The Wrenn School pupil from Wellingborough is off to the USA, but not to some tourist playground. Her destination is Bristol, Tenn., where she expects to encounter searing heat, and not only from the weather.
Wheeler is one of Britain’s leading Junior Drag Racers, and she is travelling to Tennessee to take on her American and Canadian counterparts – 800 of them – in a week or more of high-speed, high-adrenalin racing. The event is the NHRA Junior Drag Racing League’s Eastern Conference Finals and it attracts young racers aged from 8 to 18 in their hundreds from across the continent.
"I’m excited about going, but not at all nervous," Wheeler said. "I did race at Bristol for the first time last year, and managed to win a few rounds, so I know what it will be like."
In England, Paige and her 8-year-old sister Belle race at Santa Pod and Shakespeare County Raceways, driving dragsters custom-built in America for each of them by Half Scale Dragsters of New Jersey. At Bristol, Half Scale are lending Paige a car, a new machine to which she must quickly accustom herself if she is to attain any success.
The Bristol track runs along a valley floor and is aptly nicknamed: Thunder Valley Raceway. The adult versions of Wheeler's car –Top Fuel dragsters – exceed 300 mph and emit a noise measured not in decibels but on the Richter Scale. Obviously far removed from that league, the Blossom Racing motor in Wheeler's car nevertheless delivers a distinctive crack of its own, surprisingly loud for a device which originated just 20 years ago from a lawnmower engine, rattling impressively off Thunder Valley’s steep sides.
The Juniors race only over the eighth-mile, 220 yards. With its 0-60 mph time of around three seconds, Wheeler's car could comfortably out-accelerate all but the most extreme road-going supercars over that distance, and regularly tops 80 mph at the finish.
I did race at Bristol for the first time last year, and managed to win a few rounds, so I know what it will be like.
Experience is always key and Wheeler and her family – parents Andy and Dionne and sister Belle – have already learned from their Bristol trip last year.
"We’ve taken an apartment just across from the track," explains Andy. "The racing goes on all day and the weather gets very, very hot, so it’ll be great to get straight back afterwards and relax. Last year we had lodgings an hour’s drive away."
"It’ll be great too for me and Belle to make new friends," adds Paige. "We meet so many friendly people at the track but we’re usually too busy to get to know them better. Now we’ll have more time."
This is all a huge stride for a family which, until a chance spectator visit to Santa Pod four years ago, knew nothing of drag racing. Paige loved the experience so much that she persuaded her parents to buy her a ride in the track’s own Junior Dragster for a birthday present. Now they are a fully-fledged, two-car team with an impressive list of marketing partners, headed by Alamo Rent A Car with Oakley, Lucas Oil and the U.S. auto parts giant JEGS. In her first full year of competition, Paige won the Junior Dragster trophy at Santa Pod’s FIA European Finals, and currently lies fourth in this season’s UK national championship.
Her ambition, once she outgrows the Juniors, is to race Pro Modifieds, 250 mph full-bodied cars of the kind driven by her American mentor, Roger Burgess, owner of the powerful R2B2 Motorsports organization, which the Wheeler family team, at the opposite end of the horsepower spectrum, represents in Europe.
The near future, however, embraces three separate races over 10 days at Bristol, culminating in the world’s largest Junior Dragster event, the Eastern Conference Finals. The obstacles Paige will face in Tennessee are daunting.
Like most motorsports, drag racing is easy enough until there’s someone else trying to beat you. The start line alone poses difficulties. In Europe, halogen lamps are used in the "Christmas tree" starting system, and a seasoned racer can spot them beginning to glow. America now uses LED lights and their instant illumination could leave Paige at an instant disadvantage. The schedule’s first two races will use a "Pro tree" – four-tenths of a second separating a single amber light from the green light – while NHRA mandates a "Sportsman tree" for the Finals – three amber lights at half-second intervals before the green, a system Paige is used to seeing at home.
If these distinctions sound a touch pedantic, they aren’t. Reaction times – the gap between the green light showing and the car breaking the start-line light beam – are plotted to four decimal points of a second, and reaction times beginning with two or three decimal zeroes will be commonplace at Bristol. "He who snoozes, loses" is a popular drag racing maxim, and anyone who tarries a full tenth of a second will already be well beaten. Conversely, anticipating the start by even one ten-thousandth will earn you a red light and immediate disqualification.
Once Paige has managed all that to perfection, she then has to beat her opponent to the finish. Fail, and she’s out. Succeed, and she gets to do it all over again. And so, with luck, she moves on, round after round after round until no opponent remains. That, at least, is the aim – an aim shared by every other competitor in the race.
If that’s not enough, there’s a disparity in experience levels too. In England, there is only a handful of opportunities each year for Paige to hone her skills. Her transatlantic opponents often compete every weekend, and will already have survived tough regional qualifiers to reach this event. Moreover, her adversaries will all be strangers; at home, the racers get to know, and cope with, each other’s on-track habits and foibles, but at Bristol, each new opponent, picked at random, will be an unknown quantity.
On top of all that, there’s the fine-tuning of the car and engine – dad Andy’s responsibility – in radically different track and atmospheric conditions from those encountered at home. In truth, every round of racing Paige can manage to win will be a shining individual triumph in itself.
But is she bothered? Not a bit. "I’ll let everyone else worry about that," she insists. "I just want to get to Bristol and race."
Scource: Geiger Media/Robin Jackson