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SPORTS WEEKEND | MOTOR RACING / JIM HODGES

Pankratz's Daughter Proves Racing Is the Family Business

July 16, 1999|JIM HODGES

Her aspirations aren't overwhelming.

Sure, she wants to race at Indy, but every open-wheel driver wants to run there and most of them know all it takes is money.

A lot of money.

Much more money than she has or can get right now.

No, Indianapolis can wait for Randi Pankratz.

First, she wants to race the old man.

More than race.

"I want to make a pass on him and hold it," she says.

Few have.

The old man is Wally Pankratz, a USAC midget driver for more years than even he likes to admit and still going strong at 53.

But when he's not driving, he's watching daughter Randi, 29, who learned the family business while in the stands watching him with her mother.

She drives three-quarter midgets, motorcycle engine-powered, 120-horsepower, 800-pound bombs, and right now nobody is driving them better. She leads the USAC TQ points race going into tonight's show at Ventura.

"She's not a fire-breather," says dad, an instructor at the new race-driving school at Irwindale Speedway. "She's not going to jump over people. She's young, but she's a smooth driver, very smooth."

And consistent, with a season of top-10 finishes.

She's also a third-generation racing Pankratz. Bob built cars after a head injury took him out of the driver's seat, and son Wally has won more than 100 races. Randi has won one, at Bakersfield last fall, when she became only the fifth woman to win a USAC feature.

She had raced quarter-midgets as a kid, then turned her attention to softball and basketball. She was a point guard and a good one at Cuesta College in San Luis Obispo, and then decided that scholarship wasn't her forte.

She also realized that she missed driving and wanted to get back into cars.

But "it's hard for people to just hire people they don't know," she says.

They knew the name Pankratz.

"That helped," she says, "but you still have to prove yourself."

Some who remembered her from quarter-midgets helped, and she owned her own TQ car for two years, but that was expensive and it was hard to be competitive.

And then she got in a car owned by Steve Porzio and won at Bakersfield. Now there is stability, with equipment that allows her to run in front and, though there is no primary sponsor, the $500 to $600 necessary for each race.

When she drives, Wally sits and watches.

Well, he watches.

"People don't like to be around me when I'm watching her," he says. "I do the body English. It's not that I'm afraid she'll be hurt. It's that I know how competitive she is, and I want her to succeed."

And eventually move up a class, into the midgets.

"Unfortunately for her, I'm not ready to quit," Wally says, laughing. He has won two features this year and is fifth in the midget points race coming into the Ventura show.

"I'd put her in a car in a minute . . . if I had two cars."

Actually he does, which could set up an interesting confrontation. Because the USAC series tends to go back and forth between dirt and asphalt, and because the demands of the two surfaces are so different, he has a pavement car and one set up for dirt.

The season's final race, at Irwindale, is on pavement, and they are talking about changing the configuration of the dirt car for Randi to drive.

Yes, against the old man.

"It's a good car too," she says.

Maybe good enough to run against the old man, to make a pass and hold it.

And allow the driver to raise her sights.

TOUGH BREAK

Doctors in Switzerland have inserted a foot-long pin into two-time series champion Michael Schumacher's broken leg, and his manager, Willi Weber, says that Schumacher is probably finished for the Formula One season.

The break came Sunday at the British Grand Prix at Silverstone, when Schumacher's Ferrari plowed into a tire carrier on the first lap.

OPEN SEASON

The Star Formula Mazda series will run at Irwindale Speedway for the first time Saturday night, bringing points leader Tim Enoch of Mission Viejo and a female-owned-and-operated team that is gaining notice as the season wears on.

Sara Senske is a 20-year-old from Kennewick, Wash., who is fifth in points in the series and drives for the Lady Lynx team owned by Peggy Haas and Jackie Doty.

WHAT'S IN A NAME?

It was probably inevitable when NAPA Auto Parts re-upped to sponsor the Winston Cup event at California Speedway in Fontana for the next two years.

Seeking more for its money, NAPA has changed its status from presenting sponsor to title sponsor, meaning that the California 500, presented by NAPA, which has been run three years now, will become the NAPA Auto Parts 500.

A NEW BOSS

Dan Gurney's All American Racers has benched Alex Barron and will campaign with Gualter Salles for the rest of the CART FedEx season.

Barron quickly lined up a test session with the Roger Penske operation, and after a successful practice run at Michigan, has been retained to drive a Penske car in the upcoming U.S. 500.

He will team with Al Unser Jr. at Michigan on July 25.

LAST LAPS

Orange Show Speedway in San Bernardino will have a NASCAR Late Model Sportsman feature on Saturday night.

Rip Williams will be seeking his third feature win in a row Saturday night when the Sprint Car Racing Assn. returns to Perris Auto Speedway. He began the run July 3 at Perris, then won last week at Santa Maria.

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