Cloverdale’s Karen Wilkie remembers exactly how it felt getting back in the driver’s seat after a decade away from stock car racing.
It was April 26, 2014, and as she sat in a 1991 Honda Civic waiting to enter the course, her heart pounded in her chest and her breathing was quick. She was feeling nervous, even afraid, but somehow exhilarated, too.
She hadn’t slept well the night before – she’d been too preoccupied with images of the track’s corners and banks, scared she’d use the wrong foot to clutch and brake. The left foot does both in stock car racing.
Then, the flag waved. It was her turn to go.
“At that moment, all those fears and anxieties vanished, and I was driving, in my element,” Wilkie recalls of her comeback after more than a decade off road to start a family. “I knew this was where I was meant to be. It felt great!”
Today, Wilkie is a rising star at Agassiz Speedway, where she races Saturday nights in the Hornet class.
She still goes through the same mix of anxiety, fear, exhilaration and excitement the night before.
“It’s just part of the adrenaline rush of being part of the race,” she says, adding she believes it’s the same for every race car driver, rookie or seasoned veteran.
The smell of the track – burning metal, brakes and oil – takes her back to her roots.
Growing up in the 1970s and ‘80s, she loved going to the PNE each summer with her parents and three sisters. The highlight – other than riding the wooden roller coaster – was watching the demolition derby.
Noisy and exciting, the derby was an irresistible combination of skill, calculated bravery and raw recklessness.
Drivers in specially-modified cars crashed into each other on purpose. The last car still moving was declared the winner, so drivers kept going as long as they could, even with flat tires and blown radiators, a spectacle that filled the arena with smoke, exhaust and the roar of labouring engines.
By Grade 12, she’d signed up for auto mechanics at school, earning top marks. The derby was cancelled by the time she graduated.
But it was brought back in 1992. Wilkie found herself helping her buddy Al Silvester and his girlfriend drum up sponsors for an old wreck so he could turn it into a rollover stunt car and enter it at the PNE. She was into photography at the time, and her photos helped him earn the notice of sponsors.
Wilkie admits she wasn’t content to stay behind the camera lens – she wanted in on the action, and by 1995, Silvester built her a rollover stunt car of her very own.
“It was a dream come true,” she says. After years of being a spectator, she was finally part of the show.
Immersed in the world of automobile mayhem, she was in her element for the next five years until the derby – a PNE tradition for 30 years – was finally cancelled for good.
Wilkie got a chance to try her hand at stock car racing at the final derby in 2000. It was an all-female exhibition race.
She had so much fun she convinced someone to let her drive a Honda Civic at a mini-stock race at Abbotsford’s Agrifair the following year.
By then, she’d become a mom. So, for the next dozen years, she took a break from motorsports to get married and raise three kids, moving to Cloverdale in 2004.
The marriage, she says, didn’t work out. But her passion for motorsports never died.
“I knew when my kids were old enough, I’d get back to it some way, somehow.”
That day came when a friend who has raced at Agassiz for a number of years asked Silvester if he knew of anyone willing to race his college-bound daughter’s old stock car.
Apart from mini-stock at the PNE, Wilkie’s racing experience was pretty slim. But it was the opening she’d been waiting for.
Fortunately, the car – a 1991 Honda Civic – was handed to her with the promise that she could just take it out and just have fun, to see if she liked it.
Well, like it she did.
She entered every race she could, competing in nine of 10 scheduled race dates in 2014, earning enough points to rank eighth out of 24 drivers, and become the top female driver in the standings.
Not bad for a rookie.
She thrives on the technical challenge of precision driving – it’s not just about going fast, but also knowing how to time the brake in the turn. Plus, there’s the undeniable element of danger.
“That adrenaline rush is probably the highlight of being a participant in this crazy and wonderful sport.”
Her team, Cat Attack, is excited about the 2015 season, which got underway a few weeks ago at Agassiz, where Wilkie – No. 29 – is trying out a new race car, a 1993 Honda Civic built using pieces of her previous ‘91 Civic.
Preparing the cars to race, “does take a good chunk of cash,” she says, “from spare parts, to reinforcing body parts – so they don’t fly off in a crash, for example – to engine oil and fuel, even paint.”
It all adds up, so it’s important to attract sponsors to help offset the costs of fueling her passion for the raceway.
She’s grateful for the support of local Surrey and Langley businesses.
Agassiz Speedway is a quarter mile oval track run by a non-profit society and featuring four categories of racing.
Wilke enters in the Hornet class – simply-built, four-cylinder cars that are relatively affordable for racers wanting to enter the sport.
The track is just a six minute drive from Harrison Hot Springs, making it a fun destination as an outing for a family on a Saturday night. Spectators can take in the races and go relax at the resort. There’s camping nearby, too.
Team Cat Attack is also looking for pit crew members to assist with mechanical issues, change tires, check fluid levels and change broken parts.
“A good race car always has a good team behind it, not just a good driver,” says Wilkie, who wants to help spread awareness about the track, in hopes of luring more spectators out to watch, and encourage potential racers.
“Hornet class racing is for your every day Joe to get out there and drive fast, sometimes in excess of 120 km/h – in second gear!” she says.
“We want folks to know they don’t have to use the streets to drive fast. They can build a race car and take it to the track and satisfy that hunger for speed.”
Age isn’t a barrier – there are racers in their teens and drivers who are over 70.
Wilkie traces her fascination with motorsports back to her own childhood.
Her dad, a member of the Burnaby Road Regals car club, used to take her mom on dates to Abbotsford, where in the 1950s there were street races by the airport.
“My mom told me stories of how the police would shut down sections of road, just so the street racers could have their fun on Saturday nights,” says Wilkie, adding girlfriends and wives got to race in the powder puff race at the end of the night.
Now a single mom of three, racing her heart out on Saturday nights in Agassiz, she is continuing that family tradition. “It’s in my blood!”
With motorsports, she feels right at home.
“I may not be the best at what I do, but I’m right there with the guys, enjoying every minute of it.”
On June 20, Wilkie is one of the many Hornet class drivers competing in a doozy – a 100-lap race.
It should be an exciting night for the fans, she says, adding there will also be many drivers from other tracks visiting that day, too.
– The schedule is at agassizspeedway.com.