- Associated Press - Saturday, October 7, 2017

LAFAYETTE, Ind. (AP) - Sara Elrod always thought about racing, which led to her to always writing about racing.

A.J. Foyt. Tony Stewart. The Indianapolis 500. Dirt track racing. If the thought or subject was about racing, she put her passion down on paper.

One day in class at Tri-County Junior High, Elrod wrote about racing. Again. The assignment - ‘What are you going to be when you grow up?’

Elrod was going to be a race car driver. You already knew the answer.

“The teacher told her, ‘Honey, you can’t do that. You’re going to need to pick something else.’ ” Donna Elrod, Sara’s mother, recalled.

Donna was infuriated.

Bill and Donna Elrod have fueled Sara’s racing passion from the time she stood on a grassy hill at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway watching Sarah Fisher qualify around the famous 2.5-mile track.

“I want to do that,” Sara remembers saying.

This was going to be her arena. She knew it at a young age.

Bill and Donna weren’t going to stand in the way of Sara’s determination, despite what a teacher who really didn’t know her said. Sara had a single-minded focus on racing since she can remember.

“We did not raise a well-rounded girl, and that’s our fault,” Donna said, trying to not be serious, although you can tell she is. “Sara has one passion.”

Sara smiles when she hears her mother’s words. She did play basketball at Tri-County for two years, but racing consumed her time and thoughts.

“I probably should’ve been more involved in other things but I wasn’t,” Sara said. “It was all racing stuff.”

Here’s your chance to jump on the Sara Elrod bandwagon.

Others have. The 23-year-old is turning her passion into a long career behind the wheel. It started nearly 20 years ago at IMS but began to unfold when, at the age of 5, Sara was seated in a 100cc Junior Micro Sprint purchased by her parents.

They took Sara to the US 24 Speedway in Cass County, Circus City Speedway in Miami County and on a trip to Terre Haute to witness the World of Outlaws series. By the age of 10, she was winning feature races and track championships.

She’s worked her way through different class levels and was eager to challenge herself against older and experienced racers in the Winged Outlaw Class.

Maybe one day she’ll line up at the Indianapolis 500 - that was her goal when she was 6 - and inspire other girls.

“I could tell she had the talent,” said Billy Rowlee, one of Elrod’s crew members when she started racing. “She wasn’t scared. There were other kids that, if they crashed, they would cry or quit. She would crash and say, ‘Can we go fix it?’ She had that racer mentality.”

Where did she get it?

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More than two decades ago, Bill and Donna were living in Kiowa, Kansas, a small town about 90 minutes southwest of Wichita. Bill was a member of the Kansas Air National Guard and was stationed at McConnell Air Force Base.

The Elrods wanted to start a family and looked into adoption. They were introduced to an adoption attorney and the process began. They were later contacted about adopting a biracial baby.

“No question we’re doing this,” said Bill, who is originally from Remington and moved the family back to his hometown about four years after adopting Sara.

Said Donna: “She was the best thing that’s happened to us.”

Her biological mother was only 16 at the time she gave birth. Sara did meet her four years ago, traveling to Mississippi to learn more about her background.

“My parents didn’t keep it from me. It’s kind of obvious,” Sara said, smiling. “They told me about her. I have pictures of her when she was in school. I wanted to meet her.”

Her life path would’ve been much different if Sara hadn’t been put up for adoption. She’s thought about it.

“Plenty of times,” she said. “It would be a completely different world for me.”

Bill has a history in racing. He closely followed the Indianapolis 500, attending the event with his dad. His first trip to Speedway was in 1969. He understands the technical side of racing and cars.

“Open-wheel racing is the true form, whether it be dirt or pavement,” Bill said. “I loved Indy from the time I went there.”

But other than Bill’s background, it’s difficult to find another link between Sara and racing. There are no dots to connect. Visiting area tracks and IMS brought out a deep-rooted passion that was buried deep inside Sara. It just needed the right moment to escape.

“I think you have to be born wanting to do something,” Sara said. “You want to be a writer, somebody else wants to be a firefighter. The people that I’ve been around and the way I grew up, it’s been one step after another that has led to now.”

Bill was only willing to invest in a car if Sara committed to the sport for one year. Remember, she was 5. How many 5-year-olds are committed to anything?

Almost 20 years later, here we are.

“The other kids would go to the track and play,” Bill said. “When she went to the track, she was hanging out with the other drivers. She made friends with them. She would go to the fence and watch them run their cars.

“She just had a passion, a desire, and was connected to race cars.”

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Doug Wright has always been connected to race cars. Wright once had the same goals and ambitions as Sara.

Wright put together a solid racing career but made the transition to business owner. He runs Doug Wright Racing & Promotions in Lafayette, specializing in driver training, auto restoration and building traditional hot rods.

Sara drives one of Wright’s cars and is a certified welder and fabricator in his shop located in Lafayette. She recently earned an industrial technology degree from Ivy Tech.

Bill Elrod and Wright knew each growing up. Both attended Tri-County. Wright had heard about Sara, but their paths never crossed.

Wright finally traveled to the US 24 Speedway and watched Sara compete.

“That was a terrible night,” Sara said. “I was leading when the motor blew.”

It didn’t change Wright’s first impression.

“That night, I became a sponsor,” he said.

