Maury Z. Levy

Drive, She Said

In WomenSports magazine on September 1, 2009 at 5:07 pm

3262517956_be1459f4e7She hit the guard rail and her car broke and her neck snapped and she spun around facing the wrong way with the other cars coming at her at 125 miles an hour. She couldn’t move and her head was heavy and all she could think about was maybe that her brain was bleeding.

For Glenna Sacks, who is 26, and a female, and a race car driver, it was the quick end to a tough weekend at Watkins Glen. She had run on Saturday in her Formula V, a sleek sliver of custom fiberglass with the large parts of a Volkswagen underneath. She was having a few problems with the car, a little sputtering and funny noises, so she took it easy, just aiming to finish, and she ended up in the middle of the pack.

And then Sunday came. She and her husband Jon had been working on the car all night. They figured they had everything in order and that now she could take it out and really open it up. When the green flag dropped, she was the leader of the pack. She put her right foot on the floor and firmly moved the steering wheel around the twists and the turns of a very precise road racing course.

The car was humming through the first four laps. Glenna Sacks kept looking in her mirror to watch the pack of men trying to catch her, and she kept pulling away and she felt very good. Then, on the fifth lap, in the first turn, something went very badly wrong. It was all very quick. She heard a snap and felt a pop and the steering wheel was oatmeal. She never made it through the very tight turn. She started falling pretty badly and then she started spin­ning until she got to the top outside where her car hit two rows of corrugated steel and pushed them back three yards.

She knew she had pretty much wrecked her car, but she didn’t know what was wrong with herself. She couldn’t move much. She felt stiff and broken and she had this strange pain in her head; that’s what worried her most. She had watched the heads of other race car drivers, in similar straights, bleed and hemorrhage and clot. And she was scared because she didn’t know what to think.

“These thoughts,” she says, “all come whizzing into your head in no particular order. Things flash by. Maybe your whole life. My first thought was that I could look over my shoulder out of the corner of my eye and see that I was far enough in front of the guys behind me that they probably weren’t going to pile in and demolish me.

“This was when I was still spinning. It really hadn’t hit me yet that I was going to crash. I started thinking, ‘Damn, they’re going to catch up to me and pass me.’ Then I started spinning around and around and just a fraction of a second before I went into the guard rail I realized I was going to hit it. And I was terrified for a split second because I knew it was going to hurt a lot. And it was really going to damage my car. And it did. And it knocked me cold. And I came to in the middle of the track, crosswise and other cars were flying by me and I was stunned. I couldn’t move. I figured, my God, I broke my neck. And I tried to wiggle my fingers and they wiggled and the cars kept flying by. And my toes wiggled so I knew I hadn’t broken my neck. But I knew 1 had broken something because I really hurt a lot.  

“And I noticed out of the corner of my eye that one of the flagmen had come out on the track. And he said sit tight, take it easy, we’ll call an ambulance for you. And the cars went flying by. And I guess my strongest immediate feeling was pain. And the next one was what have I done 44 to my car? Because I really smacked that wall awfully hard. And I figured oh, Christ, I totalled it. I thought what’s my husband going to think. I can’t finish the race. I would have liked to have kept going, but I couldn’t move. And the car. A tie rod end had let go. I had slashed a couple of tires, bent two wheels, wrecked the front end and back suspension, bent an axle and tore the engine loose from its mounting. It was sitting sideways in the car. But at least there was nothing wrong with my head, at least it wasn’t bleeding.”

Glenna Sacks had broken her shoulder blade, dislocated her shoulder, sprained all the muscles in her neck, and tore most of the ligaments that held her arm into her shoulder. They kept her in the hospital overnight, just to make sure everything was okay with her head, and then they let her go. She was in a sling for two months and then, when she felt the first bit of mobility, she started doing exercises to build her muscles back up. And before the season was out, she was back racing again. Not in her own car; they had to carry that back home in a basket. But in her brother-in-law’s Sprite, at a course in Summit Point, West Virginia, where she finished near the head of her class.

Glenna Sacks doesn’t do this for a living—racing cars. She is, by day, an art director for an ad agency in Cherry Hill, New Jersey. She and her husband, who’s an architectual engineer, live in Willingboro, which used to be called Levittown. And she takes the racing very seriously. She’s even managed to win some races, which has made a lot of people, especially a lot of men, take her pretty seriously.

A few years hack, this just wouldn’t have happened. Five years ago, there were only one or two women road-racing in the entire country. She still finds herself being the only woman on many courses, even when she just goes along as part of her husband’s pit crew. But things are changing very slowly. In a regional event now, where you might find 150 or more people running on a weekend, as many as two or three might be women. And there’s still a lot of resentment.

