The Doctor is in…
…the history books.
Dr. Sheryl Carls achieved an unprecedented feat in 2011, becoming the first female racer to earn a track championship at Motor Mile Speedway in its 59-year history. The 53 year-old veterinarian sewed up her improbable Street Stock division title in dramatic fashion, besting her closest competition by a margin of 16 points in the standings on the final night of the season.
For an unheralded veteran of the sport whose mission statement of fun and emphasis on enjoyment precedes winning, the outcome was a deserving reward. Against superior competition, the championship vindicated a career spent proving not only the competence and capability of her team, but proving moreover that she belonged.
“At dinner one night my Dad said to Woody [Dykes] and I: ‘I don’t know why you’re doing this…it’s not like you’re ever going to win anything,’” Carls remembers. “That really stuck in my craw, you know? It really made me want to go out and win one race, just to show him I could do it.”
Throughout her 10-year career, Carls has answered challenges with record-setting achievements. From her first win at Natural Bridge Speedway to her championship at Motor Mile Speedway, Carls’ success has made history. During her fledgling tenure at the Natural Bridge dirt track, Carls became the first female –and second minority driver overall– to win a feature race and lead a division’s point standings. Diversity forefather Wendell Scott was the first.
When she transitioned to asphalt at South Boston Speedway two seasons later, she stamped her name in the track’s ledger by becoming the first female to win a pole.
Carls enlisted in Motor Mile Speedway’s Street Stock division in 2003, posting top ten points finishes in each of the next four seasons. Carls enjoyed a breakout year in 2008, netting two wins and finishing third in the standings. She notched a pair of benchmarks that season, becoming the first female to win a points-paying race at Motor Mile Speedway, and the first to sit atop a division’s point standings.
Following two part-time seasons in the division, Carls returned in 2011 embarking upon a championship campaign reminiscent of 2008. After visiting victory lane in the second race of the season, Carls was back in command of the point standings. And this time, she wouldn’t relinquish it.
Carls would string together seven podium finishes over the next nine races; an eighth place finish on May 21 was eclipsed by a disqualification on July 23—but the adversity couldn’t overcome the consistency.
When the green flag dropped on the final night of racing, just two points –one position– distanced Carls from her most formidable opponent in the title race, Chad Conner. Considered the favorite for the championship, Conner was unquestionably the fastest driver in the Street Stock division in 2011, earning more poles than his competition combined.
“Chad entered the class, and it was obvious that he was really competitive. I figured, because he has so much more experience, that maybe we could get a few wins, but I didn’t think about the championship,” Carls says.
But it’s not where start—it’s where you finish that counts.
Carls placed first and second, respectively, in the 30-lap twinbill that evening as a longshot bid for a track title became reality.
Statistics strengthen the magnitude of Carl’s 2011 championship. This season, a mere 50 points separated the top five in the standings—the tightest points finish in the Motor Mile Speedway era spanning all divisions. The class saw four different winners, the most parity since 2008. And Carls’ championship severed Brent Bell’s three-year reign at the pinnacle of the Street Stock division.
Not to mention the historic aspect accompanying the team’s success due to its female driver.
…or does that matter?
“I’m not doing this because I’m a women’s libber; I don’t come out here to beat the guys—it’s nothing like that. I just love to drive. And I love to race, and I love to compete,” Carls said from victory lane on September 17. “Being the first woman to win a title is fantastic, but it doesn’t really mean a whole lot to me. I just wanted to get the track championship, and we did it.”
“It’s something we’ve always wanted, and we can cross that off our bucket list now.”
In hindsight, Carls aims were much more modest. Carls notes that she was never racing for the records. She wasn’t out to prove a point…only to prove to herself that she could do it. And with her team alongside her, she did.
“If you want something bad enough, and you try hard enough, and you put enough time into it, you can achieve almost anything,” Carls says.
Nice guys may finish last, but Carls proved this season that a nice girl can finish first.
The Trackside Transcript: Dr. Sheryl Carls
Dr. Sheryl Carls
After May 7, you never had a double-digit lead in the standings. How big of an impact did the point standings have on your psyche week-in and week-out? Did it have an effect on you mentally?
