Just 10, Glen Burnie girl in driver's seat

September 21, 1994|By Roch Eric Kubatko | Roch Eric Kubatko,Sun Staff Writer

You're sitting behind the wheel of a car for one of the few times in your life. Your parents watch as you nervously maneuver through an area cluttered with other vehicles.

Your foot reaches for the brake pedal, but it stomps on the accelerator by mistake. The next sound you hear is fiberglass being torn from the front of your car, which has rammed into a parked dirt bike.

Embarrassed and in tears, you swear never to drive again. You can't even run to your Glen Burnie home, because the scene of your humiliation is being played out in New Jersey.

Now, picture yourself turning 10 years old on the day of the accident. The vehicle you're driving is a half-scale dragster, and the mishap occurs shortly before your first race.

This was no way for Candi Pearce to celebrate her birthday.

"It took a lot to get her back into the car," says her father, Warren, "but she did it."

Actually, it took three weeks, and Pearce has done more than just overcome her anxiety from that crash in late May. A fifth-grader and honor student at Point Pleasant Elementary School, she beat enough drivers her age to advance into the sixth round of the National Hot Rod Association's inaugural Junior Dragster National Championships in Indianapolis in late August, which drew participants from the United States, Canada and Puerto Rico.

Representing 75-80 Dragway of Frederick, she placed fourth out of 74 drivers in her division, of which nearly 80 percent were boys.

"We just wanted to go there, have some fun and maybe win a first round," says Warren, who works with his wife, Debbie, at a home insulation company in Baltimore.

Since then, Candi twice has reached the final round of local races before being eliminated. And on Oct. 8, she returns to Raceway Park in Englishtown, N.J., in hopes of adding to her collection of 10 trophies.

So, how does someone so young venture into drag racing?

First, the NHRA had to sanction the sport for juniors, which it did three years ago for anyone between the ages of 8 and 16. And in Candi's case, you need a father nudging you into the driver's seat.

"She likes it, and we're keeping her in it," says Warren, who used to race as a hobby. "I'm not one of those dads who likes to see the kids hanging in the shopping malls."

"I was scared at first," says Candi, who is 4 feet 10 1/2 and 84 pounds. "I just wanted to ride it around the neighborhood. But once I started doing it, it became fun."

Warren bought the raspberry-colored dragster from a friend for $3,000. He has spent another $1,300 for an upgraded motor and $5,000 for yearly maintenance.

The vehicle is 14 1/2 feet long, weighs 250 pounds, runs on alcohol fuel and includes shoulder and waist restraints, a belt to keep the driver's arms inside, a parachute in back and two kill switches.

Adorned with the moniker "Wild Thing" on each side, the car also has a steel frame, including a cage that encloses the driver, and is stored in the Pearce's backyard shed.

Initially, it ran 30 mph in 17 seconds. Warren tinkered with the carburetor and assured Candi her speed would increase, but it dropped. He changed the sprockets and the car slowed more.

"She questioned me at that point: 'Dad, are you sure you know what you're doing?' " Warren says. "I called Dave Turner of Turner Racing Engines in West Virginia, and said I wanted a better motor."

Within a year, Warren hopes to round up some sponsors for Candi, who averaged 50 mph in Indianapolis on an eighth-mile track. Eventually, he wants her to "roll right into the big cars."

"I always said she never had the legs to be a ballerina," Debbie says.

"Before, I wanted to be a dolphin trainer," says Candi, whose brother, Craig, 17, was too old by the time the NHRA began a junior league. "But this is something I want to keep doing."

To ensure that she doesn't get the pedals confused again, Candi wears a red patch on the glove of her left hand and a green one on the right.

"That was scary, but I'm more comfortable now," she says. "I don't think about any bad things happening."

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