“There are a lot of guys I run into,” Glenna Sacks says, “who think a woman has no business on a race track. And they’ll come right out and say it. They just don’t think women can be safe, competitive drivers. And you have to be fairly strong and in really good shape to be a good, safe driver. If you’re not strong enough to handle a high-powered car, you’ve got no business on the track. It’s not the kind of thing you can do for kicks, just half-heartedly. That’s a good way to kill yourself. You’ve got to be dead serious. Especially as a woman. For a woman to get into racing and be accepted, she’s got to be better than most men.”

Glenna Sacks, who is better than most men, has always had a hard time being accepted. She didn’t get her street driving license until she was 21. And not because she didn’t want it. Her father was an engineer and a stubborn man. She and her mother moved around the country with him from job to job, from Philadelphia to Kalamazoo, Michigan, to Alexandria, Virginia. In high school, in Virginia, she turned driving age.

“My father just wouldn’t let me drive our car,” she says. “He said if I wanted my own transportation, to get a horse, women don’t need cars. So I did. I became a real horse freak. And up until the day my father died, I never drove a car. I kind of hate to think what he would say if he knew what I was doing now. He was kind of old-fashioned.

Girls don’t do this sort of thing. He wouldn’t have been too pleased.”

When she got out of art school in Philadelphia, Glenna Sacks bought herself a ’64 Corvette. She got it because she liked the lines, and because a guy she was dating then had one, and because she wanted something that was sporty, and sharp-looking, and fun to drive, and because she hates gray Ramblers.

The Corvette got her interested in the Sports Car Club of America. The SCCA sponsors a lot of road racing competitions for people who don’t want to make a living out of racing. She started running the Corvette at parking lot rallyes, the kind where you go out one car at a time and get tested for handling and timed for speed in maneuvering around pylons.

She started winning a lot of those events, collected some trophies, and kept going to SCCA meetings, where she eventually met her husband and found a true car. Jon Sacks was driving a souped-up Datsun. He asked her if she’d like to run it. She was impressed.

“Most guys in racing won’t let their wives near their car,” she says. “Except maybe to hand them a wrench or just let them sit in the cockpit for a minute. But nobody lets a woman run.”

Jon Sacks let Glenna Sacks drive the Datsun in com­petition at Bridgehampton, I.ong Island. She didn’t think she would like it. “The cockpit fits like a glove,” she says. “You can’t move. There are some giant three-inch seat belts that strap your body all across the front. And there’s a submaring belt around your waist so if you’re in an accident and you start to slide under the seat, the other belts don’t decapitate you. But I really ended up liking the car.”

So she took the Datsun, and her husband bought a Formula Ford. Eventually, she ended up with a Formula V. Unless you’re racing, you really don’t have to get involved with all the technical junk that separates one class of car from another. Let it be that it depends on things like the body and engine size and the weight and the structure and the power. The SCCA cars aren’t like the super specials that are built for Indy or like the factory team cars that run at LeMans. No way. Most of them start out as plain, everyday, sporty street cars, with a varying degree of varia­tions. And they don’t run on big ovals like Indy. They run on regular-type roads that twist and turn and bend and break.

The Formula V car that Glenna Sacks drove last year, before it went into the guardrail, started out as a Volkswagen, which is why it’s called Formula V. Then she started changing things. In the end, all that was left of The Bug was most of the engine and some of the chassis. With a lot of time and patience and muscle, she had turned it into a single-seated, open cockpit, fenderless, rear engine, bullet‑bodied, fiberglass machine. And she did just about all of it herself.

“I’ve always had a mechanical aptitude,” she says, “ever since I was little. But I really never had a chance to do anything with it until 1 got into cars.”

When she’s not racing cars now, she’s taking them apart and putting them back together. She and her husband and her brother-in-law share an old cinderblock garage that sits next to a farmhouse in the wheatlands of South Jersey.

She is a medium-size woman, Glenna Sacks, with sandy hair and octagonal tinted glasses and muscles you can’t see.

She lies on the concrete slab floor of the farmhouse garage in jeans and a workshirt and heavy shoes, sticks wrenches into fly-wheels and screwdrivers into carburetors and puts all of that stuff together and takes it all apart and puts it back together again.

The official name of the family racing company is KS3. Glenna Sacks started out as the three. But she’s quickly turned into the best mechanic of the crew and one of the better drivers. To help handle some of the costs of team racing, she’s turned into a real grease monkey, doing tuneups and mechanical work for friends just to bring some money in. There isn’t very much to be won in most SCCA events, unless you want to hock the trophies.

