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Brelia Goes Over the Wall for Champ Car Team

June 26, 2005|From Associated Press

PORTLAND, Ore. — With her blond ponytails tucked under her helmet, Tess Brelia crouches in the pits next to the tools of her trade: a racing tire and an air gun that together equal half her weight.

Ronnie Bremer's No. 55 car roars to a stop, giving Brelia and the rest of his pit crew mere seconds to change the car's tires, fuel it up and send it back on its way.

As driver Danica Patrick makes waves in open-wheel racing, Brelia is the only woman in Champ Car who goes "over the wall" for her team. In fact, she's one of just a smattering of female mechanics in the series.

Going over the wall is one of the key jobs on a pit crew. Those who do it have to be fast, strong and focused, in addition to being good with the cars.

Brelia, 36, has been doing it in Champ Car racing for three years. So she's nonchalant about the attention she gets.

"A lot of the women are really supportive and say `Way to go,"' she said. "And every once and a while a guy will say something really stupid."

Brelia's career came about by chance. She was waiting for a spot to open up at the fire department in her native Toronto when she went to race school for fun.

With nearly no mechanical experience except for a love of motorcycles, she managed to join a race team in Southern California and became half of a crew of two. That was about seven years ago.

"Once I got into it, it was interesting and it was different every day," she said. "It wasn't like sitting in an office."

In 2003 she joined the Champ Car's now-defunct American Spirit Team at the suggestion of former Toyota Atlantic driver Ryan Hunter-Reay, and she became the series' first female mechanic with a regular over-the-wall assignment.

"It was partly out of necessity, because in 2003 we didn't have a very big team," she said.

Her work drew attention from the team next door, Herdez Competition, and crew chief Daryl Fox. When the American Spirit Team folded, Brelia hooked up with Herdez.

Herdez changed its name to HVM this season and Brelia took on over-the-wall duties for Bremer.

At the Champ Car Grand Prix of Portland, Brelia perched on the wall in her helmet and padded firesuit. At 5-foot-6 and 110 pounds, she's smaller than the other crew members -- yet most onlookers wouldn't immediately recognize her as a woman because of the safety gear she's wearing.

As it nears time for Bremer to pit, Brelia lifts a 35-pound tire over the wall and readies her air gun -- which helps her quickly remove and attach each tire.

When Bremer pulls in, she and her fellow crew members perform a carefully choreographed dance that takes less than 10 seconds. Tires are removed and replaced in perfect synchronicity.

"Normally, when it comes to racing and the job -- that's the job. So I treat her no different. I'm not going to be softer on her," Fox said. "If anybody makes a mistake, whether it's a guy or a girl, I'm going to yell anyway.

"She does a great job at what she does. She's a very good mechanic. She does a great job over the wall in the pit stops, and she's equal to any guy we have on the team."

Brelia said she prefers when no one can tell the difference.

"For the people that I work with in the paddock, it's like you're there, you've been there," Brelia said. "For people who come to the track, I think, it's a little bit odd. And I think with the whole Danica thing, it brings more attention on the women."

A month ago, Patrick became the first woman to lead a lap at the Indianapolis 500. She wound up fourth and grabbed headlines around the world.

Although Patrick races in the Indy Racing League, separate from Champ Car, Brelia said she has brought some much-needed attention to open-wheel racing, which has slipped in popularity while NASCAR has thrived.

"It may not always be the best press, but any press is really good," Brelia said. "And, you know, she's run out and she's proved her point that she can do it. She can run with them."

Brelia long ago proved herself. Hunter-Reay once said: "She can do whatever the guys can do. Sometimes better."

Brelia's job is dangerous, even though she works in one of racing's elite series.

Mike Ritch, a crewman for NASCAR's Bill Elliott, was killed at the Atlanta Motor Speedway in 1990 when Ricky Rudd hit Elliott's stopped car. Bobby Burrell, a crewman for Rudd, was seriously injured when he was hit by Ward Burton on pit row in a 2001 race at Homestead, Fla.

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