No, not really. We go out there every week to win. I didn’t even look at the points. Woody has said for years that we weren’t going to race for points; we’re going out there to have fun and win. Yet, every single Saturday night he’d be up on the computer waiting to see what the points were. And I would think ‘Oh, just leave it alone!’
I never went into a race thinking, ‘O.K., we’ve got to finish third here.’ Or, ‘all we have to do is finish ahead of Chad’…except for the last two races. Then I did.
I just tried to keep it in the back of my mind, and not draw on it at all.
You entered the final night of racing with just a two-point lead in the standings, and the team had to endure two 30-lap features to win the championship. The margin of error was razor-thin. What was that experience like?
The pressure that night, I mean, it was almost overwhelming. My knees were shaking so bad at times, I wondered if I could hold the gas pedal down. We went out in each race to win, or do the very best that we could.
I hated finishing the season with Twin 30’s, because if something happens in the first race, then you’re screwed for the second. So the first race I did go out and try to drive conservatively. I tried to stay away from people so they couldn’t wreck me—that kind of thing.
In the last race, when it was obvious that Chad had to get 6 points to beat us, they came over the radio and said, ‘If he gets on your bumper, just let him go, because even if he passes Barry [for the lead], he can’t beat you.’ And I thought, ‘You know, that’s a good plan, but I don’t really want to do that.’ You know? I still want to finish second if I can finish second. (laughs)
It was all really stressful….which is good, because it makes you perform that much better.
Having had time to digest this accomplishment, what does this championship mean to you, personally?
It really means a lot. I’ve been thinking about it quite a bit; I don’t think I ever realized what a big deal it really is.
A long time ago, probably back in ’06 when we were competing at Motor Mile, but not competing at the top level –and I have to say my parents have always been totally against me racing – at dinner one night my Dad said to Woody and I: ‘I don’t know why you’re doing this…it’s not like you’re ever going to win anything.’ That really stuck in my craw, you know? It really made me want to go out and win one race, just to show him I could do it.
How meaningful is the record accompanying the title, being the first female racer to win a championship at Motor Mile Speedway?
It means a lot that I’m the first woman to do this at Motor Mile, because it is such a competitive track. To be the first woman that has excelled at this; it shows that women can do this. You don’t have to have certain muscles to do it, or anything like that. You know, I’m the first to admit that I know little about car engines and setup—we’ve kind of learned as we went along. But getting the championship and winning races— it shows that if you have enough drive, and you really want something bad enough, you can do it…whether you know much about it or not.
What attributes to the success this team enjoyed in 2011?
I really, really have to give a lot of the credit to Ray Sowers, Woody and Ronald Sowers. Ron is a fantastic spotter, and he helps me a lot. He’s said a number of times that my one problem driving is that I’m not consistent. But I think that with his help I became a lot more consistent this year. And Ray and Woody put so many hours into making the car handle, and that was such a huge deal.
Why do you sport the number ‘0’? What is the story behind that?
When my husband built me my first car –a dirt track car for Natural Bridge– it looked exactly like the General from the Dukes of Hazzard. So he put the number 01 on it because it looked exactly like that car—orange paint and everything. And I questioned why he put ‘01’ on it. I hated that number. It was terrible. He asked me what number I wanted, and ‘10’ was my basketball number in college, and I told him that ‘10’ would be better than ‘01’. And somehow, the ‘10’ changed into a ‘0’. I think his reasoning was that if we went someplace and we needed to change numbers, it would be a lot easier to put a ‘1’ in front of or behind the ‘0’ instead of having to change the number ‘10’. So that’s how it evolved.
What are your plans for 2012?
We have talked about trying to get two in a row. But we’ve also said that we’ve crossed that goal off our bucket list. We aren’t going to run for points, which I’ve heard for 12 years…I think (laughs). A lot depends on how well we do the first couple of races.
We’ve got a Late Model car, and we want to get that car set up for Motor Mile. We want to run a few races with that car when the Street Stocks aren’t running. That’s kind of what our plan is right now.