With a figurine of her favorite superhero, Batman, strapped firmly to the roll cage for luck, NASCAR's youngest driver hit the course today at the Stafford Motor Speedway.
Too young to drive to the racetrack (or the mall, for that matter), 14-year-old Katie Brice competed today in her first NASCAR-sanctioned race. Though she didn't finish, she got through more than half the race, which was better than many people expected.
She completed her heat in the entry-level series, racing alongside men more than twice her age, including her father. The middle-school student, who drives a bright pink 1986 Monte Carlo, is taking advantage of new NASCAR rules that allow kids as young as 14 to get a learner's permit to drive on sanctioned tracks.
"That was my dream," Katie says. "When you have your NASCAR license, you can race at any track in any car."
The nation's largest stock car racing league made the decision to lower the minimum age for obtaining a license from 16 to 14 in an effort to compete with other leagues that allow drivers as young as 12 to race.
When Katie was 12, she was just beginning to race in go-karts. With younger and younger children becoming interested in racing, she actually had a late start on dirt tracks, but her parents say she's always shown a passion for the sport, and more specifically, for speed. They like to talk about the first time Katie flew in a jet.
"She kept wanting the plane to go faster," says her father, Jim Brice, a truck driver and the owner of Smokey's Racing.
On the speedway, Katie will peak at 100 miles per hour on straightaways and roar around corners at up to 80 mph. She's not usually at the front of the pack, but given her age and experience, she's on the fast track for her racing career.
Her parents have been criticized for allowing their teenage daughter behind the wheel of a race car, but they compare it to other risky sports, such as skiing or football.
"The entry-level cars that they're participating in are safe, the tracks are safe, the specifications are really catered to safety," says Bill Long, vice-president of racing operations at Stafford Motor Speedway. "There isn't really a tremendous amount of risk and it's a great place to learn…"
Last year, Jim Brice was in a crash severe enough to require him to be airlifted to a hospital. He says if he had been wearing a HANS device for the head and neck, which is compulsory at many races, he would have walked away.
The accident didn't deter him or his daughter from racing, but Katie never races without a HANS brace.
"It doesn't feel dangerous," Katie says. "It feels not 100 percent safe, but 75 percent safe."
But still, she said she does worry about crashing.
"It's sometimes scary," she says, pointing to a specific part of the speedway that curves. "Not only did my crash on May 15 in that corner ... I get flashbacks sometimes, and it's really loose today, so if you get in it, you spin out."
Katie's mother Lisa says it's "nerve-racking" to watch her daughter speed around the track with a throng of other drivers, many of whom are faster and more aggressive.
"My heart wanted to say 'no, no way,' but to know her and to see the passion ... I mean, kids have all kinds of dreams, this is hers," Lisa Brice says.
The passion comes from her father. Jim Brice jokes that Katie is the "son I never had."
Following in the footsteps of Danica Patrick, more and more girls are becoming interested in racing, but Katie points out that the driver she strives to emulate is Joey Logano.
In 2007, when NASCAR lowered the age for its touring series to 16, Logano became champion. Like Katie, he started out at Stafford Speedway.
"My only goal is to have a race career in NASCAR, be like Joey Logano and everybody else out there," Katie says.
As for when she'll be ready to take the test for her DMV-issued driver's license, Katie says while she may have a leg up on her peers, she needs to practice "turning right" -- something you don't do on a race track.