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Leader of the Track

[whitespace] Melanie Penney
George Sakkestad

On the Fast Track: Melanie Penney pulls ahead of the competition in a Watsonville Speedway American stock car qualifying heat.

Female NASCAR drivers like Watsonville Speedway's Melanie Penney prove that a woman's place is on the tracks--and not just as the trophy girl

By Mary Spicuzza

"YOU KNOW TO WEAR white, right?" the voice on the phone asks. I had called only for directions to the Watsonville Speedway, and the helpful woman's unsolicited fashion advice catches me a little off guard.

"Ah  ... no. Melanie didn't mention that," I answer slowly. My novice mind spins, searching for the reason I should wear white to a place called "the pit."

"I trust you," I stammer apologetically. "But I am kind of curious. Why white?"

"Well, it gets pretty dark down there. The cars go pretty fast. And most of them don't have lights," she says. "We just don't want you getting hit."

While I appreciate her concern, the image of dodging race cars at the Santa Cruz County Fairgrounds' National Association of Stock Car Auto Racing (NASCAR) track isn't the most comforting one. But the desire to hang out with Melanie Penney, an insurance saleswoman by day and race car driver by night, wins out over fears of being plastered to the windshield of a souped-up Camaro--and my aversion to all-white outfits.

Melanie Penney
George Sakkestad

Leading Lady: Melanie Penney and the women tearing up the Santa Cruz County Fairgrounds track redefine the expression 'lady drivers.'

Speed Wheels

THE ROAR OF CARS zipping around the fairgrounds' quarter-mile clay oval track muffles the announcer's voice as he calls for drivers to line up for the semi-main event. Penney and her father, Bill Hyland, who pits his Camaro next to hers, both miss the first mention of their next race, which is held after the qualifying heats and before the final round.

Penney catches the second call and, yelling to her dad, shuts and locks the hood of her purple Camaro and scrambles to strap on her helmet. She starts to climb through her window Dukes of Hazzard style, but pauses and spins toward Hyland.

"Now, Dad, stay calm," she counsels, leaning her hands on the roof of his car. "Don't pull the turns too tight. And don't get so nervous."

He hunches his broad shoulders and nods his head toward his 5-foot-6-inch mentor, muttering something that sounds a lot like "Yes, dear."

Melanie wishes him luck and slides through her padded purple roll bars, which form a protective cage around her driver's seat. As she straps herself into her custom-made seat, her husband, George, rushes over from his Camaro to drape a mesh covering over the spot where Penney's window used to be. But that was long ago, before she punched out the glass, welded her doors shut and hit the tracks.

Before meeting Penney, a NASCAR speed demon who builds Camaros at her San Jose hobby shop and races in the Watsonville Speedway's American stock division, I had visions of an intimidating Amazon, a towering bleached blonde with Farrah Fawcett curls and serious attitude. But as mild-mannered Melanie "Mel" Penney strides across the muddy pit to greet me, silver wrench in hand, she smiles shyly and reaches out to gently shake my hand.


More vital information on Melanie Penney


She leads me around a well-worn Camaro, painted her trademark purple and white, which is sandwiched between her husband's and father's blue Camaros. With a snoopy journalist trailing at her heels and asking questions at every turn, Penney patiently recounts the repairs necessary before she races again.

Penney, her cream-colored skin dotted with golden freckles, makes her purple suit--which is decorated with a black-and-white checkerboard pattern--look downright fashionable. But as she wipes motor oil from her engine, it's clear that style is the least of her worries most Friday nights. During her first race, the oil cap flew off, dumping highly flammable liquid all over her hot engine and pouring onto the windshield. Penney's car, traveling about 70 miles per hour, could have easily burst into flames.

The 25-year-old powerhouse takes a break from avoiding explosions and coaching her dad to take me on a brief tour of her car. While she points out her transmission, I admire her burgundy nail polish. Two weeks later, when I again brave the pit, she sports a metallic lilac hue--once again showing that a girl needn't choose between being tough and having a nice manicure.

"Oh, I like yours," she says, examining my bright purple polish.

That night Penney proudly produces her racing photos. She flips open a pretty cream-colored album with gold trim, which traces the history of her driving career from her first Enduro car to her current violet Camaro. In Enduros, drivers typically complete 200 laps around the track. Penney says they are great for driving practice but tough on cars--she has blown up two engines during the long races.

With a slumber-party-like excitement, we page through photographs of her races. Many are freeze-frame images of her cars' worst crashes. In one picture, a wayward competitor crumples her driver's door; another shows her car spinning across the track, its entire front end bashed in accordion-style.

"That was a tough race," she recalls. "I got in that accident, then my engine blew up."

Just past a page covered in Steve Miller Band concert ticket stubs, one photograph shows a bouquet-carrying Melanie and tuxedoed George with wide, wedding-day grins. Behind them rests her husband's blue race car, all polished and glistening for the big occasion.

She smiles, "We brought it with us to the reception."

