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A new type of fan trails Troxel to tracks

September 03, 2006|by STEVEN REIVE / Wheelbase Communications

If you look closely around drag-race tracks from Indianapolis, Ind., to Gainsville, Fla., to Pomona, Calif., something interesting is happening.

People who wouldn't normally care about drag racing suddenly care . . . a lot. People who haven't heard the terms ethanol, Top Fuel or NHRA, suddenly know them and much more.

In the stands there are young girls, older women, housewives and professionals. They're of all ages and come from all walks of life.

Call it the daughter factor.

Drag-race legend John Force has watched his three daughters follow in his footsteps. One daughter, Ashley, took the title in one of her divisions.

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Add another daughter of another father to that list. Only this one just might turn out to be better than her ol' pop.

If you haven't heard of Melanie Troxel, the daughter of drag racer Mike Troxel, you will.

She's the modern-day Shirley Muldowney, modeling herself after the young woman who began quarter-mile racing on drag strips 50 years ago and who turned an entire nation of men and women onto the sport.

Today it's Troxel's turn.

She's articulate, confident and accomplished. And if that sounds like a marketing dream to the folks at the National Hot Rod Association (NHRA), the sanctioning body that governs drag racing, so be it.

"In this day and age, as competitive as it is out there, to get sponsorship dollars you have to be able to work on every angle of the sport," Troxel recently told Fast Machines, a racing Internet site. "As far as being a racer, what it boils down to is still being a good race-car driver. At the end of the day, that's what we all want to be known for."

Troxel has that end covered.

This year, while driving the Top Fuel circuit - the highest class of NHRA where cars cover a quarter mile in 4.5 seconds at well over 300 mph - Troxel is at the top of the pack. She has led the overall points standings and challenged the big boys for the season crown.

Earlier this year, she set an NHRA record for the most consecutive final-round appearances (five) to open a season in Top Fuel. The quickest (4.458 seconds) and fastest (at 331.04 mph) woman racer in NHRA history, she is trying to become just the second woman to win an NHRA Top Fuel world championship title. Muldowney earned three during her driving career.

Troxel even won the prestigious Driver of the Year first-quarter award by a distinguished panel of auto-racing journalists. It's the first time in the 40-year history of the Driver of the Year award that a woman has won the quarterly vote.

If you think all of that is pretty fast, just wait until you get to know Troxel.

Born Aug. 31, 1972, she ran her first race at age 16 - just a few weeks after she earned her racing license - in a car with an engine she rebuilt herself.

Most of her interest came naturally. Melanie's father, Mike, was a well-known drag racer and her mother, Barbara, was an accomplished airline mechanic before switching to cars after marrying Mike.

Melanie was born to race, especially after growing up watching Muldowney.

"Somehow (Muldowney) cemented that desire to race," she said. "Nobody ever said I couldn't do it," she said.

In Troxel's class, skill is everything. The 2,150-pound Top Fuel cars routinely accelerate to 300-plus mph in just 1,320 feet using V-8 engines that push out 7,000 horsepower.

"I love the sport's intensity and 330 mph on the TV just isn't the same as seeing it in person," she said.

She also loves being a role model for drag racing.

Troxel has served as a commentator on drag racing broadcasts for ESPN TV and also takes part in other promotional events for the sport, including a program called "Race Divas," which takes a lighter look at women in racing. She's also married to Tommy Johnson Jr., who drives in the NHRA's "Funny Car" division, cars that roughly use the same engines as Top Fuel, only the Funny Cars have full bodies covering their mechanicals.

Away from the track, Troxel loves snowboarding and also stays busy with an auto supplier business.

Other drivers describe her as funny, engaging and personable.

"She's a real bonus for this sport," John Force recently said. "She walks into a room and the whole place lights up."

On the track, she continues to quite literally light it up, posting career-high scores and hopefully working her way to a title.

"Our big goal is to go out there and be the best team on the track and win some races," she said. "With any luck, we'll be in the chase for the championship at the end of the year."

Steven Reive is a feature writer with Wheelbase Communications. You can drop him a line on the Web at: www.wheelbase.ws/mailbag.html.

Copyright 2006, Wheelbase ommunications

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