Up-and-comer Kate Dallenbach has the drive to succeed
Kate Dallenbach had received a piece of racing advice from her mom, former driver Robin McCall Dallenbach, that she'd taken to heart.
"If you go down into the corner and you have the line, you own that piece of pavement. If they come down on you, you don't lift."
Mom's point was that to earn respect, every race driver has to establish a willingness to crash rather than back down. The only problem was that on this particular night a couple of years ago at Florida's New Smyrna Speedway, Kate was racing her brother, Jake.
"He started first and I started third, so I was right behind him," Kate, now 19, recalled. "It wasn't very long into the race when I went to pass him. And, well, and my story is that he didn't give me any room and turned into me. We got together and wrecked each other and ended up in the wall at the same time."
The siblings wound up parked in front of where their parents were standing. Embarrassed and nervous.
"I was so mad," Robin remembered. "Wally was mad. I was like, 'Why?' And Kate goes, 'I did what you always told me to do. I owned that piece of pavement.' I said, 'but that's your brother!' "
With not one but two parents who were successful race drivers, a grandfather who's practically an icon of Indy car racing and older brothers who are drawn to speed, Kate Dallenbach wasn't going to end up chasing an office job.
Six months shy of her 20th birthday, she has been driving various types of race cars for almost a dozen years. And that miscue at New Smyrna notwithstanding, she is starting to impress. She is coming off her first head-turning accomplishment: a late model victory last month at historic and tough Hickory Motor Speedway in North Carolina.
She'll race again Friday night at Southern National Motorsports Park near Kenly, North Carolina.
"It meant a lot to get a win at Hickory, because we had the worst luck possible there last year," Kate said. "It gave me a lot of excitement for the year, knowing that if I can do it at Hickory, I can do it anywhere."
That isn't exactly how the song goes, but winning at Hickory -- the 65-year-old track bills itself the "birthplace of the NASCAR stars" because of its storied place in stock car racing history -- keeps Dallenbach pointed toward her goal of reaching the Sprint Cup series in a few years.
She has a couple of key relationships in place: partial sponsorship from Bass Pro Shops' SHE Outdoors apparel -- a natural fit because of her family's love of hunting and fishing -- and support from prominent NASCAR team owner Richard Childress, who signed her to a developmental driver contract last year.
"Hopefully, I can finish up the late models this year and, next year, start testing and moving into the [Camping World] Truck Series," Dallenbach said.
Name recognition won't be a problem. Wally Dallenbach Jr. is a two-time Trans-Am champion and four-time class winner of the 24 Hours of Daytona who drove for Hendrick Motorsports and other prominent teams in NASCAR. He has worked for NBC, TNT and Fox Sports as a race commentator and analyst. Robin Dallenbach made two starts in NASCAR's top division in 1982, when she became the youngest woman to qualify for a Cup race at age 18, and raced other types of cars.
Wally Sr. won five Indy car races between 1965 and '79, nearly won the 1975 Indy 500, and was Championship Auto Racing Teams' chief steward from 1981 to 2004.
"My parents were definitely my biggest role models and who I looked up to the most," Kate Dallenbach said. "They've been there in the position I'm in and they're really knowledgeable about racing. They're not just my role models, they're also my support team."
Brothers Jake and Wyatt both raced but didn't have the financial backing to take it very far. Jake is an instructor at the BMW Performance Driving School, and both brothers do stunt car driving, along with their non-racing endeavors.
They were driving quarter-midgets on small tracks in Robin's native Texas when Kate got the bug at age 8.
"I saw my brothers doing it, and I really wanted to beat them," Kate said. "I basically said that if they can do it, I can do it. And I can do it better than them. That's pretty much how I got into it."
To understand that mentality, you have to know the Dallenbach clan. Losing isn't an option, whether it's on the track or at the fishing pond.
"We have to be careful what we do as a family, because we are all so competitive," Wally Jr. said. "We don't sit down after dinner and play board games because it normally ends up in things being thrown and people mad at each other."
Wally Jr. says he can't even watch his daughter race. Not much, anyway.
"Robin stands on the truck and watches every lap," he said. "I don't. I'm a basket case watching her run. I'm not worried about her. I'm worried about somebody doing her wrong. If I'm on the inside of the racetrack, it's not going to be pretty."
Even at the Hickory race that Kate won, Wally Jr. paced outside of the track until there were five laps to go and Kate was leading.
"They were under the yellow, so there was going to be a five-lap shootout" he said. "I just knew they were going to jack her out of shape and it was going to get ugly. So I'm standing there and I'm watching the last five laps. And they did. They were all over her. They had her wheels off the ground and everything. But she saved it and drove away from them.
"I'm real proud of her racing. I know she can drive a race car. But I don't know how dads do it -- how dads can watch their daughters race against those animals."
Promise made, promise kept
Kate Dallenbach gazed at a doorway and saw her future when she was 9 or 10 years old. She and Robin were in driver Mike Skinner's motor coach at Daytona International Speedway, where Wally Jr. was on TV duty, when in walked Childress, the team owner who'd provided the cars for six of Dale Earnhardt Sr.'s seven Cup championships.
The back story is that Wally Jr. and Childress had been friends for some time. Wally had invited the avid outdoorsman on an African safari many years earlier, and through their common interests and subsequent trips, they'd established a bond. And here was Childress in the motor coach asking young Kate about her quarter-midget racing.
"He told me that when I was ready to give him a call," Kate said. "So I always remembered that. Even when I was little and just starting out, I knew that one day my dream was to be racing for Richard Childress. So I was fortunate enough the past two years to be his developmental driver. I probably wouldn't even be in the position I am in with the late models if it wasn't for him."
Robin McCall, as she was known when she started racing, was a talented driver who, like Janet Guthrie a few years before her, never got the financial backing to make a serious run at success.
McCall won a race at New Smyrna Speedway, where she caught the eye of Jim "J.D." Stacey, a wealthy coal miner who was investing heavily in NASCAR at the time. Stacey invited the teenage McCall to test a car at Daytona and, impressed with what he saw, signed her to a 5-year contract. But McCall started only two Cup races, both at Michigan International Speedway, before Stacey fell into financial difficulty.
"I don't think the sport was ready for an 18-year-old girl at that time," Robin said. She told of an incident at a track in which she left the garage area wearing her driver's suit but couldn't get back in because the guard demanded to see a pass she wasn't carrying. "I think it would be different today."
She would go on to race on dirt tracks and paved short tracks, drive in the IMSA GT Championship road racing series and drive a pace car on the CART circuit. She married Wally Jr. in the mid '80s after the two were introduced by fellow driver Patty Moise.
Besides her racing advice, Robin has tried to help Kate prepare for her off-track responsibilities.
"Like talking to people," Robin said. "People come up and have questions for you. Take the time when you talk to people and don't be rude to anyone. You're a role model for little girls, and always be conscious of that and be conscious of what you do and what you say."
Kate Dallenbach speaks in a measured tone, pausing to consider questions before answering. She's already a pro at the sponsorship piece.
"What I think is really neat is I have a sponsor who is not only connected to racing, but also is connected to one of my other passions, which is being in the outdoors, hunting, fishing, shooting," Kate said. "It all fits together, and not a lot of other people or families have that in common."
But can she drive? What's known at this juncture is that Kate Dallenbach, just 19, can hold her line.