When I started going to midget races it was the lethal ‘60s, and a lot of good racers lost their lives in those non-cage days. Women never considered climbing into one, and wouldn’t have been allowed anyway. In the mid-70s the cars had cages but still were pretty vulnerable, yet a brave young lady named Mary Hall would periodically run the fast, half-mile at Manzanita in Phoenix and won a couple of heat races.
Bev Griffiths made history in 1986 by winning a USAC midget feature at The Indianapolis Speedrome. By the early ‘90s, California was cultivating an open-wheel star named Kara Hendrick before she died in a USAC midget show at El Cajon.
Sarah McCune, Stephanie Mockler, Taylor Ferns and Jeri Rice all scored top fives in USAC during their racing days, but the first time I heard about a female flirting with the front of the pack consistently was Sarah Fisher in the late ‘90s. And it wasn’t just any track – it was the daunting high banks of Winchester. Fisher broke the track record for midgets there, and she was also running World of Outlaw sprint cars. Then she got snapped up by the Indy Racing League at 19 and instantly became the most popular driver, but that series was never smart enough to get her a good ride even after she ran second to Sam Hornish at Homestead.
Since then, Danica Patrick, Katherine Legge, Simona de Silvestro, Pippa Mann, Ana Beatriz and Milka Duno have joined Janet Guthrie, Lyn St., James and Fisher in the starting lineup at Indianapolis. But all those women came from pavement racing, and there’s never been a female dirt racer that made it all the way to IMS.
McKenna Haase won a weekly sprint-car feature at Knoxville, moved to Indianapolis and would likely treasure a test with an IndyCar or NASCAR team, while Holly Shelton got three years with Keith Kunz’s vaunted USAC midget team and Maria Cofer ran USAC midgets this past season in addition to sprinters on the west coast. Harli White overcame a fiery crash and is running winged sprinters on dirt, while Sonde Eden still dabbles in midgets and sprints. Sierra Jackson was a front-runner in big block, west coast super modifieds for several years before going back to college and starting a family.
Pavement racers Hailie Deegan and Natalie Decker seem to be on the fast-track to NASCAR because both have talent, funding and followings. But it appears the best shot at a woman dirt racer ever making it to the big time could be 19-year-old Kaylee Bryson.
In what has become the most competitive and slide-job happy division in USAC, Bryson made the main event in 22 of the 23 midget races she contested for Kunz in 2020. She was fastest qualifier once, captured two heats and a semi, finished third in the feature at Caney Valley in Kansas and wound up 11th in the point standings.
“For her first year I was really happy with her,” said Kunz, whose Toyota-backed operation has cultivated Kyle Larson, Christopher Bell, Rico Abreu and Tanner Thorson in recent years. “She came out strong early and raced her way into the features through the heats, and always qualified decent.
“She’s like Kyle in that she’s very even-keeled, no highs or lows, never out of breath and no emotional problems. She never makes excuses and she’s always wanting to learn.”
Even though she muscled USAC sprint champ Brady Bacon out of the way during a heat race in Indiana Sprint Week, Kunz wants to see more of that in 2021.
“I’ve told her to be more aggressive,” said the car owner who has a couple more budding stars in Buddy Kofoid, Daison Pursley and Cannon McIntosh on his roster. “On restarts they seem to take advantage of her because they know she’s a girl, and she’s got to overcome that.
“She also seems to struggle the longer the feature goes on, so we’ll work on that, too. But the competition is so deep. The other night Cofoid was 12th, (Tyler) Courtney was 13th and (Chris) Windom was 14th, and those guys are really good racers. It’s a tough time to break in right now.”
The best thing going for Bryson is that Toyota has an eye on the Tulsa native.
“Toyota’s goal is to find a woman to take to Cup,” said Kunz. “In a couple of weeks they’re going to test Kaylee in a stock car at Hickory after spending the day on the simulator. They want her to win a race to prove herself and that’s our goal next season. We need one woman to get over that hump and there has to be some body out there so maybe it’s Kaylee.
“It’s kind of a shame that stock cars are the only path for these open-wheel kids to move up but one thing is for sure: if they come out of USAC midgets they damn sure can race wheel-to-wheel.”