As he watched the white Chevy Impala powering around a corner on the oval race track, Troy Dana was simultaneously excited and worried.
Excited because his driver was moving up into second place, threading between two cars.
Worried because his driver behind the wheel of this super stock with a 400 horsepower engine is his 16-year-old daughter, Jessica Dana.
“There are times where it’s difficult to watch,” Troy admits, chuckling to himself.
But rather than playing volleyball, basketball or softball, Jessica’s sport of choice was racing. By the time she was 4, she was already behind the wheel of a quad, speeding along a trail. By the time she was 8, she was racing.
In a magical three week stretch in the spring of 2010, Jessica, at 14 and just eight months after slipping behind the wheel of a go-kart for the first time, beat two racing icons – four-time NASCAR champ Jeff Gordon and motorsports fame Travis Pastrana. She finished ahead of the two celebrities in two separate charity kart races, one in Kent and the other in North Carolina.
“That girl can drive,” Gordon said after the race.
But she wasn’t content with karting. At 15, Jessica, then a sophomore at Tumwater High School, slipped behind the wheel of a race car, punching the accelerator on the straightaways at the Tenino Speedway and reaching speeds of 95 mph.
She wants to be the next Danica Patrick, the celebrity female NASCAR driver.
“That’s the plan,” Troy said.
And it doesn’t seem to be a just a silly dream.
After five top-5 finishes in a Northwest super stock series last summer, Jessica’s dream is about to take another giant leap forward.
First, she’s hoping to sign a contract for an energy drink sponsorship, which would give her the financial backing to enter bigger events. And her father’s lawyers are in discussions with a major studio about a possible TV reality show.
“We’re beyond excited,” Troy said. “Our attorneys are talking to see if we can pull this together.”
If the sponsorship deal comes through, Jessica will take another leap forward in her racing career. She’ll look to enter the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series in 2013. There’s also plans to enter the Montana 200 in super stock next summer.
“If we get this national sponsorship, they’ll help us financially do it,” Troy said. “She may end up being the youngest to ever start in a Camping World Truck Series.”
To help her fulfill her dream, she has a driving coach, a personal trainer, supportive parents and sponsorship from local businesses.
“It takes a team to get her into position to succeed,” said Phil Jasperson, former owner of the indoor kart track Jessica practiced at. “You can have the talent, but if you don’t have the support you can’t do it.”
In late August 2010, Dana raced at the Tenino Speedway in a “baby grand,” a smaller scale of a racing car with 1,000 cc engines that can approach 100 mph. She started near the back of the pack, passed several drivers and finished ninth in her first race.
She went from going 30 mph in a go-kart to going over 90.
“This is her dream,” Troy said. “This is what she wants to do. I’ve told her whenever this isn’t fun any more it’s over.”
Troy raced motorcycles when he was young, and his daughter has the same love for speed. Jessica has grown up riding things that go fast.
“My wife’s parents really blasted me when I put Jesse on a ATV when she was 4,” Troy said. “The promise I made was if she didn’t exercise good judgment she wouldn’t get to ride. That was the deal.”
While Jessica enjoys speed, she isn’t reckless. She’s a natural behind the wheel. That was obvious when she was racing against Pastrana and Gordon.
And it was obvious when she raced super stock cars last summer. In August, Jessica became the youngest female driver to ever race in the Miller 200 in Rochester and finished 11th.
“I was physically and mentally exhausted at the end of the race, but it was a great experience,” Jessica said after the race. “I want to specially thank my mom and dad, my team and my sponsors.”
Last summer, Troy became his daughter’s spotter during a race. Acting like an extra pair of eyes, it’s Troy’s job to keep Jessica updated about cars coming up on her, talking to her throughout the race on walkie-talkies.
On the first race Troy became his daughter’s spotter, she got into a wreck, damaging the car. But it wasn’t Troy’s fault. An overly aggressive driver rammed Jessica’s car, forcing her into the wall, twisting the frame.
“That driver has a reputation for wrecking everybody,” Troy said. “It wasn’t my fault. I saw it coming. I moved her up. He went up to her and hammered her.”
Jessica ended up getting in two wrecks last summer, but that hasn’t stopped her from racing.
With a new crew chief, Neil Derline of Elma, Jessica’s car has been rebuilt from frame to engine, boosting the engine from 400 horsepower to 600 horsepower. Jessica isn’t afraid to use that extra horsepower. She shows those characteristics of being able to push it in a race, driving aggressively to get into position to pass.
“She’s smart aggressive,” Troy said. “She has no problem when the car feels right, threading the car through there. She races with the wisdom of someone who has been racing for 10 or 15 years. We would have had a lot more wrecks if it wasn’t for that. She did a great job of taking care of the car.”