Nicole Behar Trying To Make Her Sprint Cup Dream A Reality
Nicole Behar is a bright and friendly 17-year-old who just finished high school a year early in Spokane, Washington. She has started classes at Eastern Washington University and has a firm plan.
It's her Plan B.
Nursing school and working in pediatrics holds a strong appeal, but what Behar really wants to do is a drive a race car in NASCAR' s major league series.
The dream isn't as far-fetched as it sounds. Behar already is racing in a respected NASCAR regional series, and on at least one occasion she's turned heads so fast she's caused whiplash.
In April, she became the highest-finishing female driver in the 61-year history of the K&N West series when she finished second in a race at Irwindale Event Center in Southern California. (Kenzie Ruston has a second in the K&N East series.)
A month later, Behar was introduced as the only female driver in the 12-member 2015-16 NASCAR Next class in a presentation at the NASCAR Hall of Fame.
"I got the call from NASCAR while I was driving to school, and of course I was really excited," Behar said. "We've gotten some nice attention from it. I've had a lot of media outlets call to find out more about we're doing, and our local media has given us a lot of attention."
NASCAR Next -- not to be confused with NASCAR's Drive for Diversity developmental program for female and multicultural drivers and pit crew members -- spotlights potential future stars of stock car racing.
Drivers must be between the ages of 15 and 25, have "tangible and expressed goals" of competing in the Sprint Cup series and be showing the potential to get there. Selectees receive marketing and promotional help that can connect them to sponsors and other opportunities.
Alumni in the young program include 2014 Xfinity Series champion Chase Elliott and 2014 Sprint Cup Rookie of the Year Kyle Larson, as well as Cole Custer, who became the youngest winner in one of NASCAR's three national series last year when he won in the Camping World Truck Series at 16.
Twenty-one of the 28 drivers selected before this year have raced in Sprint Cup, Xfinity or the Truck series, and 11 are competing full time in one of those series this year. So the designation bodes well for Behar's prospects.
"Hopefully, I can make it to Sprint Cup in the next five years," Behar said. "Next year, I'd really like to be in a truck. Or maybe even the K&N East Series [generally considered a step up], and then kind of work my way up to Sprint Cup."
The Spokane area isn't exactly a hotbed for stock car racing, but it offers enough. Behar is a fifth-generation driver whose parents, Mike and Sherri, met while racing go-karts as kids and exposed their daughter to miniature snowmobiles and 4-wheelers not long after she could walk.
Next year, I'd really like to be in a truck. Or maybe even the K&N East Series, and then kind of work my way up to Sprint Cup.Nicole Behar
"I asked for a horse when I was 8, and they got me horse power," Nicole said.
Mike explained: "I got her 6½ horses."
Nicole learned to drive that go-kart "on cow poop" around the work barn and never hit the brakes, winning six championships, including the International Kart Racing Federation Region 6 Gold Cup Series.
She moved up to 4-cylinder cars as a preteen -- something that was allowed on her local track -- and got her first win in her fifth start. She was rookie of the year in her first season in the higher-powered late models and made her debut in super late models at 15, setting a track record in her first race, according to her bio.
All of which couldn't have made her dad prouder. Mike, the son and grandson of racing men, quit his own driving career to become his daughter's car owner, driving coach, truck driver and -- until this year -- crew chief.
"She loves it more than I ever did, and she has proven to be quite the racer," he said.
Nicole Behar's breakout race, the one that really got her noticed, was that second-place finish in the King Taco Catering/NAPA Auto Parts 150 at Irwindale on April 11. It wasn't only that she finished second but also how she got there.
"She made a pass coming for second on the very last lap to get around Dalton Sargeant [another NASCAR Next member] and performed a textbook slide job right across the front bumper of him to secure that spot," said Kip Childress, the K&N West series director.
"She had a little help from Dalton because, if he would have been a rough and aggressive driver, he could have turned her. They would have both wrecked, and we would have had one heck of a mess on our hands at the end of the race. So there was a lot of give and take there. She didn't rough him up to try to get around him, and I think he cut her a break because of that."
Behar has scored two top-5 finishes in her eight starts this season -- she was fifth at Tucson, Arizona, in May -- and she's a respectable 10th in the standings, one spot below Brandon McReynolds, the son of former Daytona 500-winning crew chief Larry McReynolds.
Being fast isn't the only reason Behar is considered a prospect for moving up. Childress speaks of her exceptional car control, patience, and ability to save the car from damage and mechanical failures.
"If you stay out of the team owner's pocketbook, that's a really good thing," he said. "I think a lot of that goes back to the fact her dad is the car owner. She knows firsthand that if she wrecks the race car, the expense comes out of her dad's pocket. Add to that the fact she treats other drivers with respect, and if she does that, she's going to get that in return and everybody wins."
There are times when that's challenging, Behar conceded.
"There are some guys out there that definitely don't like being beat by a girl, and they'll drive me a little rougher than they would the males out there," she said. "But I try to race everyone clean and how I would want people to treat me. And that's just kind of how I earn my respect."
It's an approach that just might take her further down the path in her Plan A.