Revving up the engines

Fenwick grad drag races off to college

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By DAN SHALIN

When she gets into one of the family cars, Brina Splingaire usually does so with parental instructions to drive as fast as she can.

No, local residents do not have to be on the lookout for the 2005 Fenwick graduate. All of her speeding is done on drag strips throughout the Midwest, piloting cars for the family's racing team.

Most weekends between April and October, Splingaire and her parents, Jeff and Cyndi, hop in their motor home, with 34-foot car trailer in tow, and head for the track. The father, owner of Jeff's Auto Repair in Riverside, works on the cars before Splingaire gets behind the wheel. Cyndi is there "for moral support," according to her daughter.

"We do this as a family," Jeff said. "We're a racing family and this is our livelihood."

The Splingaires' lives are built around drag racing, and Brina, an only child, would have it no other way.

"I love it," she said. "Every day I do something with drag racing. Not a day goes by that we don't speak about it. On the weekends, the three of us travel to races. My parents and I get along well and work as a team."

That team will remain intact even after Splingaire heads to college next month at Purdue University.

"I'm going to major in mechanical engineering and go racing on the weekends," said Splingaire, who was also an elite swimmer while at Fenwick. "I can't let down in school, I know it's more important than racing."

Splingaire could certainly enter college with an advantage over some of her engineering classmates. Though it may appear as if drag racers are simply putting the pedal to the metal, the sport is much more complicated. Today's vehicles include advanced computers that take into account everything from weather conditions to previous performances in order to accurately set a car's levels before a race. Splingaire is the team's computer expert.

"There is a lot to think about. There is math involved in choosing the numbers," she said. "But I do all that concerning the computer. It was easy for me to pick up because I've always been around computers."

Splingaire is just as comfortable once the race starts and sees parallels between the two sports in which she has excelled. She reached the State high school swim meet in three of her four seasons.

"Waiting for a car race to start is the same as if you're standing behind the block in swimming. The race keeps going through your head," she said. "When you're up to the staging lane in drag racing you're imagining what you're going to do and you have to have the same mental attitude when you're up to the water box. You are out there to win and you must think about the race every step of the way."

Of course, a drag race is over in an instant, usually about eight seconds. But in that time a car reaches speeds of up to 180 miles per hour. The driver's seat is certainly no place for a novice, but Splingaire is nothing of the sort. She has been driving competitively since she was 8 years old, when she began junior drag racing on half-scale dragsters with five horsepower engines akin to those found in lawnmowers.

"Ever since I was little my father has taught me about cars," she said. "We always had four wheelers and snowmobiles and when my father heard of junior drag racing he asked if I wanted to try it. I did it and I said 'let's go again.' We became hooked on it."

As the years went by the cars got bigger and faster. By the end of her junior career, Splingaire was in cars that could exceed 80 miles per hour. Two years ago, she made the jump to the full-size cars she's driving now.

And success has been a part of her career all along the way. Just recently, Splingaire took home the $1,200 first prize at the SuperPro event at Joliet's Route 66 Speedway, a competition in which she had to win six rounds of races.

In a summer when 23-year-old Danica Patrick has grabbed headlines for her performance in the male-dominated world of IndyCar racing, Splingaire said female participation in drag racing is not that uncommon.

"There are so many women now," she said, adding that she rarely senses resentment from male competitors. "There are five in my area, who are my age. I'm friends with all of them. Over the years, more and more girls have entered the sport professionally. There are also a lot of women who are fans and a lot of kids and younger girls."

Some of those younger girls even look up to Splingaire, who said she idolizes female drag-racing pioneer Shirley Muldowney.

"Just recently, one of my dad's customers brought in this little girl who was 10 or 12. She used to want to be a teacher but now she wants to be a race car driver," she said. "I guess I would like to do that, promote the sport for girls who are interested in doing it."

Splingaire will certainly have an even bigger following if she makes the jump to the professional ranks, where drivers compete in events around the country and are salaried members of wealthy racing teams.

"She'll get a pro ride out of this," Jeff said. "The big pro stock owners are always looking for new drivers and they have their eyes on her."

Though she wants to take that next step in the sport, Splingaire is wary about moving up to drag racing's highest class, Top Fuel, where cars can reach speeds of 300 mph.

"I used to want to drive Top Fuel," she said. "But one of the team owners told me I don't want to get into that game because it's really dangerous. They have a lot more accidents."

Of course, danger is inherent at any level of auto racing, even if it's not something the competitors speak of often.

"We have not had anything go wrong on the race track, thankfully," Splingaire said. "We've had stuff break before the race and we've had to go around frantically looking for parts, but we have not had any accidents or crashes."

On weekdays this summer, Splingaire has been adding to her automobile knowledge by working in her father's shop. She will leave for college orientation in West Lafayette, Ind., on Aug. 14. While her performances on the track have already put her in position for a step up to the professional ranks, the engineering experience Splingaire gains in college will help her pursue other interests in racing.

"I want to continue racing the rest of my life, as long as possible," she said. "But while I'm racing I want to have a job where I'm able to work in the same field. I want to develop cars and engines and work for a big motor company."

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