Wright knows talented drivers. He was one himself. Elrod’s strengths were Wright’s strengths. Her weaknesses were Wright’s weaknesses. For Wright, it was one car, one opportunity each week. The same with Elrod.

“She doesn’t go out and drive into people and do crazy things,” Wright said. “There are drivers who can get away with that and not crash all the time. There’s a lot of personalities and she’s not that style. She doesn’t tear up equipment, doesn’t put the car in bad places where she gets in wrecks, and I love it that she’s incredibly smooth.”

Wright believes in Sara or he wouldn’t have started this partnership. He is Sara’s mentor, friend and advisor. He has a financial stake but downplays that aspect. He sees the passion - just like Bill and Donna did.

Racing is a frustrating and expensive business. Those with big money keep pouring more into it trying to win. Those with less capital figure out a different path.

“I can’t tell you what I see in Sara; I just see things that she does and I say to myself, ‘If she can get the right equipment, and with the right people that can set the car up and make the chassis and the engine work in a way that complements her style, I really think she has a chance to race at the highest level and compete with anybody you want to mention,’ ” Wright said.

Sara has won 54 feature races in her career. She’s a two-time track champion. Sara earned her ARCA license in 2014 after a stock car test at Daytona International Speedway. She’s tested a USAC Midget for Baldwin Brothers Racing, which is located in West Lafayette.

She knows how to win.

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Meet Courtney Barth. She’s a successful driver and occasionally competes in the same class against Sara. They’re close friends.

She first met Sara during a race in Peru, Indiana. Courtney spun out in front of Sara during a qualifying race. The next week, Sara sent Courtney’s husband, Adam, a message on Facebook, apologizing for the near accident.

“I was the one that spun out,” Courtney remembered.

Courtney had to meet Sara. Two females trying to make it in a male-dominated sport is one connection that remains strong.

“It’s rare to find another female in racing that understands,” Courtney said. “A lot of females are out for themselves in the sport. We both grew up with it and love it. There are times we know not to talk to each other at the track and there are times we need each other.”

Talk to those who know racing and they all say Sara has “it.” Why is Sara blessed with this gift?

“This kid is good,” Rowlee said. “She has all the intangibles. Some do, some don’t. You can tell when a kid plays basketball - you can tell when they’re young if they’re going to be good or not. She has that ability.”

Rowlee recounts a story from one night at US 24 Speedway. Sara had never raced on the top of the track because she was comfortable racing on the bottom. It didn’t matter if every other car was on the top, she preferred to race on the bottom.

Rowlee encouraged her to race at the top.

“She went up there during a heat race and never came down and won the heat race by a half a lap,” he said. “I told her, ‘Now, you’re a race car driver.’ “

Barth takes it another step, saying Sara keeps her cool and avoids altercations on and off the track. She doesn’t talk much and looks out for herself. The way Sara represents herself sets her apart from other drivers, male or female.

“I think she’s got it,” Barth said. “I don’t think there’s anything there that would make you think otherwise. She’s just a good driver.”

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Without sponsors, most drivers can’t succeed. Sara has 13 right now. From Miller Welding, Lafayette Tent and Awning to Triple XXX Root Beer. That’s where Greg and Carrie Ehresman, owners of the Triple XXX Family Restaurant in West Lafayette and Triple XXX Root Beer, enter the picture.

They also have a passion for racing.

Carrie has pictures of her father pushing Emerson Fittipaldi’s car during the Los Angeles Times Grand Prix several decades ago. She grew up around the sport. They sponsor other drivers, including Brandon Wagner and Phoebe Wolf.

They sponsored Wright during his career. They didn’t know Sara. Now, they do.

“She’s the real deal,” Greg said. “Tremendous driver. All of the right stuff going on.”

Carrie is always looking for opportunities to support female athletes. And in her mind, Sara is an athlete first. More importantly, Carrie sees Sara as humble and modest, eager to showcase her work ethic in Wright’s shop and as a competitor on the track.

“She’s just very focused and dedicated,” Carrie said. “I can’t stress enough the athleticism that is required in racing. She’s calm, she doesn’t showboat, she’s an athlete and she’s genuine. She’s doing what she loves doing. It’s not a novelty. If I can personally bring any focus to the professionalism and athleticism of females, I’m thrilled to do it.”

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As Sara moved up the racing ladder, she’s become more visible and her talents have been able to shine.

She has demonstrated that she’s the complete package. Driving ability, experience and she’s marketable. She drives passive aggressively, not looking to rough up another car but still races hard and clean. She’s aware of her surroundings but doesn’t back down.

“Everybody wants to get to that big level and make all that money but I don’t think that’s her character,” Barth said. “I think she’s born to do this dirt, open-wheel stuff. There’s something to the dirt open-wheel world, the atmosphere, the fans. It’s cool to go to NASCAR and Indy Car and make all that money, but there are some loyal dirt open-wheel fans.”

So, what’s next?

Is her long-term goal the Indianapolis 500 or does she eventually want to land in NASCAR where the paychecks can be huge? Or, does Elrod see her future on dirt and racing sprint cars?

“I don’t have one particular thing,” she said. “I would like to race in some sort of series and just be involved in racing, Indy Car, NASCAR, a sports car series. It doesn’t really matter as long as it’s racing.”

There’s that passion again.

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Source: (Lafayette) Journal and Courier

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Information from: Journal and Courier, https://www.jconline.com

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