Melanie Penney
Courtesy Melanie Penney

A Stock Car Named Desire: Their classic Camaros brought Melanie and George Penney together, so his race car made a special appearance at their 1998 wedding.

Hobby Shop Spree

I HAVE NEVER BEEN so happy to see a tow truck. I'm angling my ailing '85 Mazda next to the Penney's Towing rig at the couple's San Jose hobby shop--after spending half an hour lost amid rows of industrial parks and mechanics' garages.

I step over a hose and squeeze past a cluster of maroon Camaros, catching one of my lavender chunk-heel shoes on a wooden tool kit. Straightening my little black dress, I feel even sillier for getting lost and not having time to change into my jeans.

Wearing a gray T-shirt and sweat pants, practical Penney again looks like she could easily bump Julia Roberts from the next fashion-mag spread.

"When George and I started going out, I told him, 'I'm washable. I don't mind getting dirty,'" Penney tells me. They have been working on cars together ever since, and in both 1996 and 1998 Melanie Penney won "Mechanic of the Year" for Watsonville's Street Stock division. She's the first woman to win the honor in the track's history, according to speedway president Rick Farren.

The Penneys' hobby shop, where the couple can be found most Thursday nights until 2am, overflows with supplies. Neat rows of tires line the walls and buckets of auto parts cover the floor. Race-car posters dot the walls, along with an assortment of license-plate holders. But Melanie's favorite, "Bad girls have badder toys," frames the plate on her '68 Camaro.

I follow Penney over to a towering red metal toolbox as she describes the work she's doing on her father's car. It's Tuesday evening, and she and George are changing the transmission in Hyland's Camaro from an automatic to a manual before the Friday race.

She opens various drawers scouring for tools, then balances on her toes to search the top compartments. "I bought a new part of this for George as a Christmas present," she says. "But now I can't reach the top."

As they mill busily around the garage, it becomes clear that they spend as much time on each other's cars as they do on their own--which explains why, on the back of her Camaro, white letters glow, "Thanks, George."

Just above George's back fender, which is chained to the car in case a rear-end collision rips it loose, big block letters answer, "Thanks, Melanie."

Not surprisingly, they are each other's crew captains.

The pair went to high school together in San Jose, but they weren't dating--even though Penney remembers having a crush on George. "We met our senior year, but we were just friends. I have a '68 Camaro, and he has a '67," she says with a smile. "That's what brought us together--our cars."

Her husband began racing in 1992, and Penney started out working on his car. "At first it was fun just helping out. But I wanted to get out there, too," she says.

Melanie Penney George Sakkestad

By 1994 both husband and wife were racing on the Watsonville Speedway. She has since converted her father, the owner and manager of Hyland Family Bicycles in San Jose, who now ditches two-wheeled transportation for the tracks as often as possible.

"A lot of people say, 'It's so cute that your daughter is following in your footsteps,'" Hyland recounts. "I have to explain that she's the one who got me into it. She and George bought me my first race car for Father's Day."

The busy Penney explains that she and her husband spend most of their free time at the hobby shop, but she seems to handle her hectic schedule with grace under pressure.

When I slip into the bathroom to change into my jeans, even the small room hints at a feminine touch. Popular Hot Rodding and Hot Rods magazines cover the small end table, but a white lace bra hangs from the shelf below, next to citrus-scented hand degreaser and a first-aid kit.

When I step out, the couple are working but obviously enjoying their time together.

"Wanna start pulling the car apart?" she asks her husband sweetly.

The Pits

AS I WALK toward the bright flood-lights of the Watsonville Speedway track, couples in Western garb swarm all over the fairgrounds. A woman with an impressive beehive wearing a sharp-angled skirt yells to her partner in a large cowboy hat, then scurries toward a field filled with trailers. The fairgrounds also periodically hosts square dancing events in its barn and allows trailer camping for the out-of-towners looking to escape for a weekend devoted to the do-si-do and Virginia reel.

I leave the poufy-skirted gals in the dust, bound for a night in the pit with a fast woman in a flame-proof suit. Speedway crowds include young couples carrying blankets, fathers and sons and entire families. Just about everybody wears baseball caps.

Melanie Penney
George Sakkestad

Family Matters: Melanie Penney shares the track with fellow drivers, father Bill Hyland (left) and husband George.

"Where's your hat?" Pat Bonilla, Bill Hyland's long-time significant other, scolds me when I reach the pit. After a few years at the tracks, Bonilla has also grown into a seasoned professional. She instinctively wears white from head to toe, comes prepared with a baseball cap ("Great for keeping dirt from flying in your eyes") and can rattle off any car part imaginable. Bill Hyland says she's often the first to pick up on a problem with his race car.

"Do you get nervous watching them race?" I ask as Penney's car cuts a sharp turn and weaves onto the inside. Hyland trails behind his daughter, taking the turn wide and sliding nearly off the track. We both duck as a chunk of dirt hurled by another race car lands in my hair.

"You get kind of used to it," Bonilla says, peering out intently from under her baseball visor, her eyes fixed on the track. "But sometimes it's really hard to watch, especially when they crash."

