Dalton Halden won’t have her driver’s license for at least four more years. In the meantime, she’ll stick to driving racecars.
Halden, from Columbia Falls, is one of six female drivers who race at Raceway Park’s high bank super oval track. Driving in the Bandolero division, the 11-year-old speedster is third in the point standings after falling out of the top spot a couple of weeks ago. Her immediate goal is to climb back into first place. Her eventual goal is a bit larger.
“I’m going to be in NASCAR,” Halden said.
Auto racing has experienced a surge in female drivers in recent years, from the headline-grabbing emergence of Danica Patrick in the IndyCar Series to a significant increase of girl drivers in local racing circuits, such as the Flathead. Justin Rody, Raceway’s manager, said he has seen the number of female racers grow over the past two years and expects the trend to continue, if not escalate.
“It’s a way for them to come out and show they can be one of the guys and put it to them,” Rody said.
While being one of the guys might be part of the goal, it’s also clear the girls are eager to distinguish themselves. When Katie Pilsch, 16, passes drivers on the track, they get a full view of her bumper sticker: “You’ve just been passed by a girl.”
“Beating guys is fun,” Pilsch, who goes to Glacier High School, said.
Pilsch is a bubbly teenager, but she’s all business when she’s in her racecar. Driving 60 mph only inches away from other cars going the same speed requires such focus. Halden displays a similar level of concentration seemingly beyond her age when she hits a sharp turn at 50 mph, fishtails slightly and maintains control of her car.
Wrecks are part of racing and the girls understand this. Halden has been in two accidents this summer and her car still bears the scars. Pilsch has had a few fender benders in her two years of racing as well. But they are equipped with state-of-the-art helmets and neck braces, to go along with fireproof suits and cars designed to take impact.
Pilsch, who is ranked third in the Hornet division, said she still gets nervous before races, but once she starts moving she’s only focused on the moment.
“My first year I was shaking until I got on the track,” Pilsch said. “Then I was just thinking about the car in front of me and the car behind me.”
Pilsch and Halden are expected to understand their cars and wrench on them when necessary. Admittedly, their fathers, both handy with a toolset, do much of the repair and preparation work. As Halden’s father, Heath, says: “I’m just the wrench.” But the girls are usually present and engaged, if not helping their fathers as they work.
“She knows a lot about the car,” Heath said of Dalton. “She’s very involved.”
Sylvia Meyer, who races in the Hornet division with Pilsch, says the mechanical side of car racing is vital to the whole experience. She works at Napa Auto Parts during the day and then at night, if her car needs work, she doesn’t hesitate to get her hands dirty.
“My real dad’s a mechanic, my stepdad’s a small engine mechanic and my husband’s a mechanic,” Meyer said. “So you can say it’s in my blood.”
Meyer’s husband, Dirk, is also in the Hornet division and though their spousal competition is playful, it’s altogether serious when it’s time to race.
“I make him earn his position and he makes me earn mine,” Sylvia said. “He doesn’t pull over and let me pass by any means.”
Fran Rehn of the Compact division, Tyfini West in Legends and Addie Thronton in Bandeloros are the other females who participate in Raceway Park’s Friday and Saturday night races.
Like Halden, Pilsch doesn’t have her driver’s license yet, though she’s due to get it later this year. When she does have it, her father Corey, who also races, said he’ll make sure she differentiates between driving on a racetrack and on a city street. But Katie acknowledges the differences. If anything, regular driving sounds easy to her.
“Instead of following behind a car six feet on the road you’re following behind two inches (on a racetrack),” Katie said.
Halden nearly broke the Bandolero track record earlier this summer when she completed the three-eighths of mile lap in 15.87 seconds, just .16 seconds off the all-time mark. Though Halden had never raced before this year, her rural Montana upbringing has long prepared her to drive. She has grown up riding four-wheelers and snowmobiles, with a little truck driving practice on country roads thrown into the mix. But none of it compares to racing.
As Halden eyes NASCAR, Pilsch seems content with any level of racing, as long as she’s behind the wheel.
“I’ll be racing until I’m 80 or 90,” Pilsch said.