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Driven - Fall 2002

Since age 6, Carey Heath '98 has kept her family on the fast track

Speed sells. Success for Carey Heath means success for her sponsors.

The Ferrari Formula 1 racing team spends about $150 million a year to put two cars on the international Grand Prix circuit. Carey Heath Motorsports has a slightly more modest budget to race its Chevy Monte Carlo throughout the northeast U.S. on NASCAR's Busch North tracks.

Driver Carey Heath '98 won't say exactly how much her team receives from primary sponsor Aubuchon Hardware, but it's not enough that she and her father, John Heath '69, don't have to budget every race to the dollar: nineteen races from April to October, six hotel rooms for two nights each weekend, $100 in fuel, two sets of tires at $700 each, and so on. And the pay isn't great; everyone on Team Heath needs a day job. John, the crew chief, has taught shop at Collins Middle School in Salem, Mass., for 32 years. Carey works for Andrew Lord & Co., financial planners in Portsmouth, N.H.

There's a saying in racing that you'd be better off addicted to cocaine, because they have clinics for that.On a Thursday afternoon in August near Eliot, Maine, on the driveway outside Team Heath's garage, John is spray-painting a new hood for Carey's car. Driving skill, luck, and a resourceful pit crew had allowed Carey to re-enter the previous Saturday's race after a 12-car pileup in the early laps at Watkins Glen, N.Y.

Now, while the rest of the crew make adjustments at the rear of the car, John readies the new hood. He explains that the roof, trunk, and hood are the three pieces that have to be "stock" – identical to those on a Monte Carlo in the Chevy showroom. Above the car in the garage hangs a wooden template that shows how close to regulation size their newly fashioned hood is as it sits over the decidedly non-stock engine, an expensive hand-me-down from a slightly faster NASCAR circuit.

But Busch North is fast; it's the real thing. It's not the elite Winston Cup – the circuit of such NASCAR legends as Richard Petty and the late, sainted Dale Earnhardt – but it sure looks like it. Heavily decaled with sponsors' names, these cars fly frighteningly around ovals and road courses familiar to sports-car and stock-car fans: Watkins Glen, N.Y., Lime Rock, Conn., and the New Hampshire International Speedway in Loudon, the New England racing mecca where two years ago rising stars Kenny Irwin and Adam Petty were killed.

As every parent reminds every teen-age driver: Speed is inherently risky. At the end of a straightaway at Loudon, Carey will approach 140 mph before braking at the turn, packed within a crowd of other 140-mph drivers, all looking to pass without the usual highway courtesies, and not about to give up anything to Busch North's only woman driver.

It takes a while to get to those speeds. Look at the bio sheets of most successful drivers, and you'll see they started racing before they learned to write. Carey's older brother, Jason Heath '93, was a kindergartner when he began piloting the family's quarter midget car. Kids can race these small, low vehicles from age five to sixteen. But don't confuse quarter midgets with go-karts, says Jason. These things have four-wheel independent suspension, roll cages, and hot engines.

Jason quit racing in the eighth grade. "I had a pretty bad crash," he explains. "I was kind of pinned in the car, hanging upside down." Appropriately, Jason went on to major in safety studies at Keene State. Now he's manager of safety and loss control at the headquarters of Zampell Refractories in Newburyport, Mass. Still, he downplays the hazards of racing. "Bass fishing is more dangerous," he points out, the victim of a recent broken hip from a fall on his boat.

When Jason retired, it was Carey's turn, at age 6, to take the wheel of the quarter midget. In high school she graduated to the "late model" circuit, NASCAR's prestigious short-track series. In 1997, she became the first woman to win a NASCAR feature race in the 30-year history of New Hampshire's Lee Speedway.

Young enthusiasts, especially girls, make up a disproportionate number of Carey's fan base.Two years later she advanced to the Busch North series, becoming the first woman ever to finish one of its races. The 2001 season was Carey's first full year on the circuit. She finished 23rd in points out of 80 drivers who qualified for at least one race, and she was awarded the Busch North Series Sportsmanship Award. This year, she finished 19th in points.

Her goal in five years, Carey says, is to place among the top five drivers in Busch North, but beyond that she won't reveal any plans. "I'm very happy where I am right now," she says. Already a seasoned professional, she answers questions thoughtfully but without much speculating on the future. "My marketing guy says that I carefully consider my responses," she allows.

For a glimpse into the marketing strategies that necessarily accompany a successful racing career go to Rich with action photos, biographical material, and race reports, the Carey Heath Motorsports web site also reminds visitors of the significant contributions from Aubuchon Hardware and other sponsors. On the site you can buy Carey Heath sportswear and learn where Carey and her car are making their next personal appearance. It doesn't hurt that she's young and has a great smile, and, yes, that she's a 5'4" woman in the macho world of racing. She has a lot of fans.

For a sport that began between moonshine runners in the North Carolina mountains, NASCAR prides itself on the wholesome nature of its events. Families attend together, and many of the children are devoted Carey Heath fans. "I'm amazed by the kids there," says Jason's wife, Amy Heath '90, who follows the circuit when she's not busy teaching at Newburyport High School in Massachusetts. "They follow their drivers, have all the paraphernalia."

In the Heath shop: Carey, Jacob, Jason, John and Amy.And the teams themselves are often family affairs. Adding to the contributions of John, Jason, Carey, and Amy, John's wife, Doria, is a team scorer. The official team list also names Dusty Springfield, who happens to be the family dachshund. But behind all the smiles and public appearances and wholesomeness is a dangerous sport. "There's a saying in racing," says John, "that you'd be better off addicted to cocaine, because they have clinics for that."

Thrill seeking is at the heart of auto racing, whether you're behind the wheel or in the stands.

On the racetrack, at a potentially life-threatening moment, there's not much time to be scared, says Carey. "Coming towards a bad wreck," she explains, "you clench the wheel and get ready for it. It's all over before you know it."

She walked away from the the Watkins Glen pileup with only a few bruises, having been protected in an elaborate cage and harnessed securely into one of the car's most expensive parts, a seat molded to her body. "I'm very safety conscious," she insists. On the road she drives a Hyundai, and not very fast. She's never received a speeding ticket.

On the track it's different. Speed is not only permitted – it's necessary. And it's fun. "The best time I have," Carey says, smiling wistfully, "is turning the fastest time on the track at Loudon at a 125 average speed."

Michael Matros is editor of  Keene State Today.