The smell of nitromethane is weirdly sweet and hard to identify, like a combination of burning marshmallows and sage with a chaser of jet fuel. It’s the kind of smell that you know is dangerous, killing brain cells by the bucketful, but you find yourself taking caged sniffs anyway.
It gets in your hair and lungs, and, if not properly consumed by a 4,000-horsepower National Hot Rod Association-approved nostalgia nitro funny car engine, it spews out of the exhaust pipes and leaves a wet spray in its wake. Right now, on a blazing hot September afternoon in the parking lot of Tulsa Raceway Park, Nancy Matter’s pit crew is testing her car’s engine in preparation for the evening qualifiers for the Nitro Nationals, and the resulting spray leaves a glistening sheen on the side of her fire-engine-red, double-decker semi. The guys start it up, let it run, and then turn it off, descending with cranks and probes to make adjustments. Then they do it again. And again.
You feel the sound more than hear it. With headphones on or earplugs in, every time the engine ignites it’s like you’re suddenly lying on the tracks under a speeding train or standing in the center of an Oklahoma twister or sitting in the cockpit of Apollo 13 for liftoff. The vibrations sing the body electric on a subatomic level. Even for someone like me, who bought a Kia for her first car because it was cheap and named it Kermit because it was green, it ignites something primal. It’s like firing a thousand shotguns. It is pure power, even standing still.
I spot Nancy off to the side, taking selfies with young fans in the shade of the merch tent, which has been set up at the back of the rig under the mischievous eyes of Chris Kyle and Chad Littlefield. The photo of the American Sniper Navy SEAL and his friend, who were killed on the shooting range of Rough Creek Lodge and Resort in 2013, takes up most of the rear of the semi, along with an American flag and the words “NEVER FORGET.”
Nancy races under the banner of the American Valor Foundation, helping to raise funds for the nonprofit established by Chris’ parents. She’s not a vet, but she feels a special affinity with Chris and Chad, who she believes watch over her, and their families, whom she’s met. In addition to eagle-emblazoned t-shirts and hoodies, she also sells keychains made from painted and bedazzled spark plugs to support, among a number of causes, the family of a child who died from a rare form of brain cancer.
At 60, Nancy is still blond, although no longer naturally so. She has broad shoulders, a square jaw, an ear-to-ear smile, and the lightly charred voice of someone who has inhaled nitromethane for about half a century. She would make a convincing stunt double for Wynonna Judd in a feminist remake of Smokey and the Bandit, except the Grammy-winning mastering engineer turned funny car drag racer isn’t the type to stay in anyone’s shadow.
While Nancy socializes with fans, Addie, a 16-year-old with blue-tinted braces and stick-straight hair tucked under a trucker cap, mans the merch table. The trucker hat comes honestly; her father, Nick, is a long-haul fuel trucker. He saw Nancy’s ad on Facebook for someone to drive the semi, and he volunteered. Addie, a gearhead who wants to be a welder when she grows up, is enrolled in the National Hot Rod Association junior program, which allows kids with new driver’s licenses to race their parents’ street-legal cars down the straightaway to get the bug.
“My other daughter would probably make a better driver,” Nick says, a little ruefully, “but she’s too into boys.”
Nick had to be called into service because Charlie Ford, Nancy’s usual driver, is still recovering from a crash he had last March racing his Corvette in Wichita Falls. Charlie is ex-Air Force. He lives in Athens and was a radar technician for the military before working for Texas Instruments and AT&T overseeing the maintenance of their manufacturing systems. The 79-year-old looks a little like Harry Morgan in his Dragnet days, trim and gray with soft, pretty eyes. He holds out his right arm; burn scars run the length of it.
He doesn’t remember the crash, but he knows now that the throttle stuck and he didn’t manage to pull the parachutes, so he hit the barrier at the end of the track at about 170 mph. He woke up in John Peter Smith Hospital in Fort Worth with 18 broken ribs, two broken collarbones, a broken arm, a broken shoulder, a partially collapsed lung, and a hematoma on his brain.
