Jessica Clark driven to succeed

IRWINDALE, Calif. -- Jessica Clark caught the racing bug at the Golf N' Stuff in Ventura. She was racing go-karts against her mom when she was 10 years old. After their visit, Clark decided she wanted to race a real go-kart.

"It was a lot of fun, but I wanted to go faster," said Clark, a 17-year-old junior at Westlake High School in Westlake Village. "I love spending time at racetracks, any racetrack. If I'm not racing, I'll go watch a race."

She's looking for another upgrade in race cars as she prepares for her latest season. She will be competing in the S2 stock car class at Toyota Speedway at Irwindale, in addition to running her Ford Focus Midget throughout the western United States.

Her father estimates she'll be racing about 30 times over the summer and into the fall. By comparison, NASCAR Sprint Cup drivers race 36 times a season.

It will be a busy summer for Clark, running the most races she's run in her career. She will be racing a total of 12 times in the S2 stock car at Irwindale. Her first was April 9 in a 10-car field. She slammed the rear of her car into the Turn 4 wall late in the race and came in ninth place. She won a Ford Focus Midget race at the Bullring in Las Vegas a week later.

In addition to Irwindale, she will be traveling to Las Vegas; Blythe, Calif.; Lake Havasu City, Ariz.; and Madera, Calif., for Ford Focus Midget races. Sometimes it means missing school to race.

"My teachers are behind it. If my teachers weren't supportive of my racing it would be very tough, because I have to miss almost every Friday of school," Clark said. "I get a little bit behind, but my grades have been straight A's so it's been great."

Not many teenagers, let alone girls, take to auto racing. Clark knows she has an unusual passion for race cars. But it doesn't diminish how much time she devotes to pursuing her racing career.

"Being the only girl in high school that races, it's not tough. It's cool. I feel unique," Clark said. "Not many people understand how intense it is. They think, 'Your cars probably don't go very fast or anything.' That's their own opinion."

The race at Toyota Speedway will be her second career start in the S2 stock car. She ran one race for owner Tim Huddleston last year. He has been watching her improve as a driver for the past three years. She took part in a driver combine at Irwindale when she was 14 and impressed Huddleston even then.

"She's got a will to drive race cars that I don't see in many people," said Huddleston, a two-time track champion at Irwindale and owner of the High Point Racing team.

Clark's father, Rich, admitted he is a little nervous about his daughter's latest venture in racing. The S2 stock cars are heavier, faster and have significantly more horsepower than the Ford Focus Midgets.

"I am completely comfortable when she's racing. I have confidence in her ability," Rich said. "I get concerned about some of the other drivers. Her gift is being smooth. I'm grateful for the safety of the equipment in the cars, but I do get nervous."

Clark, the only daughter of a firefighter and a retired elementary school teacher, has also played soccer. The racetrack, it turns out, has been safer than the soccer field. She said she earned a spot on her high school soccer team but hurt her knee and had to sit out a season. During one of her practices, she was hit in the head and had to get eight stitches to close up a wound. She even joked to her mom that she needed to give up soccer so she could stay healthy enough to race.

"With racing, it's more on the edge. Soccer, it's just a game," Clark said. "Racing, you have to pay attention to every single thing you're doing because you're on the edge. I like it. I love it a lot."

She is no stranger to Toyota Speedway, either. She drove her Ford Focus Midget in the Turkey Night Grand Prix in November, a night of US Auto Club open-wheel races at the track. Before her race, she said she wanted to finish in the top 10. She nearly pulled it off, moving into seventh place late in the race before running out of fuel and having to withdraw.

"These cars are actually easy to drive. For me, coming from the Focus one weekend and the S2 another weekend, it's difficult because of the weight difference," she said. "With the midget, you can throw it around and put it in small places. You can do a lot with it. With the S2, you have to be very smooth. Luckily, I'm a very smooth driver. You have to be very consistent with your line. It's so heavy and it's got more power. It's a whole different feel than the midget."

As she prepares for her first season in stock cars, Clark has set some lofty goals.

"I actually have pretty high expectations for myself," Clark said. "My main goal is to qualify well each event. That's my goal for all my cars; for my Ford Focus, too. I want to be able to start in a good position for the main. I think we might be able to pull off, hopefully, a championship."

Tim Haddock is a freelance journalist who writes for nascar.com and is author of the blog haddockinthepaddock.com