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Fast-track teen

SUNDAY, JULY 31, 2011

By the time Nicole Behar slid behind the wheel of her No. 38 Ford Mustang on a recent Wednesday night, her family was getting a little nervous. Three other top racers at Stateline Speedway had turned in strong performances during time trials.

The time to beat was 15.399 seconds, and Behar had been running closer to 15.60 on the quarter-mile track.

Behar took off for a warm-up, then roared past the green flag and into her first lap. When her time lit up the scoreboard, her mother, Sherry, and father, Mike, started cheering.


Then came the icing. Just for good measure, a 15.283 in her second lap. Only one-tenth off the track record.

The Mustang cruised into a pit stop and Nicole’s grandfather, Duncan Behar, pounded the hood.

“Yeah, baby!” he yelled. “I saw you coming on the first lap and I knew it. I heard her coming in on the corner and I go, ‘Oh, yeah!’ ”

Nicole Behar pulled all 5-feet-1-inch of herself out the car window, clad head to foot in black. She pulled off her helmet and shook out her long, blond ponytail.

“Look at her struttin’ now,” her grandfather said, laughing.

Not bad for a kid who won’t have a license to drive on public streets for three more years.

Behar is 13 years old, and though teenagers racing is nothing new, few around the Inland Northwest have seen the success she has at such a young age. On Wednesday night, she broke the track record of 15:19 with a 15:17 lap. And she almost won the night’s big race, finishing a close second to a racer 10 years her senior.

In her first year of racing, Behar has consistently remained near the top of the standings and currently ranks second in points. In her first race, she was third-fastest. Some drivers don’t win a race for years, but she won her fifth race and has always been among the four fastest cars on the track in the Wednesday night Fever 4 series.

Women are not new to racing; NASCAR driver Danica Patrick, the best known female race car driver, was the first woman to win an Indy car race in 2008. In Behar’s Saturday night race series, her aunt, Kelly Allison, races against her.

But Behar is the only girl in the two series she competes in – the Fever 4 and the Baby Grands.

“She can drive right alongside those guys,” said Billy Husk, of Hillyard, a past street stock champion who built many of the cars at Stateline. “She’s just this tiny little thing that’s out here, and she’s rolling side by side with the big boys.”

In her blood

Behar, an eighth-grader to-be in the East Valley School District, is a five-time go-kart champion who began racing at age 8. She comes from a motor-loving family: She was driving a child’s-size snowmobile at 3 and a four-wheeler by 4.

“I love to race,” Behar said. “I think it’s just in my blood. I hope I’m going to get to NASCAR. That’s my dream.”

She’s the third generation of race car drivers in her Otis Orchards family, following her grandfather, Duncan, 63, and her father, Mike, 39.

“Everybody thought I was done when I had a girl,” Mike Behar said, chuckling. “The generation was gonna stop when I had a girl. She likes it so much, Dad had to quit.”

In 2006, after winning the Inland Northwest Super Stock Association championship by one point, Mike Behar hung up his wheels to manage his daughter’s passion. He’s her pit crew, her mentor and her inspiration. In the Baby Grand class, Behar chose No. 33 because it was her father’s number.

“She likes it more than I ever did,” Mike Behar said. “She’d race every night of the week if she could.”

Race nights at Stateline Speedway start with practice – “hot laps” around the track. After that, time trials begin. Each driver does two laps around the track as fast as possible. Only the four fastest make their way into the “trophy dash,” a four-lap race that follows time trials.

After the dashes in each car class, the 8- to 10-lap heat races begin. Sometimes they’re split up by speed into two races, depending on number of cars. The final races of the night in each class are called the “main event,” usually 30 laps.

Like any sport, racing has its own language. When the car is “tight,” it’s not responding as the driver would like. If it’s “loose,” the back end is spinning out. And the “fast car” is the one that won.

Like Nicole Behar, many teenagers graduate from go-karts to four-cylinder cars. The best go on to race V8s. The Ford Mustang Behar drives has been completely gutted and converted for racing. On Saturday nights, she drives in the Baby Grand series, featuring custom-built four-cylinder cars about half the size of NASCAR cars.