When he came to, he told the doctor, “Just pull the plug.” The doctor told him, “Well, Mr. Ford, we don’t have a plug. You’re going to be OK. Just hang in there for a while.”
Charlie paid for Nancy’s shiny red semi and had been driving it to races for years, ever since he first met her at the Texas Motorplex in Ennis while out walking his basset hound, Trip. He had done well for himself, eventually starting his own business buying used electronic equipment and selling it to big companies. “I made good money,” Charlie says. “What else am I going to spend it on?”
The rig transports Nancy’s 1977 Pontiac Trans Am dragster. It’s a nostalgia funny car, which means it has a fiberglass shell that looks like a classic car body mounted over a custom souped-up chassis. Although the racing class became popular in the 1960s, the style was initially deemed “funny” as a derogatory term for the altered wheelbase, which shifts the vehicle’s center of gravity to the rear while keeping the engine in the front, better enabling it to harness the power generated in the Top Fuel classes. Now they are considered serious racers, among the fastest-accelerating machines in the world. Depending on construction and type of fuel, they can reach speeds in excess of 300 mph, covering the quarter-mile track in less than 4 seconds. Nancy’s record in the Trans Am is 5.81 seconds at 248 mph.
She’s hoping to close a deal soon with a Top Fuel sponsor, the next level up from nitro. To be able to turn pro, hire a crew chief, and upgrade to a car with an 11,000-horsepower engine, she’ll need to raise $2 million. She already has a dream crew chief, Lance Larson, in mind. He’s a hired gun for the pro teams and has worked for big-name female racers, including Melanie Troxel and Lori Johns. She met him 20 years ago, when Evan Knoll, the founder of Torco Racing Fuels, invited her to a private test session down in Gainesville, Florida (long before Evan pleaded guilty to a $100 million fraud involving gasoline excise tax refunds).
On her very first pass in Gainesville, Nancy’s car blew up. It caught on fire, and the concussion kicked out all the windows and broke the body. Unlike Charlie, she managed to throw the chutes and pull the throttle. She was able to climb out of the car and was trying to pull her helmet off when the emergency crew rushed in to see if she was OK.
“Fuck me,” Nancy told them. “Get my car!”
Nancy was wearing her wedding dress when she met her biological father for the first time. Or at least for the first time she remembers. It was 1980, and she was in Kansas for a double wedding with her half brother. She had gone into the dress shop for some final alterations even though, as she points out, “I don’t even remember what for, because I was so fricking skinny.”
She was 18 years old, about to marry the 20-year-old pot-smoking, guitar-playing longshoreman who had whistled at her when he had first seen her on the street a couple of years before. The dress was all lace, tightly fitted with long sleeves that ended in finger loops, and a crown held the veil in place above her California-blond hair. It was a Disney princess dress, and it could have been a Disney princess moment, a joyfully tearful father-daughter reunion replicated to infinity in the bridal shop mirrors. Instead, it was mostly just weird.
Nancy thought her dad had died while serving in the Army during the Korean War. The only clue she ever had that that might not be true was the set of colored pencils that arrived for Christmas every year, addressed to Nancy Jane Webb. When she was 9 or 10, she finally asked her mom why the card had her last name wrong. That’s when her mom took a boiling pot of spaghetti off the stove and hurled it at her head. The starchy noodles stuck to the wall, and Nancy took off running. Her mom grabbed an acoustic guitar, the next closest thing at hand, and smashed it on the ground. “You don’t ever say that name in this household!” she shouted as she threw the splintered pieces at her child. “He’s dead!”
Yet here he was, in a bridal shop in Kansas, more than 1,000 miles and 16 years from when he had seen his daughter last. As a last-minute act of contrition or spite, Nancy’s mom had told him about the wedding. But the invitation came too late for him to spare his daughter the nightmare she had already managed to survive.
Nancy’s mom wouldn’t tell her until decades later, after Nancy had two kids and a divorce of her own, that she always knew about the stepfather’s abuse. She said she chose not to say anything to save herself. She needed a lightning rod; Nancy was it.
