At age 100, she has a need for speed

The VIP at Sunday's Lenox Industrial Tools 301, one of New England's biggest racing events of the year, stands 4-foot-10, has curly white hair and sounds, when she speaks in her soft, croaky voice, exactly like your grandmother. But at 100 years old, Laconia, N.H., native Rachel Gilbert is likely older than your granny, and she almost certainly has a different hobby: watching NASCAR.

That's right: Gilbert -- born in 1911, just three years after Henry Ford debuted the Model T, when many still rambled about town in horse-drawn buggies -- is a lifelong motorsports buff. And this weekend, as racing fans descend on Loudon, N.H., and the New Hampshire Motor Speedway, Gilbert will take a break from bingo to preside, from the perch of a VIP suite, as the grand dame of the Magic Mile.

The big fuss started back in April, when Gilbert was invited to celebrate her centenary birthday by taking a few spins around the famed 1.058-mile oval track in an official Toyota pace car. Gilbert hadn't driven in five years since retiring her license and the keys to her beloved Mercury Sable, and she needed a seat cushion to see over the steering wheel, but no matter. With track vice president Jerry Gappens sitting shotgun and her daughter, Helen Nickel, in the back, Gilbert slipped into the driver's seat, flapped her arms and with a rousing "Let's go!" sped eight laps around the oval, never making it above 54 mph but laughing all the way.

"Oh, it was just wonderful," Gilbert says of her drive. "I was all excited."

Regional media soon caught wind of the story, and within days, Gilbert had become a local celebrity. She's since been invited back to the track to serve as grand marshal for the F.W. Webb 100 on Saturday, and she'll watch Sunday's Sprint Cup race with her family in a luxury box.

So how does the sprightly good ol' gal feel about her newfound fame?

"It's very exciting," she says. "I mean, it's been party after party!"

Gilbert is by nature outgoing and warm, with a wide, easy smile and small eyes that peer out from behind rimless glasses. She speaks softly and laughs often, and has an easy rapport with all the new people in her life. She even invited this young whippersnapper reporter up to Laconia for lunch and a "great big hug."

"She's just the sweetest woman," says Kristen Costa, the speedway's director of communications and one of the people who helped organize Gilbert's birthday celebration. "She is always so friendly and cute."

"She's got the most wonderful air about her," says Nickel, Gilbert's daughter. "The people in her building say she is always smiling, always saying, 'Good to see you,' and asking how everyone is doing. She's very popular around here because of that smile of hers."

Gilbert was born and raised in Laconia, one of 11 children of a local mill owner. In her 20s, Gilbert met her future husband, Eugene, a contractor in the area. They soon wed in nearby Sacred Heart Church -- the same church in which Gilbert was baptized -- and together they would have three children and be married for nearly 70 years.

"My dad was a very hard worker, and my mother was the bookkeeper for his business," Nickel says. "Everyone around town knew Eugene Gilbert and my mom, because she was the backbone of the family."

Eugene was a big racing fan, and, historically, credit for Gilbert's love of NASCAR goes to him -- although, Nickel says, "she almost liked it more than he did." Together, Gilbert and her husband flocked to tracks across the country -- the Phoenix International Raceway in Arizona, the Daytona International Speedway in Florida and, of course, the New Hampshire Motor Speedway back home, although in those days it was known as Bryar Motorsports Park.

Gilbert and her husband were in Daytona in 1979 when Richard Petty outlasted Donnie Allison to win his sixth Daytona 500, and after another race, the duo met Dale Earnhardt -- "the father," Gilbert says. "Not the young one. He was very nice. We both enjoyed talking with him very much."

Eugene died four years ago, at age 96, but Gilbert still watches the racing action each Sunday on television, tuning in from her apartment at the Bishop Bradley senior living facility in Laconia, where friends have nicknamed her "Speedy" because "you can't keep up with her," as Nickel says.

"She goes running around, down to the dining room, all over her apartment," Nickel says. "When we go out, one of us will hold her hand -- she doesn't like two people to do it -- and she'll go running out of the house so fast it's hard to keep up. Sometimes I say, 'Mom, don't go so fast!'"

This weekend, the little old lady from Laconia will race on over to Loudon, where, with her family, she'll continue her marathon month as the toast of the small town. With any luck, she'll even meet her favorite driver, Carl Edwards, whom she likes because he "seems like a very nice man."

"I am so excited," Gilbert says. "Going to the races with my children, that will be unbelievable. It is all just so special, being with my children and good friends. I feel so very fortunate."