Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Hayley Lager gets a jumpstart on racing

14-year-old Las Vegas girl trains at speedway with hopes of becoming the next Danica Patrick

By Anthony Fenech

Wednesday, Feb. 24, 2010 | 1:30 a.m.

Hayley Lager is 14 years old.

She's a freshman in high school, a self-proclaimed "girly girl" who likes to go to the mall with her friends.

She giggles before she laughs, has highlights in her hair and likes texting.

By all accounts, she's a typical teenage girl.

"I mostly like to do the normal things," Lager said.

She also drives race cars. And fast. Probably faster than you could. And she loves it.

"It's different," Lager said. "But I love it. The adrenaline, the speed and mostly the independence you have on the track. I guess I don't know why I like it so much, but I know I like it a lot."

Lager began her racing career at the ripe age of 11 after watching her current coach, Scott Gafforini, every now and then at the race track.

One day, during a training session at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, she wanted to try her hand.

"She was faster than anybody else there, even the adults," said Gafforini, who is a driver himself.

Lager drove the car in, turned with precision, stopped on a dime and drove the car out.

"Wow," he recalls thinking.

Lager liked being behind the wheel and said she wanted to try it.

"I asked her if she thought she could go faster," Gafforini said. "She said 'Yeah,' so I said 'Show me.'"

And she did.

"She's as good as I've seen for her age," Gafforini said. "She takes instructions very, very well and let's face it: She's fast."

As the one who broke NASCAR Sprint Cup Series driver Kyle Busch's Bullring track time in 2002, Gafforini would know a thing or two about being fast.

"From past experience," he continues, " I can tell you right now a female driver has better reflexes than a male driver. The only thing that holds them back is physical stamina."

For the past three years, Lager has been competing in the INEX division at the Bullring.

Her first year was all about getting used to the car and the track, and gaining the respect of other drivers.

"I was amazed she wanted to keep going," said her mother, Sunday Lager. "I thought her interests would go elsewhere but she's really focused right now, on the track, in the shop — it's fun to watch."

She pauses.

"At times. It's fun to watch at times."

In both her second and third years at the Bullring, Hayley finished second in championship points.

This season, thanks to NASCAR reducing the age limit from 16 to 14 in its Charger division, she will be competing in a division dominated by adult men.

Recently, Lager took her charger out to Lake Havasu, Ariz., for a practice session.

There, what began as a practice session ended as a race.

Afterwards, the black and pink No. 3 Buick Grand National looked the same as it had before — spotless.

"Usually kids will bang fenders and cause everyone to crash," Gafforini said. "There ain't a mark on that car."

Lager raced against a field of adult men and after the race, received a compliment from Havasu's Ralph Stewart, a 69-year-old who has won every race at the track this season.

"He told me I ran a good race," Lager said. "It felt good, coming from someone like that."

The two drivers are separated by 55 years of racing knowledge.

"That kind of respect from elders at a first race is very powerful," Gafforini said. "They usually don't do that."

Before the race, Lager told her mother she wasn't nervous. During the race, Sunday Lager said, she was so nervous she felt sick, and after the race, she asked Hayley if her heart was beating on the track.

"No," she responded. "I was just calm."

Lager works on the car daily — "It's all her work," Gafforini said — and chose the No. 3 because of her April 3 birthday and the pink numbers because, "I want people to know I'm a girl."

And in that same spirit, there's no surprise as to which driver she pays the most attention to.

"I admire Danica Patrick," she said. "And I aspire to be like her when she's older."

As she competes in her first NASCAR series with her trusty Buick charger, Grafforini is getting a head start on building a Super Late model Camaro.

"If she keeps outdriving these cars, we'll keep graduating her to other cars," he said.

And if the 14-year-old Las Vegas native keeps outdriving her competition, she will keep graduating to the next levels.

She won $75 in her first race and, if all goes according to plan, should win more money in more races in the future.

But in the present, as she watches intently as Patrick paves the way for women in stock-car racing, what does she plan on doing with that money?

"Probably go to the mall," she said.

Hayley Lager is 14 years old. What else would you expect?

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