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Rookie proves racing isn’t just for guys

Fast female

Posted: Sunday, September 24, 2006

 

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  Michel works to shorten her car's throttle cable in the family's garage in Sterling. While this season's racing is complete, she's already thinking about what she can do to be even faster next year. Photo by M. Scott Moon

Charley Michel buckles herself into her 1977 Chevrolet Camero before a race at Twin Cities Raceway earlier this month. The 16-year-old Cook Inlet Academy student won top points in her car's division this year.

Photo by M. Scott Moon

At the beginning of the summer of 2005, Sterling’s Charley Michel, 16, did not even know Twin Cities Raceway existed.

On Sept. 9, when the Kenai Peninsula Racing Lions-Circle Track Division wrapped up its 2006 season, Charley stood atop the standings in the B Stock Division.

Charley’s accomplishment is not only noteworthy because of her age and her inexperience at Twin Cities Raceway. As the pink No. 10 and “Wildfire” on her car and the “ey” at the end of her first name indicate, Charley is a girl.

 

Michel accelerates her 1977 Camero, which she has named "Wildfire," through a straightaway at Twin Cities Raceway. The car's rearend has been a common sight for other B-class racers this summer.

Photo by M. Scott Moon

“I think all the guys are surprised that a girl is sitting in first place,” Charley said.

Chet Soares, the president of the Kenai Peninsula Racing Lions, said that, to his knowledge, Charley is the first woman to win the B Stock Division. She also is the youngest driver to win the division.

Charley’s racing career began about eight years ago when her father, excavator Dan Michel, had a chance to trade some dirt for an old Subaru. Dan then built a track behind his house for the Subaru.

“I thought it would give the kids a chance to learn how to drive a standard shift,” Dan said. “It was a great opportunity. Then I got another one, and before I knew it I had four or five.”

 

Charley Michel holds photos of the Subaru she learned to drive when she was 8 years old. She is at the wheel wearing the green hat.

Photo by M. Scott Moon

Having so many Subarus gave the Michel children an opportunity to learn to work on cars. The family had always been fans of racing on television, so having all those Subarus also gave the family a chance to do some racing.

“We didn’t do it a whole lot,” Dan said. “It’s a weekend-type thing. Instead of watching TV, we’d go out and get them going.”

Charley said she had always wanted to be a race car driver, and on her turns around the track with her father and sisters, Ashley, 18, and Haley, 14, Charley more than held her own.

“She kicked our butts,” Ashley said. “Her and my dad would go at it pretty good.”

 

Photo by M. Scott Moon

In the summer of 2005, Dan Michel had a barbecue at his house for the school board of Cook Inlet Academy. Area racing legend Richard McGahan of Nikiski came to the barbecue because at the time, his wife, Karen, was on the CIA school board.

Richard, 69, has been racing at Twin Cities Raceway since the track was built in the early 1970s. He has long been on a crusade to get as many young people as possible involved in racing at Twin Cities Raceway.

“I’d like more people out here racing so they’re not racing on the streets,” McGahan said.

 

Michel's mother, Robbyn, cheers her daughter from the stands at Twin Cities during a race earlier this month. Between races, Robbyn used a notepad on a clipboard to track her daughter's points.

Photo by M. Scott Moon

Once McGahan saw the Subarus and the track at the Michel house and heard of Charley’s affinity for racing, he asked if Charley would come out and drive his car for a B Stock heat race near the end of the 2005 season. Charley came in last in the race.

“I was really scared,” she said. “I knew I could do better, so I wanted to come out and prove that I could do better.”

Charley was in luck. McGahan was willing to sell his car because he wanted to compete in the B Stock classification using a pickup truck this year. Charley also had the family and friends with the know-how and enthusiasm to fix up McGahan’s car and make it the championship-caliber Wildfire.

 

Charley Michel exits her car as her uncles Kenny and Don Johnson go to work on a tire that was badly mangled in a collision with another car. Michel's racing is a family affair.