A new tire shipment arrives at the track for Nancy’s car, but it turns out something is wrong with the linings, so the pit crew has to reinstall the tires from the last race. Ron Shanks, who has a chassis and speed shop in nearby Bixby and is helping out for the weekend, ducks in to check and recheck the air pressure.
Ron looks like a cross between David Crosby and Captain Kangaroo. He has the same curly gray hair as Crosby paired with Robert Keeshan’s childlike glee. Wearing an apron and a watchmaker’s half-rim magnifying glasses, he says he grew up on the Tulsa Raceway. His teenage sister would come to the track to flirt with boys, so his dad sent him along at the age of 6 to chaperone. His sister would give him $5 and tell him to get lost for the day. “I won’t tell if you won’t tell” was the deal. Unlike his sister, he fell in love and never left.
During some downtime, I hop on Ron’s golf cart, and he drives me down the length of the track, past the stands and the field beyond that’s full of RVs and people out walking small dogs. When we reach the end, Ron peers over his glasses back toward the starting line and waxes nostalgic. He says the ’70s and ’80s were the heyday of drag racing. After the last run, spectators would often flood the track like a rock concert. Now, he says, the biggest party is the Funny Car Chaos! series kickoff at the Texas Motorplex in Ennis every March. Ron likens it to a cross between the World Series and a carnival freak show.
“Ennis is phenomenal,” he says. “It’s the first race of the year, and it’s the biggest-attended race of the year. It’s kind of like, ‘Woohoo! Hot damn! Winter’s over, let’s go race.’ Everybody that’s anybody that does this stuff, other than the big show guys, is there. And some of the big show guys are even showing up at this thing.”
The Funny Car Chaos! series was started by Chris and Tera Graves, in 2017, in their hometown of Denton. The “run whatcha brung flip top hootenanny” was intended to challenge the NHRA establishment, setting a lower bar for entry and a higher bar for fun, making it more accessible to the masses. The plan worked. It’s grown into the largest funny car race in the country and pays out more than $250,000.
At Nancy’s level in the NHRA, though, it ain’t cheap. Drivers need a bare minimum of $50,000 to put a car together, and there’s no limit to the high end. “It’s mind-boggling the amount of money that you can spend on one,” Ron says. “It’s not just the race car: you have got to look at the truck and trailer, all the support equipment, the tools, the spare parts, everything. It’s nothing to wrap up a million, a million and a half dollars in something like this. You look around this racetrack, and there’s an ungodly amount of money sitting here on the ground.”
As dusk sets in and the air finally starts to cool, he drives me back to the pit. Fans in Ford and Buc-ee’s t-shirts slowly filter in, lining up at the souvenir shop and barbecue stand, while kids race remote-controlled cars on the pavement. A fireman and a couple of EMTs come around to make their inspection, and Nancy shows them where the fire extinguishers are and how to get her out of the car through the hatch. She tells them if the hatch gets stuck, it will take a couple of guys to get the fiberglass top off; it looks light but weighs about 350 pounds.
Ron has known Nancy since her alcohol funny car days, and he helps her whenever his schedule allows. “She is something,” he says. “When she gets in that car, it’s 110 percent car. I mean, the world ceases to exist when you get in one of those. Pretty much, that’s her little world; that’s her office. And when the car starts up, you can tell—her whole demeanor and everything changes once the car starts. It’s all about the car and about driving it then.
“And she will do her best. She will drive the wheels off of one of them. She’s not scared of it. She has an ungodly respect for it, because it can hurt you really, really fast with no kind of warning. And you’ve got to respect that but not be scared of it. That’s her deal. I mean, she knows when enough is enough and when enough is not enough.”
Nancy was born in Washington, D.C., where her father, post-Army and still very much alive, had a job managing maintenance for several embassies. He came home from work one day to find Nancy’s mom in bed with Ted, the man who would become her third husband. Nancy’s father told her mother to leave, so she packed up Nancy and her son from her first marriage and moved with them and her new lover across the country to Los Angeles.
