FAIRBANKS — She was surrounded by loud engine revving, stripped-down and spray-painted cars, trying to keep her nerves in check while she watched, waiting for the OK to hit the gas pedal.
It was the first race for 25-year-old Laurel Gangloff in the Dollar Stock league at the Mitchell Raceway’s dirt oval track, and like so many other racers who have buckled up behind the wheel of a car on a race track, it wouldn’t be her last.
It was her self-described “big mouth” that had put her behind the wheel of a stripped-down 1995 Ford Thunderbird LX on which she had painted a motif of Japan’s red-and-white Rising Sun flag on the hood.
“To be honest, I started racing because I talked a lot of smack and was challenged to do better,” she said.
But when the officials threw the flag that first time and she stepped on the gas, the V8 engine of the Thunderbird roaring to life, she played it safe.
“I didn’t try very hard. I tried not to crash,” she said, laughing about it now. “But I got hooked right away.”
Dollar Stock race cars will go as fast as about 50 mph on the track, but Gangloff said she didn’t even notice the speedometer the first time.
Now, with her first full season under her belt and a rookie of the year award to her name, Gangloff said she still doesn’t pay much attention to it, instead navigating the crowded track by the feel and intuition.
“The most exciting part is the start, you never know what will happen,” she said. “I was in first for two seconds and then you come around that first turn and then all the sudden you’re concerned how do you maintain your spot. Coming out of the turn you have to assess where everyone is and you get kind of competitive and then you take a little more risks.”
Those risks have earned her higher places in the ranks, but also more than her fair share of crashes and her nickname.
“I was driving when the car got the nickname Kamikaze,” she said. “This year, I got a taste of it and pushed it a little more. I didn’t try to hit people, but I hit people a lot.”
Her YouTube channel contains videos of close races, a few where she’s turned around by other racers and one where she nicks the end of a car that swerved into her line.
The racing league has payouts partway through the season and a final payout at the end, but Gangloff says it doesn’t come anywhere close to covering the cost of racing.
This season she had to replace two radiators and a busted tie rod.
She races with her friends Greg Hoskin, whom she had joked at about his driving, and Katie Von Schuyver under the name Shogun Racing. The trio, headed mostly by Hoskin, has learned the basics of mechanics as they go. She didn’t know what a tie rod was until it broke during a race, and then she learned how to fix one.
“Over this last season I’ve got in a lot of crashes and the side is caved in a little bit, the back bumper’s torn off, the front bumper — well the bumper was gone already — but the metal bumper is completely curved inward, the hood barely fits on anymore, it’s got lots of other colors from other cars,” she said. “It’s kind of a mess. It’s a hot mess. I would say that even though I’m disappointed in how it looks now, I’ve only grown really attached to the car.”
Now she says she’s looking forward to the start of the racing season next year.
“It’s what I look forward to all week,” she said. “You just want to go back out and drive.”