If there is one thing that can be said about life it is that you only get to make a first impression once.
For Cherissa Smallwood that first impression, made in front of thousands of screaming North Carolina fans at the Spring Nitro Jam earlier this month, was certainly one that will not soon be forgotten.
Making her Nitro Jam debut behind the wheel of the Innovative Chassis Pro Fuel Dragster, Smallwood won three of four rounds during the two-day event at Rockingham Dragway, but it was her quick thinking and swift actions that she will certainly be remembered for the most.
In her first career pass in Nitro Jam competition Smallwood made a full quarter-mile pass in a respectable 5.662 seconds, edging Pro Fuel fill-in Mitch King to the line. But once she passed through the beams things started to go terribly wrong.
Just past the 1,320 foot mark Smallwood’s tire began to come apart sending the narrow machine into a wild ride that nearly took her into the wall and opponent King before she was finally able to regain control of the nitro-propelled dragster and safely coast to a stop at the top end.
While the incredible save was certainly memorable, the fact that she was able to get the dragster repaired and make another pass – this time with no issues – just a few hours later is what will always be remembered from her exciting debut.
I was the first pair out and of course I was honored to be racing against Mitch King. I was first off the line and the car was on a clean, straight run, possibly one of our fastest ever,” Smallwood said. “I was coming up on the finish line so my hand was on the chute button already when I felt a slight tire shake and the car took a hard left turn.
“I am not sure at this point what happened. I pushed the chute button, steered the car to correction with one hand, grabbed the brake and at some point killed the motor and managed to hang on to keep from hitting Mr. King and the wall.
“My first thought was that my wing had collapsed, but as I was coming to a stop I felt the rear of the car leaning to the right. The amazing IHRA safety team was there as soon as I looked up as well as Mr. King.
“As I exited the car I saw the damage and that is when I realized the severity of the accident. The tires that were on the car had a handful of runs on them and they shredded right from the beadlock. I am very proud to have saved the car the way I did. I walked away and more amazingly made three more rounds of competition.”
While many thought her night was over, Smallwood returned later that night for the consolation round and was defeated by three-time Pro Fuel winner Bill Evans. As the weekend progressed Smallwood put aside the accident and Saturday night loss and returned with two more round wins over Jeff Hamelink on Sunday to finish the weekend with a 3-1 round record.
“Cherissa Motorsports had a fabulous weekend at ‘The Rock.’ IHRA fans were amazingly accepting of us and I can’t wait to return. We were so impressed with the IHRA staff and crew,” Smallwood said. “I can honestly say we worked hard for IHRA and for the fans. We didn’t want to let them down.
“After the first pass there was a lot of recovery work to be done, but the crew didn’t even talk about it – they just kept working to make the next round. And because of that hard work it paid off with three round wins. The fans were on their feet cheering for a little girl power at ‘The Rock.’”
After such an exciting debut, Smallwood says it won’t be long before fans see her behind the wheel of a Pro Fuel machine again in Nitro Jam competition.
“Nitro Jam is totally for the fans. The nitro-packed schedule is full of excitement and with the quick turn around it makes fans stay satisfied,” Smallwood said. “We absolutely loved FanFest and the interaction with the fans. They were very grateful to meet the drivers and to smell the nitro up close and personal.”