Nancy was too young to understand what happened to her father, but she was never confused about her relationship to Ted. When she was 5, he took her out on the front lawn and told her he wasn’t her biological father, that no one loved her, and she was lucky that he put a roof over her head. When she was 6, the physical abuse started.
According to family lore, Ted, a machinist by trade, twice held up gas stations for extra cash. On one of those occasions, he dragged out an attendant who tried to call the police for help, forced him onto a curb, jumped on both of his knees, and then shot him. So when he warned Nancy that if she ever told anyone about the abuse he’d kill her puppy, he’d kill her mom, he’d kill her half brother—she believed him.
He told her she’d end up a milk carton kid, a two-dimensional image on a disposable container, lost and never found. When she talks about it, she repeats the phrase like a mantra, as if still trying to turn the hex into a protection spell, rendering the words powerless through repetition. “A milk carton kid,” she says, shaking her head. “A milk carton kid.”
She lived in fear. “I walked on eggshells 24 hours a day, seven days a week,” she says. “I never knew when I was going to be thrown against a wall or be beat up in the shower. I never knew if he was going to kick the door in.”
To keep track of her, Ted would take Nancy to the San Fernando Raceway with him on weekends. To get away from him, she started working odd jobs from the time she was 9, handing out time slips, working the scales.
One of her few freedoms was to be in charge of the CB radio while Ted pulled his ’57 Ford Fairlane up Interstate 5, “The Grapevine,” from L.A. to San Fernando for NHRA races. That’s how she met drag racing pioneers Vickie and Lou Gasparelli; she started talking to them on the CB after their rig passed her by.
“I was like, ‘Wow!’ because it’s a big Chaparral trailer and a matching dually truck,” she says. “ Cuz here I was in the back of a ’66 station wagon with an open trailer with a Super Stock car on it, basically.”
The Gasparellis quickly realized Nancy needed a safe escape, so they welcomed her in their pit and kept her busy. She’d top off the fuel and check the parachutes. At the end of the track, she’d get in their “alky flopper” and steer as it was dragged back to the pit. Unlike some of the kids, she never had a fear of being enclosed in the car. Instead of making her feel trapped, the tightly fit carbon steel frame felt more like protective armor. And since she was taller than most, she could see over the engine. “I was so lanky and flexible that I could crawl out of the hatch and get out of the car after they pushed it up in the trailer,” she says.
During the week at school, Nancy’s teachers had a hard time keeping up with the fast-talking, high-energy student who often showed up covered in bruises. To ensure she stayed challenged and focused, they gave her assignments beyond her years. By the time she was in third grade, she was doing sixth grade work; by the time she was 13, she was starting 10th grade.
She discovered gymnastics when she was 10, and working out became another outlet that filled up to eight hours a day. Once, while she was practicing her floor exercises in the high school gym, the boys’ coach approached her and told her he wanted her to try out for the boys’ team when she came to high school. She still hadn’t hit puberty, but she looked down at her chest and noted, “I do have boobs.” He told her he knew she was a girl, but he thought it would be cool to have one on the boys’ team. She’d be the first one in Los Angeles.
She became an expert in tumbling and finished fifth in the city among the boys for her floor routine, despite the fact that some days she couldn’t raise her arms to take her shirt off and put her leotard on because she was hurt too badly from Ted’s beatings.
She was constantly terrified that someone would find out about the abuse and Ted would kill her. So even on weekends, when she wasn’t doing gymnastics and instead started hanging out with members of the Satans Slaves, she still hid her scars.
By the time she was 15, heading into her senior year, she was getting interest from college recruiters at UC Santa Barbara and Cal State Long Beach. But then Ted moved the family to Kansas to take a job building clutches for Weber Service Parts. The night of her 16th birthday, Nancy snuck out to the local ice house to meet the boy who would later become her husband. When she got home, Ted told her she was nothing but a whore and beat her one last time. She packed a bag and was gone.