Photo by M. Scott Moon

“I always wanted to race,” Dan Michel said. “I really wanted to get into the tractor pulls that are popular back East. I never had the money to do it. This opportunity was just perfect.”

Dan Michel was raised on a farm so he said he’s always been mechanically inclined. Also available to help out was Scott Steger, who helps Dan with excavating, and Charley’s uncles Don Johnson and Kenny Johnson.

“To put an engine in it only took us a couple of days,” Charley said. “We love to rebuild cars.”

Dan also saw the fix-up as a chance to teach his family a few more things about cars. Ashley learned to weld by putting in the car’s floor boards, while Haley did body work on the car.

Much to the relief of Charley’s mom, Robbyn, the car was made as safe as possible.

“She was concerned about Charley getting out on the track,” Dan said of his wife. “Once she saw all the roll bars and the five-point safety harness, she felt a lot better.”

 

Charley and her dad, Dan, her uncle Don Johnson and sister Haley talk between races.

Photo by M. Scott Moon

Despite all the preparation the family put into the car, they were hardly prepared for what happened next. On May 27, the first night of the season, Charley won her first race of the season — the trophy dash. She finished up her evening with a third in the first heat and a second in the main event. Charley had practiced in her car just two times before the successful debut.

“I was so surprised,” Charley said. “I didn’t think I would win any races this season.”

Charley’s instant success would continue throughout the season, including the Aug. 5 event where she won all four races of the evening, before culminating in the points title.

“I’m so thankful God has given me the talent to race,” Charley said. “God is a big part of my life and he gave me all of my talents.”

McGahan said Charley’s talents were apparent the first time he saw her drive.

“She’s really quick with her thoughts and a fast learner,” McGahan said. “She’s willing to bend fenders with anyone out here, especially me.”

Charley also has benefited from the culture in racing that says fast racing is safe racing. A slow, unprepared driver is a danger to others on the track.

 

Michel works to shorten her car's throttle cable in the family's garage in Sterling. While this season's racing is complete, she's already thinking about what she can do to be even faster next year.

Photo by M. Scott Moon

“None of us have ever done any of this before,” Charley said of her racing team. “The guys at the track help us out a lot.”

Dan said that people at the race track are not afraid to share secrets because there is not an atmosphere of cutthroat competition.

“The neat thing is everyone is out here to have fun,” Dan said. “Once in a while, somebody will get rambunctious, but they have fun doing it.

“I was surprised how sincere everybody is. They are a great group of people. They will help out anybody.”

Charley formed the quickest bond with fellow B Stock racer Debbie Yancy. Charley ended up with 876 points for the season, while Yancy was the runner-up at 811. The two can often be seen talking between races. According to Yancy, they talk about how nervous they are and about the condition of the track.

“She’s been a nice friend,” Charley said. “She’s encouraged me a lot.”

Yancy has been racing at Twin Cities Raceway for seven years. She called Charley a good friend and a good driver.

“There haven’t been many women out here,” Yancy said. “When I first started, there were a couple of women. Since then, they’ve been in some races, but they’ve never been out here for a full season.”

 

Charley Michel fights to hang onto her lead during a collision that cost her door damage, a tire and a bent axle. "That's racing," her dad, Dan Michel, said after she limped the car into the pits.

Photo by M. Scott Moon

Charley also gives her fan base at the race track credit for her success. Family and friends show up at the race track in black sweatshirts with Charley’s car and the pink “Wildfire” on the back. The supporters are led by her mother, who is still nervous about Charley being in a car but has found a way to deal with it — a way that Dan said he can hear on the other side of the track even with the cars in full roar.

“I just have to let it all out,” Robbyn said. “I just scream a lot and that helps get it all out.”

The Michels are thinking about getting Ashley involved in A Stock next year, but Dan said he doesn’t anticipate racing himself because that would spread the family too thin.

“She’ll keep doing this for one or two years, then who knows?” Robbyn said of Charley. “We’ve always told them they can be whatever they want.”



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