By CAROL HOPKINS of the Oakland Press. EDITED BY MICHAEL COHEN
For the first time in history, a woman driver, Danica Patrick, took the top slot on the pole at the Daytona 500. This monumental racing milestone, as well as her leading several laps and finishing eighth, created tremendous interest in the race as well as interest in women race car drivers.
Around Oakland County, women have been driving race cars around Waterford Hills Road Racing’s track in Independence Township (though some call it Clarkston) for years.
Merritt Scott Collins, of Royal Oak, an SEM/PCA member and P 4 contributor, started racing five years ago.
“I earned my first pole during my second season,” Collins said. “Male or female, nobody’s ever really ready for that. I gave it all away by Turn No. 1.”
In her years on the track, Collins has won an hour long enduro race and finished second in a regional race in Mid-Ohio.
Collins, a corporate communications management consultant to small businesses and a design teacher at a technical college, revels in the “laser focus and split-second mental calculations” racing requires.
“Think high-speed, live-action chess,” she said.
“I also love the camaraderie of our track family. Drivers will loan parts off of their own cars, share gear off their own backs, and stay up most of the night just to help another driver stay in the game. Often your biggest rival is the first person to lend a hand when you need one.”
Collins said her dad raced while she was in college.
“Years later a girlfriend and I started cooking for a Waterford Hills team. Two seasons in, I began dating a driver, Vaughan Scott, and eventually we married. When my husband decided to build a faster, lighter-type car, I started driving his old one — a 1979 Porsche 924,” she said.
As for racing she said the “raw energy and power at the wheel of a roaring car” beats sitting behind a desk.
“It’s the ultimate thrill ride — 13 turns in less than a mile and a half, like a roller coaster, only you are in command,” she said.
Collins recalled that Patrick isn’t the only woman to ever make racing history.
“Remember that Janet Guthrie competed in both the Indy 500 and Daytona 500 in the 1970s, long before Danica Patrick was even born,” she said.
Collins, who calls herself more of a “Formula One kind of girl,” said that for driving style and sportsmanship, she admires women racers Sarah Fisher, Maria de Villota and Lyn St. James.
As for racing, Collins advises women who might like to get into the sport to begin close to home.
“Start with open track days at our track in Clarkston to get a feel for car handling in a safe, controlled, against-the-clock environment,” she said.
“Or come out and work a corner station, and you’ll see why they call it ‘the second-best seat in the house.’ And don’t think it’s a kids’ sport, either. At our level, we have plenty of racers winning championships in their 40s, 50s and 60s.”
Collins said most people think “race car drivers” are “those famous people with big sponsorships who go from city to city most weekends, right?”
“But for each one of them, there are thousands more of us amateur drivers who have families and day jobs, and do this for fun six or eight weekends out of the year. And in many cases, obsess about it the remaining weeks.”
In March, Merritt and some other female race car drivers were featured at Autorama, Regaled in their racing suits, the women signed autographs and chatted with visitors..
We are all proud of Merritt, and wish her well for the 2013 racing season