Nancy steps out of the trailer fully suited up. It’s almost 9 pm, and it’s finally time to strap her into the car. Her crew lifts the fiberglass shell on top, keeping it propped open like a shucked oyster for ventilation, and tows it into line. She’ll be doing her qualifying run following Bobby Cottrell, whom she jokingly refers to as her nemesis.
The nostalgia funny car champion could pass for a comic book villain, mostly thanks to the coordinated color scheme of his electric green ’69 Camaro and the Poison Ivy-ish duo who are keeping it company: one, a young woman in a neon green tube top with her long, blond hair in a high ponytail; the other, an older brunette, encased in emerald-green sequins. Tomorrow there will be a pinup contest, but tonight these two clearly intend to be the attraction.
The sky is black with a three-quarters moon. As the tower starts to play Bob Seger’s “Night Moves” over the loudspeaker, Cottrell rolls up to the starting line. The women in green trot out ahead of the car. Bobby does the requisite burnout, spinning his tires and shooting a short distance off the line to lay some rubber and heat up the tires so his slicks will have something to bite into for a faster takeoff. Then Tube Top and Sequins direct him backward to the starting line. He launches, and his car clocks a cool 247 mph on the scoreboard.
Nancy’s Trans Am pulls up to the line next. She puts on her helmet, and her crew drops the lid. As she revs the engine, clouds of nitromethane droplets catch the light and glow. A dozen guys from different crews gather directly behind the car. Enveloped in the toxic mist, they hold up their iPhones, angling for the best shot.
Like Bobby, Nancy launches off the starting line for her burnout, but this time I see her boyfriend, Jeremy, suddenly run out in front of the car, cutting his hand across his throat, giving the kill sign. I try to see what is happening as the rest of the crew rushes in with fire extinguishers. Then I see the flames shooting out from under the car.
The crew manages to put out the flames without much trouble, and they quickly tow the car off the track, leaving a stream of oil in its wake. I run over to Ron, who has already hopped back into his golf cart.
“It’s bad, whatever it is,” he shouts over the sounds of the track as I jump in the cart with him. “It’s a catastrophic failure!”
After getting married at 18, moving back to California, and having two kids; after becoming a billing clerk for a propane gas distributor and then deciding to enroll in audio engineering school; after getting her first job as a mastering engineer, putting the finishing touches on records at a small studio, and then going to work for Walt Disney Studios; after mastering hundreds of albums, including The Lion King and The Little Mermaid soundtracks, more than 70 of which went gold or platinum and earned Grammy or Academy or People’s Choice awards; after getting divorced and opening her own studio, Moonlight Mastering, out of her garage, and working with artists such as Ray Charles, Peter Gabriel, and The Who—Nancy Matter was finally ready to return to the track.
This time, though, she wouldn’t be bullied into the back seat of Ted’s station wagon.
This time, she’d be driving a Super Comp car.
With the encouragement of a friend, she got her competition driver’s license. A few weeks later, she bought a pretty little purple dragster, the long and skinny kind with little tires in front and big tires in back. Her son would haul it to NHRA events, and she’d fly out on weekends when she wasn’t working to meet him and race.
One night, she hosted an American Engineering Society party for 200 people at her house in Burbank. The whole thing was catered, with two full bars and a red carpet rolled down the driveway. But all Dwight Yoakam’s record producer, Dusty Wakeman, and the rest of the guests wanted to do was crowd into the garage and check out her 750-horsepower toy.
As Nancy tells me the story, I can’t quite wrap my head around how a drag racer becomes a mastering engineer, or how a mastering engineer becomes a drag racer, or what a mastering engineer really does. So I call up Grammy-winning music producer Joe Chiccarelli, who has engineered albums for Frank Zappa, The White Stripes, Elton John, Beck, and The Killers and worked with Nancy at various points throughout her career. He explains:
“The music business, as you know—especially on the production engineering side of it—tends to be very male-dominated, and Nancy was one of the first women that was really up-and-coming and kind of cut through it all and was able to make a career,” he tells me over the phone from his office in L.A. “She and Emily Lazar at The Lodge studios in New York City, who I work with a lot, were two of the very first female mastering engineers that I knew of that were doing world-class work.”
