northwest.
"I go into every race with the attitude that I just have to win," Wilskey says. "It is the only way I can keep bringing money into this team so I can continue racing." Or as she says further, "I don't have the budget to finish fifth."
Her success is the result of environment and genetics. Wilskey's dad, Dick Wilskey, is a successful electrical contractor from the Seattle area who used to drive open wheel cars as a hobby. He spotted early on that his daughter had the talent to be better than he ever was.
He put her in a mini-sprint car when she was 15. She was too young to legally drive at the track, so her parents lied about her age. She won her first time out.
For a while, Wilskey tried to be like other women. She was an honor student in high school. She went to college. Got married ... and divorced. She tried a number of different jobs, launched more than a couple of careers.
"I just did what everyone expected," she says. "I had a 3.975 GPA in high school, so it was just expected I'd go to college. But once I got there, I didn't know why. I must my career plans 17 or 18 times. If you are going to go to college, you should go for a reason. I didn't have one."
Nothing she tried seemed as right as sitting behind the wheel of a 360 sprint car, tossing a rooster tail of clay through the corners, lifting the inside front wheel coming onto the short straights of tracks up and down the West Coast.
From the grandstands a winged sprint car is all sound and fury fueled by methanol. "But from in the driver's seat, it is an entirely different beast," Wilskey says.
"When everything is right, it just feels fantastic. Everything slows down. There is this feeling of absolute power. In the car you can just dominate, but then you can come back the next weekend with the exact same car and spend all night chasing your tail."
Going SoloIn 1995 she became the first woman to win a Northern Auto Racing Club competition. Later that year she was nominated as a "wild card" entry into the Sprint Car Hall of Fame at Knoxville, Iowa.
"The 'wild cards' are picked by drivers, promoters, media and others involved in the sport based on their aggressive and exciting style," says Thomas J. Schmeh, museum president. "Shawna certainly is all of that."
Schmeh says that Wilskey's record makes her the most successful woman in sprint cars. She's driven in the Northern Sprint Tour for all six years, and has never failed to qualify for the feature. She's won three championships, finished second twice and third once. In 87 Northern Sprint Tour starts, she has had eight feature wins and 50 Top-5 finishes.