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Sprint-car madness

Happy New Year, everybody! Unlike other sports, not much auto-racing happens during the holidays, so yesterday the Speed Channel livened things up with a re-run of the World of Outlaws World Finals. I was glued to it because I missed it the first time! WOO roared into history at the dirt track belonging to Lowe's Motor Speedway in Charlotte, NC. The stands were packed -- standing room only for a colorful event that has gotten almost as popular as stock-car racing.

For Outsports readers who've been following Terri O'Connell's driving comeback, she excelled in sprint cars in the late 1980s as JT Hayes, before completing a gender realignment in 1994. Starting out as a little kid in go-karts, JT was national karting champion, then national champion in midget cars. In 1990 Hayes won the sprint-car Summer Nationals at Chico, CA., then moved on to NASCAR and brief visibility as a top qualifier in the Winston Cup series, before she left racing to deal with the born-in femaleness that she'd felt compelled to hide for so many years. After which she took the name Terri O'Connell.

Sprint cars fuel a wild and crazy grass-roots scene in open-wheel racing. They are light super-fast little cars with wide tires; one class has a distinctive overhead wing that creates some needed downforce and safety margin. Otherwise your light little car goes into orbit when you wreck, according to Terri.

With thirty of them screaming around a half-mile or quarter-mile dirt track at 140 mph or more, it's as close to the blood-n-guts chariot race in "Ben Hur" as you can get without horses.

The World of Outlaws started as a group of drivers and team owners who got fed up with what they felt was the too-slick, over-commercialized, hyper-expensive racing in NASCAR and Indy cars. So they went off to the boonies and did their own thing. Now WOO is getting more TV visibility. Yesterday a few of those pioneering free spirits, now in their 50s and 60s, were still kicking butt on the Lowe's track.

Women drivers are thirsting to make victory lane in sprint cars. Northeast racer Jessica Zemken gave it a helluva try in the winged sprinters...the sole female among around 40 drivers trying to qualify. The next generation after Terri, Jessica also came up through karting and midgets. She won track championships around the country, and consistently places high against veteran male drivers. She's been hammering at the World of Outlaws for several years. This time, she finished 6th in her heat race, so she didn't make it to the finals. Overall, though, her record is pretty good for a kid who's still in school.

Let's hope that 2008 will be a happier year for sports, with things getting fixed that need fixing. -- Patricia Nell Warren