Kayla Harrell said the first reaction she gets from people is often “Gosh, that little girl’s driving a race car?”
At four feet, 11 inches and 110 pounds, Harrell doesn’t cut an imposing figure. That is until you talk to her or until you see her out on the track.
“Everybody makes jokes about me being little,” Harrell said. “I have to sit on a pillow.”
Metal blocks are welded onto the pedals so she can reach them. Fellow drivers make her jump to reach their hand for a high five.
Harrell is OK with being small and she’s OK with being a woman on the track. “I still put make up on before I go to the races,” she said.
“My dad (Michael Harrell) won’t let me wear shorts to the race track,” she said. “It’s 100 degrees and I have to wear jeans. Even though I’m 23. I respect my daddy’s opinion.”
Harrell said her dad is “constantly” giving her advice. “I really take it to heart,” she said.
In her second year of racing, she’s sixth in the points standings at Friendship Motor Speedway. She began racing at Rolling Thunder Speedway in Ararat, Virginia, last season.
“I’ve always loved racing,” Harrell said “I loved going to Bowman Gray. I loved to see all the pictures of my dad at Bowman Gray.
“I’d go watch him,” she continued. “One day, I said, ‘Daddy, I’d like to try that.’”
Harrell’s aunt, G.R. Merritt, was the first woman to win a race at Bowman Gray.
“I got a real good opportunity to drive for Wagoner’s Welding,” Harrell said. “I manned up. I was going to work on my own car.”
Harrell said she met James Wagoner, the owner of Wagoner’s Welding and Wagoner’s Racing, at the track in 2013. “We started talking,” she said. “He had some people drive the UCar he had. They said it was junk.”
Wagoner told Harrell she could try it. “I just liked the family,” Wagoner said. “I thought they were good people.
“I watched her race one time and I knew she was the right driver for our race car.”
She finished second in points at Rolling Thunder in it. “It’s a really good car,” she said. “It’s come along pretty well.”
Three months into her racing career, Harrell drove into the infield at Rolling Thunder instead of staying on the track when she lost a tire. No yellow came out. While she sat in the infield, the racing continued.
“I had my first race won at Rolling Thunder,” Harrell said. “I had a straightaway lead. I had a tire come off the rim. I ended up losing the race.”
She was a fast study, although she was willing to pay her dues. “I was starting in the back of heat races and features,” she said. “I was a rookie. I didn’t want to mess anybody up.”
Harrell said no one has tried to intimidate her on the track. “I haven’t had any problems,” Harrell said. “I don’t think it’s any different being a girl. I don’t think I’m treated any differently.
“If someone has a problem with me, tell me what you think. Tell me what you feel. I can hold my own.”
‘There’s always next week’
Harrell works as a paralegal for a criminal defense attorney. “This is what I want to do,” she said. “I love it. The more I’ve worked there, the more I’ve thought about getting a higher degree.”
Harrell has an A.A. from Surry Community College. She also teaches gymnastics in Elkin.
“When I get finished, I go straight to the shop,” she said. “I don’t know that much about cars. But I’m out there getting my hands dirty. I work on it. I put money into it.”
Harrell can now “hang out” with her family as a driver. “Racing itself is pretty cool,” she said. “But I like being with my dad and my [family].
“The atmosphere. Daddy strapping me in the car. The adrenaline of it.”
This year, her mother — Beverly Harrell — is attending the races every week as well. Kayla said her mother wasn’t able to do it except “a couple of times” in 2013. “My mom’s a really big supporter,” she said. “It almost kills her to come and watch me race.
“But it really makes my day.”
Harrell’s car is sponsored by Southeastern Cars and Parts in Ronda; Foothills Metal Roofs in Ronda; Martin Wildlife Creations in Mount Airy; Aloha Nails and Spa in Jonesville; Little Rebel Customs in Jonesville; Gregory’s Landscaping in Elkin; Winebarger Trucking in Jonesville; and Rhythm on Main Dance and Gymnastics in Elkin.
Harrell, although a consistent top-five finisher, has yet to claim a feature victory.
“I’ve never won a race, but I’ve come pretty close,” she said. “I think of myself as a pretty aggressive driver, but I haven’t been lucky yet.”
So does she feel pressure about being so close so often? “I do,” she said. “I think about it. Some times I get discouraged. I think about all the things I could have done.
“Then I’m over it. There’s always next week.
“I just like going out there and having fun,” she said. “I’d like to eventually move up a class. I’m hoping that can be next year.”
“I am very satisfied with her,” Wagoner said, adding he wants to put her in a rear-wheel drive car next season. “If I can find the right one.
“She’s a good driver. She takes care of the car.”
Jim Fuller may be reached at 336-258-4052 or Twitter @elkinareasports.