And the expense of running isn’t very light. When you figure in travelling expenses, and gas, and tolls, and motels, and maintenance, and entry fees, you could easily spend $10,000 a year on one car if you had the mind to. And that doesn’t include the cost of the car, which, depending on the classification, starts at $4,000 and goes up fast.

Glenna Sacks is looking for sponsorship now, maybe from some dealer who’ll pick up her expenses in exchange for having his name painted on her car. She doesn’t expect to have too much trouble finding sponsorship after very good showings on demanding courses last season like Lime Rock, Connecticut and Bridgehampton. And, if nothing else, she’ll get it because she’s a novelty. But she’d rather not do it that way. She’d rather get it on her own strength.

“A lot of drivers lift weights and do pushups. I don’t. I just try to stay active and healthy. I ride a motorcycle and horseback. You use a lot of muscles doing that. And then there’s work at the garage. And then there’s housework. There’s always housework.

“Look, I don’t pretend to be stronger than a guy, but I’m as strong as a lot of guys who do race. And I’m not racing over my head in class. I don’t think I’d go out tomorrow and race an A production Corvette. I don’t think I could handle it. You have to build up to that.”

Glenna Sacks built up to racing through flagging, sitting at posts around a course, and communicating to other drivers through colored hand signals. She started that at Pocono, Pennsylvania. “They put me out there at the corner,” she says, “and I watched those cars go by and I was just thrilled. It was the first road race I had ever seen. And that’s what really hooked me. I had no real serious thoughts at that time that I’d ever be driving one of those cars.”

That was in the spring of ’72. On what amounted to a learner’s permit for racing, she entered and won her first solo event at Bridgehampton that summer. She then went for her full racing license at Lime Rock, a really tight road course. First an official drove her around to get a feel of the course, then they sent her out on her own, watching and marking her every move. She got an almost perfect score. They used her as an example for the other drivers. One guy was having trouble negotiating the turns. An official went up to him and pointed, “Stick behind that Sacks girl,” he said, “and follow her if you can catch her. She really knows what she’s doing.”

That Sacks girl is up at Pocono now, racing and beating
some of the top people around. And this year she’s even
picking up some decent money. At least enough to pay for
a few gallons of gas. Her Formula V wrecked and stripped
and her brother-in-law’s Sprite sold off, she’s moving up
to her husband’s Formula Ford, a car with a hell of a lot more pull than her ’53 horsepower Volks.

She is readying herself in the pit area. She pulls on her asbestos body stocking with the hood and you can’t see her hair. She puts on her electric-blue firesuit with the racing stripes on the sleeves and you can’t see her sex. And she straps on her helmet and pulls down the visor and you can’t see any of her at all. She becomes one with the machine, just another moving part.

She moves out on the course with the wind blowing into the face of her open cockpit. She takes the first turn cautiously, and then she opens it up. In the pits, they are clocking her at over 125 miles an hour. She’s really standing on it now.

She finishes her practice laps in perfect shape at super speeds. She pulls back into the pits and jumps out of the car and yanks off her helmet and hood. Her hair falls down and her face lights up.

“That speed,” she says, “that speed and that power. It’s just a real thrill. It gives me an unbelievable emotional high. I was really flying. Of course you’ve got to really, fully concentrate on what you’re doing at those kind of speeds. You can’t think of anything else.

“It’s just a super thing. The feel of having that kind of power at your command, of really driving it, really handling the car and making it perform to its limit, it’s indescribable.

“Sure it has its scary moments. Like crashing. But you can’t just drive around being afraid or you just don’t do it. A lot of people I know tell me I’m crazy to be doing this, that I could kill myself. Maybe. But some people just need a high risk sport. It gives something to their lives that they need. Not just mentally, but physically too. Whether you want to race cars or sky dive or ski competitively. Whether you want to ride a horse in a steeplechase. They’re all very exciting and potentially dangerous. But I get the same kind of thrill out of racing cars as I do out of riding a good spirited horse cross country. And making him perform and being one with him.

“And I’m going to keep racing cars until something stops me and the way I feel now, nothing will. I’d like to run every weekend if I could. I’m winning and I want to keep on winning and keep on moving up in class. But I don’t think I’m ready to turn pro yet. And I’m not too sure about being the first woman to race at Indy.

“Come to think of it, I can’t. Not this year anyway. We’re having a picnic back home on Memorial Day. And I have to cook.”

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