Sisters share racing success

  • Published
  • By Michael Fletcher
  • 97th Air Mobility Wing Public Affairs
The driver staged the dragster as the engine crackled and shook behind the tight driver's seat and roll cage. The Christmas tree lights at the Wichita Raceway track blinked down the tree and racing slicks spun slightly as the driver launched the car down the strip. Just over 8 seconds later the finish line flashed under the car; 13-year-old Rachael Zuccarelli completes another successful run in her junior dragster at 70 mph. 

Not many students in the Altus high and junior high schools can tell their classmates about a weekend of racing but envious boys at the schools are very much aware of the racing triumphs of Rachael and her 16-year old sister, Jessica,. During three years of competing the National Hot Rod Association O'Reilly Auto Parts Junior Drag Racing League. Rachel has six trophies on the mantel and Jessica has three. 

Junior Dragster racing is a fast growing family friendly sport that started in 1992. Junior Dragsters are half-scale versions of Top Fuel dragsters and are powered by high-revving 25-40 horse power engines using racing alcohol fuel that produce speeds up to 85 mph on a 1/8th mile drag strip. 

About 6,000 drivers, 8 - 17 years of age, compete at 130 tracks in North America. More than 25 percent are female. 

The involvement in racing started four years ago in Florida when Rachael and Jessica watched a Disney movie, "On The Right Track," about two sisters, Courtney and Erica Enders that raced Junior Dragsters. After watching the movie the girls told their dad, Staff Sergeant Carmen Zuccarelli, that they wanted to do that too. The family moved shortly after that to Altus where Carmen became a member of the A-Team and later recalled to active duty at Altus Air Force Base where he is the 97th Civil Engineer Squadron unit deployment manager. 

"My dad met Tim Smith, owner of Smith Firestone in Altus and his son Nick who raced. We attended a couple of races and then met James Thompson in Vernon, Texas who races a dragster capable of 257 mph in a quarter-mile and also has a son competing in Junior Dragsters. We told our dad we wanted to race." 

Dad loved the idea; Mom - Kristina, said "how much?" Mom is the budgeter in the family and everything has to get past the "how much?" 

Tim Smith helped the Zuccarellis locate and purchase a used junior dragster three years ago and they added a new car this year. James Thompson and son, Bradley Thompson, who also races against the sisters, added mentorship. 

"If it wasn't for Tim Smith and the support of the Thompson family we wouldn't be in the sport," Sergeant Zuccarelli said. 

Although the race is not always to the swift, the cars can reach 85 mph. 

"For our ages these are pretty fast," Jessica said. 

"It was pretty scary when I first started to see them go down the track that fast," said their mother. "But the girls don't even blink at the speed and enjoy it." 

"We dial in an estimated time we expect to run and try to consistently get as close to that time without going faster," Rachael said. A car expecting to run a 9.5 second ET on the 1/8th will start a second sooner than a car with a 8.5 second ET. The first car across the finish line is the winner. 1/8th mile is 220 yards, just over two football fields in length. 

"Different age groups race against each other," Rachael said. "My class is all 13 year-olds. Jessica's class is ages 16 and 17. The engine is a knock-off of a Briggs & Stratton engine that runs on racing alcohol fuel. The faster you want to go, the more expensive the engine." 

Engines and transmission can cost as much as $5,500. 

The Zuccarelli's home track is the Wichita Falls, Texas Wichita Raceway. They earned enough points throughout the year that they were picked as one of the track's three 10-driver teams to compete at the Western Conference Finals in Denver, Colo., this summer where 578 racers competed for trophies and $100,000 in savings bonds. 

Jessica and Rachael's team won second overall and the team drivers each received the prestigious Wally Parks trophy. Wally Parks is the founder of the National Hot Rod Association. 

For the Zuccarellis, racing is a family sport, even involving the youngest daughter Nicole, age 4, who is the crew chief. 

"I help strap them in and push them to the lane," Nicole said. "I clean the tires on Jessica's car and make sure they have all their stuff on.  At Denver I received the Number 1 Crew Chief award. 
 "I was the youngest crew chief and the only girl," she added proudly. 

"I plan to race when I'm eight." Nicole is ready to inherit Rachael's car as her sisters move to newer cars.
Racing comes with obligations. The sisters have to maintain good grades, do household chores and take care of the cars or they don't race. They haven't missed a race yet. 

The girls polish the cars, change oil, tighten all the bolts, clean carburetors, load and unload the cars - just about everything that they can physically handle. 

Jessica and Rachael plan on becoming pharmacists when they grow up, attending Southwestern Oklahoma State University in Weatherford, Okla. They plan on racing junior dragsters through the maximum allowed age of 17. 

The sisters and other junior dragsters can be watched Saturday nights through October at the Wichita Raceway Park with racing starting at 6 p.m.