SEATTLE — Three or four times a month during the racing season, Molly Helmuth and her father Mike drive from their Seattle home to Monroe’s Evergreen Speedway for a night of racing. Some nights she competes in her go-kart, other nights in a mini stock car.
Afterward, Molly and her dad head back to Seattle. She sits in the passenger seat because she doesn’t have a driver’s license. She doesn’t even have a learner’s permit.
Molly Helmuth is 14 years old.
She turns 15 next month and, golly, is she excited about getting her permit.
“I can already drive,” she said with a big smile, “but then I’ll actually be able to drive with my dad to the track. That’ll be fun.”
In the meantime, Molly is honing her skills for her eventual driver’s test — that’ll be about a year from now, when she goes for her license — by racing at Evergreen Speedway and other tracks around the Pacific Northwest. This is her fourth season of driving go-karts and her first in mini stocks following a recent NASCAR rule change that dropped the minimum age for drivers from 16 to 14.
And she is doing very well. She is sixth out of 18 drivers in the mini stock class and tops among first-year drivers, giving her a good chance to finish as the 2010 Rookie of the Year.
Molly got the racing bug as a small girl when she accompanied her father to Monroe to watch uncle Rod Helmuth, a longtime driver at Evergreen Speedway. It didn’t take long before she was hooked.
“I’ve always loved racing,” she said. “I’d go watch (Rod Helmuth) run those laps every week and I’d be like, ‘Dad, I want to do that.’ Finally, when I was 11 they got me into go-karts.”
Go-karts might be for youngsters, but they are hardly child’s play. Those kid-sized vehicles can reach speeds up to 85 mph on an ordinary track, and upwards of 100 mph on a street track with a long straightaway.
Right from the start, Molly loved it. Unlike her older sister Amy, who enjoys music and drama — she sang the national anthem before an Everett AquaSox game last season — “I’m more on the danger side,” Molly said. “I’ve always loved going fast.”
In her go-kart, Mike Helmuth said, “she’ll go into that first corner screaming, just like the rest of the boys.” And as a parent, he added, “you always take a deep breath.”
Molly and her dad are spending most weekends of this season racing the mini stock in Monroe and Ephrata, and the go-kart at tracks in Washington, Oregon and British Columbia. In go-karts she competes against other teenagers, but in mini stock her rivals are mostly adults, mostly men.
Does that create problems? Not really, although “no one wants to get beat by a girl,” she acknowledged. But mostly the other drivers and crews “are pretty nice to me. They seem to like me. So I haven’t had any problems with my age or because I’m a girl. … I’m just another racer.”
And being the niece of Rod Helmuth, who has been racing at Monroe for 24 years, certainly helps, too.
“A lot of the guys who are friends with my uncle and are in my class, they say things like, ‘Man, you kicked that guy’s butt. Good job!’” she said.
At the start of the season, Rod Helmuth was as curious as anyone to see how Molly handled her mini stock. And from the first day, he said, “she’s been amazing. She had no fear. … When I was 14, there’s no way I would’ve been doing what she’s doing.
“I’ve seen a lot of rookies and I don’t even want to race with some of them. They’re just road blocks out there. But she goes out and she races. She drives really clean, she holds her line and she’s not afraid to push the throttle down.
“Everybody she’s talked to or who has mentored her or given her lessons, they say she’s a natural. People are saying she’s a girl that has it.”
For Molly, one of the best parts of race nights comes afterward, when fans get a chance to mingle with the drivers, seeking autographs and photographs.
“You feel like a celebrity,” she said, grinning again. “It’s great.”
Molly gives candy to the youngest fans and sometimes “the boys just come up to get the candy,” she said. “But the girls look up to me a lot more. They’re all pretty shy, but a lot of them will come up and want pictures with me.”
In the years ahead, Molly hopes to progress in racing, eventually moving into bigger, faster cars. Her dream would be to have a career like her favorite driver, Danica Patrick.
“I can’t think of any other jobs right now that I’d want besides racing,” she said. “I don’t want to be a doctor. I don’t want to be a lawyer. I don’t know what I want to be. Right now it’s pretty much just racing.
“I’m not really thinking about fame or anything else. It’s just fun. And I was born to do it.”