Several of the race series at Stateline Speedway are open to younger drivers. The Baby Grand series on Saturday nights allows drivers as young as 12. The Wednesday night Fever 4 series allows drivers to be 14. Behar was accepted at 13 due to her extensive experience racing go-karts, said Randy Koch, speedway operator.

“She is absolutely great for the sport right now with her age and maturity level,” said Richard Mucciaccio, the speedway’s announcer and a former driver. “I can see each week how much she progresses. These young kids like this, they’re the next generation.”

When Nicole raced go-karts, her father said, she’d surf the Internet looking for races and beg her parents to take her. The top of the living room entertainment center is filled with dozens of trophies from her kart racing days. A wall leading to the lower level is filled with framed awards and news stories.

“We love racing,” said her mom, Sherry, who met Mike at age 8 racing go-karts. “Racing is our sport. Other people love basketball, baseball. We love racing.”

Nicole’s bedroom is bright pink, from the walls to the bedspread, but her Barbie doll, still in its plastic case, is “Race car driver Barbie,” modeled after Danica Patrick.

“Nicole’s already won a main event,” said Duncan Behar. “I didn’t win a main event until I was 40. I think she’s got the best raw talent. She was just born into it.”

Learning the ropes

Like the Behars, many of the families at Stateline have been racing for generations. In the Fever 4 series, Nicole is second in points to Spokane’s KC Garber, nephew of Dan Garber, who finished second to Mike Behar in the 2006 INSSA championship.

Nicole Behar’s success has bred a certain amount of acrimony among those who frequent the track. Some of the racers, such as KC Garber, attribute the majority of her success to the quality of her car and her family’s ability to buy parts. Others have contested her right to race in the Fever 4 series because she’s only 13.

Still, said KC Garber, 22, “I’m trying to do everything I can to keep up with her. She’s 13 and a girl. There probably aren’t many 13-year-olds that could get in that car and do as good as she’s doing.”

Another veteran driver, Rusty Webb, 23, of Deer Park, said Behar has a good car and a skilled pit crew, but a driver can’t win without talent. “She beat me last Wednesday,” Webb said on July 13. “She pulled a pretty good move on me. That’s racing to me.”

Husk, the car builder and longtime driver, said a lot of the racers are bothered by “getting beat by a girl. They’ve picked on her hard this year,” he said. “I admire her will not to back down.”

Behar’s parents take every possible safety precaution for their daughter, aware that she’s young and a beginner in a dangerous sport. Her suit is flame-retardant from head to toe, and she wears a neck brace, developed following the 2001 death of NASCAR driver Dale Earnhardt Sr., that keeps her head from snapping back in a crash.

Nicole has crashed twice, and once her brake line caught fire. All three times, she emerged unscathed. When the brake line exploded and burst into flames during a July 2 race in Montana, Mike Behar called his daughter on her radio and said, “You’re on fire, come in.”

“I was scared – a lot,” Nicole said. “I’ve never been on fire before.”

Following a crash on opening day of the Baby Grand races, Behar jumped into a backup car and still finished fifth.

As good as Behar may be and as much as she likes to win, she is still learning the ropes. At a recent Wednesday night race, she was boxed in by two drivers – KC Garber and his brother, Bryce Rupert – and hit Rupert’s car, sending it into a spin. The race official “black-flagged” her, which requires a car to sit out one of the 30 laps. At first uncertain the flag was for her then insisting she’d done nothing wrong, Behar didn’t come in.

That cost her so many points, her father said, she likely lost her shot at the Fever 4 championship.

“That’s part of learning it, part of doing it,” Mike Behar said. “It’s gonna happen.”

A crowd gathered around the Behars at the end of the night to commiserate but saw the event as just a speed bump for Nicole.

“She’s gonna own the racetrack world,” said fan and family friend Christie Burtonhart, of Otis Orchards. Burtonhart, 42, has been going to the races since she was a child. Nicole “is just like her dad. He was good, but she’s better.

“I think she’s gonna be the woman of NASCAR, bigger than Danica Patrick.”

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