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PALM LATITUDES

CLOSE-UP : Driving Ambition

March 27, 1994|Sharon Whitley

For Margie Smith-Haas, 1993 went by much too quickly. Maybe that's because she spent much of it behind the wheel of her Super Sports 2000-class race car, which can take her to 165 m.p.h. Last year, Smith-Haas drove it to second place in the drivers' championship of the American City Racing League, which pits teams from eight cities against one another. Her Team San Diego finished third in the league competition.

"It was my most successful year," she says, and this year looks just as promising: Smith-Haas, one of only 15 female professional road racers in the country, has taken second place in her first two ACRL races, missing first each time by under two-tenths of a second.

Smith-Haas says she didn't plan on a racing career. "But during college I helped my boyfriend with his slalom racing," she says. "I'd pull the car in line for him, but he got to get in and do the fun stuff."

She decided to get in on the fun stuff one day in 1971 when her folks were out of town. "I borrowed the family Buick Electra, made some minor modifications and drove 60 miles to enter the drag races." That did it. Two years later, after teaching P.E. and moonlighting as a coach and restaurant hostess, Smith-Haas had saved enough money to buy her first race car--a Porsche 914.

Since then, she's competed in races throughout North America, Europe and Australia. In 1983, she raced in the 24 Hours of Daytona, and in 1984 and '85 she was the only woman to compete in the 24-hour race at Le Mans.

Although she has had the expected run-ins with sexism on the track (she once had to endure 90 minutes of the throttle's sticking to the floor at Daytona because mechanics refused to take her complaints seriously), she says "male drivers in general have been very supportive. You can prove yourself on the track because that's something they can measure."

That doesn't keep other people from commenting on her choice of profession. "People are always surprised when they meet me," says Smith-Haas. " 'You do what ?' they say. 'You don't look like a race-car driver!' " And, as Smith-Haas points out, the danger factor is relative. "Driving on a racetrack is far less dangerous than driving on our Southern California freeways."

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