As we chat over the loud hum, stock cars speed past looking as if they could crash at any moment. With only three feet, a small divider wall and a thin wire fence separating us from the frantic pack, I start to question my chances of getting more involved in the race than I'd like.

Several members of the Penney-Hyland pit crew mention an accident last season in which one of the cars flipped over the small divider and crunched into the fence right where we're standing. I nod and peel my fingers from the mesh wire.

After I leave that night another car flips, doing a 360-degree turn in the air and landing back on its wheels. Unlike the driver trapped against the fence last year, who had to be airlifted to the hospital, this lucky driver escaped without harm.

During George Penney's race, a car slams into him and pops his tire, forcing him into the center of the track. Penney, Bonilla and the rest of the pit crew scramble from the fence and toward the tow truck. With thick mist fogging the pit's tall lights, they run across the lanes, pausing to avoid cars lining up for the next round. Melanie waves him in, grabs the jack and coaches George as crew members Jack Earle and Mark Mestressat quickly change the tire. She drops her hand to show they're finished and he squeals down the lane and back onto the track.

Melanie Penney
George Sakkestad

Girl in the Hood: Her husband's father and prized pit-crew member 'Big George' (left) helps Watsonville's first female Mechanic of the Year prepare for her next race.

Not Her Daddy's Car

THE FOG ROLLS in even thicker as Melanie and I tromp through the dirt from the bathrooms back to the pit. She knows all the secrets of the sport, from how to avoid track porta-potties to the best spot to buy an engine that is less likely to blow up. Earlier this season her husband went through five or six, and her dad has lost three of late.

Most importantly, the girl knows cars. She makes the rounds, tightening lug nuts on all three cars. She checks the tire pressure and studies the battery cable on her car, which was loose during the first race. A metal cage bolted to the floor behind her seat holds a rubber- and plastic-lined battery, placed inside the passenger compartment to reduce the chance of explosions. A fuel cell, which was introduced by Firestone in 1965 to prevent fuel leaks and car fires, is now a mandatory trunk fixture for holding gasoline.

"With the fuel cell, you can get hit with a certain amount of pressure and not explode," Penney explains.

Like those of other drivers, Penney's roll cage was specifically built for her size and holds a fire extinguisher just behind the driver's seat. The extinguisher is classic red, but everything else is Penney's trademark purple. Purple and green were always Penney's favorites, but the latter is considered bad luck on the track--as are peanuts and any nuts with a shell. Penney says she's not sure why, but she's not about to test whether pit superstitions are based in reality.

Although she's a minority in a sport dominated by male drivers, she contributes to a long history of women on the tracks--even during NASCAR's first season in 1948, fast females were giving the guys high-speed lessons in gender equality.

Still, NASCAR's top 50 drivers, according to its website, are all men. Then there's the timeless trophy girl, a primped blonde who sits on the back of a sleek black convertible and waves to the audience between races. Like Jayne Mansfield, who greeted driver Junior Johnson in the victory lane following the big 1963 Winston Cup race in Daytona, these gals carry on a distinctly different NASCAR tradition.


More NASCAR action at the Watsonville Speedway


When asked how folks at the insurance agency where she works view her pastime, Penney says that most are extremely supportive, and the company's owners let her leave early on Fridays to head to the races. They also sponsor her car.

"There's one girl who told me I should have been born a boy," Penney says. "But I'd say 90 percent of them are totally for it."

And although standing on the sidelines I hear a few comments about "lady drivers," nobody seems to question that Mel knows what she's doing.

"She's just as competent as any of the guys out there," Bonilla says proudly. "I'd say more competent than most of them, but isn't that always the case? You just can never tell the guys that."

The last night I spend in the pit, Melanie is late on the track for the second race. Her father's radiator has a leak and she's scrambling to fix it, even though both George and Hyland are yelling at her to get in her car. The officials tell her to take her position--which is based on her fourth-place finish during the initial race. But they start the race before she reaches her spot, and she never pulls into the front to place in the top five and proceed to the main event.

Although she's done early, it's rare that the family packs up and leaves the pit before midnight. And they usually don't pull into their San Jose home before 2am. Racing works up an appetite, and they make a ritual stop for food after heading out of the fairgrounds.

"We're so bad. We usually go to Jack in the Box, but the tow truck won't fit through the drive-thru, so we have to go get Mark's car, drive to get the food, then drive back," Penney laughs. "That alone takes an hour."

We say our goodbyes, making plans for my big mud-packing debut, where I get to drive her car around the speedway's track to help firm up the grounds before the races. A chill settles in as another layer of fog and mist washes over the dark pit

"Drive carefully," she says with a distinctly maternal tone.

"Thanks," I answer, worrying more about her dodging Highway 17 Rambo drivers than braving the tracks. "You too."

Melanie Penney is Driver of the Week at the Watsonville Speedway NASCAR Hall of Fame night on Friday (Aug. 6). Racing begins at 7pm.

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From the August 4-11, 1999 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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