SOUTH BOSTON, Va. — The long blonde hair hanging over the back of a racing suit covered with sponsor logos makes it apparent that Kristin Bumbera is not your average racer.
Her record confirms it; the 21-year-old Late Models whiz from Sealy, Texas, not only looks like a sponsor’s dream, but she drives like one, too, having claimed two victories and 11 top-five finishes in 2008 in the NASCAR Whelen All-American Series at Roseville, Calif.
Bumbera is one of 25 drivers vying this week in individual testing and evaluation sessions at South Boston Speedway for one of 14 spots in NASCAR’s sixth Drive for Diversity class.
The candidates include 16 women and nine men, ranging in age from 17 to 29 and all hoping to earn a fully funded ride for 2009. The diversity program will support 10 teams in the Whelen Series, and four more in the Camping World Series, the next step up for drivers.
Bumbera, bidding for her second year in the program, also knows that no female driver has ever made a mark in NASCAR beyond some status as a pioneer, and as she looks around at the ever-expanding numbers of women getting behind the wheel, she knows that will change.
“It’s definitely coming,” she said.
In its sixth year, the Drive for Diversity program has yet to produce a household name, and only this year can claim a champion. Paul Harraka, in his second D4D season, won 11 races at All-American Speedway in Roseville, Calif., and took the championship on the final day.
Harraka, a freshman at Duke with a double major in mechanical engineering and public policy, is back seeking a third season, and said he’s getting from the program what he needs.
It “has definitely meant a lot to my career,” Harraka said, noting that it lifted him from a Legends car racer into late models, a significant jump in class, and helped him get a full-time ride with Bill McAnally Racing. “That’s what the program does, it opens doors.”
Harraka, 19, auditioned again Monday in case one of the team owners or scouts who watched the first 13 candidates take laps liked what he saw. Each driver makes 30 laps, then gets a coaching session, followed by a 10-lap run that shows, among other things, coachability.
They finish with a two-lap mock qualifying run.
The other 12 driver candidates spent part of Monday in seminars that teach them about dealing with sponsors and the media, and the two groups trade places on the second day.
Max Siegel, president of global operations for Dale Earnhardt Inc., was among the team reps on hand Monday, and said he’s looking for “tomorrow’s future stars,” drivers who have already invested in their careers and who demonstrate they can run consistent, smooth laps.
The way young drivers present and comport themselves also is a big consideration for employers, Siegel said, but in the end, “you’re only as good as you are on the track.”
DEI already employs Jesus Hernandez, who spent four years in the program.
Bobby Hamilton Jr., who owns teams in the developmental series, also sent a scout to the combine on Monday, as did several owners of teams in the various developmental series.
“There’s a lot of pressure” on the drivers, McAnally said. “They know they’ve got booths full of people up here watching every lap, watching every word they’re saying.”
For Kortney Kosiski, 18, that prospect made it all the more nerve-racking. A third generation racer who runs dirt late models in Nebraska, she had never raced on asphalt.
“I’m very nervous,” she said. “This is the chance of a lifetime.”
After four years racing Soap Box Derby cars, Kosinski moved up to Hornets in 2005, won her first dirt late model race in 2007 and had one victory and seven top-fives finishes this season.
“Ever since I was little, I’ve always wanted to go race those cars,” she said of the ones used in NASCAR’s premier series. She said her family’s interest in auto racing of all kinds has continued to grow ever since her grandfather, Bob Kosiski, raced in the 1960 Daytona 500.
Given the chance to move up, she said, “then I’m living the dream.”
For many, the first step is just showing they belong.
Trista Stevenson learned that at the Music City Motorplex in Pocahontas, Ill., where she raced in the Whelen Series this year after not making it through the combine last year.
Guys she races against, she said, often flash “why are you here?” looks her way.
“They don’t think that girls can do it. Why? I don’t know,” she said. “We’re just like a guy except in a girl body. They’ll rough you up and try to take you out. If you let them take you out, they’re going to do it every week. You’ve just got to pound them back and show them that I’m not going to give up just because you’re a guy and I’m a 17 year-old girl.”
Or, in the case of Michael Cherry, a 19-year-old black driver trying to make his way.
Cherry is grateful for the program that gave him a steady ride last year, even if he had to commute from his home near Tampa, Fla., to Motor Mile Speedwway in southwest Virginia.
“It gives us hope that we do have a chance to make it somewhere and show what we’ve got,” Cherry said of the program. “If it wasn’t for this program, I wouldn’t be where I am now.”
Going forward, NASCAR hopes, Cherry and others will keep improving that position, too.