To understand what Nancy did, Joe says, you have to understand how a record gets made. The process starts with a recording of all of the various parts. Once the best execution of each of those parts has been captured, the pieces are mixed, balanced, and blended in just the right propertions. Then the whole thing goes to the mastering engineer.
“The mastering engineer is really the last one that has any artistic control over the project,” Joe says. “So they’re putting the finishing touches on it. They’re sort of framing the painting, if you will. And it’s the last connection the artist really has with the music. So you can imagine, a lot of artists are very concerned about their work and sometimes very insecure about their work. So it requires somebody that’s got talented ears and makes good artistic decisions in terms of the last ability to touch up the tonality of the project.”
It also requires a fair bit of diplomacy. “I think that a lot of this job is really having the ability to communicate and understand what the artist is trying to do,” Joe says. “And Nancy was just really great with that. The fact that she raced cars was a big bonus, because I’m a car nut. And I think anybody that loves cars and is daring and lives on the edge and lives for the excitement of that is OK in my world.”
But after two decades in the business, Nancy grew tired of the L.A. grind. She just wanted to be able to go out for dinner without being hit up by artists and producers. When Danny Bonaduce approached her at a restaurant one night and tried to get her to work on his daughter’s album, that might have been the partridge that broke the pear tree.
She thought Austin might be the answer, but the town turned out to be too laid-back for her taste, with stoned musicians flaking on appointments. Then, in broad daylight, some guy pooped on her lawn and wiped his behind with a stray hamburger wrapper. That’s when she told Jeremy they were moving north to Lewisville, where a friend had a spare warehouse they could use to open a diesel repair and performance shop. Nancy could race, and Jeremy could work on trucks.
That was in 2008.
Six years later, a man named Tony Ryan1 pulled up to North Texas Diesel on a Saturday morning. He was driving what Nancy describes as a Back to the Future-type car and what Tony says is a limited-edition cross between a McLaren and a Saleen S7. Tony wanted to add even more juice to it, and he had heard that the shop was one of the few places that had a dynamometer that could measure the car’s horsepower and the technology to enhance it.
At the time, in his 50s, Tony was fit and athletic and bore a passing resemblance to Josh Brolin but with more-prominent ears emerging from the sides of his baseball cap. He had been a professional motocross racer in his teens, but an injury had put an end to his dream of being a fighter pilot like his father. Instead, he went into business for himself, eventually making the kind of money with his Denton-based company that afforded him toys like a street-legal, gull-winged race car, for which he beat out a sheik from Dubai for first pick.
While Jeremy tinkered, Tony and Nancy got to talking. Tony mentioned that he was on the board of the Halo for Freedom Warrior Foundation, which hosts an annual weekend of events in March based around the Texas Motor Speedway. Wounded vets can race cars, skydive (with or without their service animals), shoot guns, bow fish, and go on helicopter hog hunts. They are given tours of the GE manufacturing facility, right by the race track, where the company makes train engines and mining trucks, and the vets are offered the opportunity to apply for jobs. There’s a gala at Billy Bob’s Texas that’s open to the public, with live and silent auctions to raise funds. The goal is to rekindle camaraderie, make the impossible seem possible even with prosthetics, and prevent suicide. The means is an infusion of pure adrenaline.
After listening to Tony, Nancy confessed something to him that she’d never told anyone, not even Jeremy. A few weeks earlier, she had gone to see American Sniper when it first came out in theaters. She had known nothing about Chris Kyle’s story, but Clint Eastwood, the film’s director and a classical pianist, had occasionally utilized her mastering skills, so she had wanted to see it. After watching the film, Chris had started coming to her nightly in her dreams. Every time it was the same.
She’s in her alcohol funny car, and she’s pulling up to the starting line. Chris has his night gear on, and he’s holding a rifle. He lies down behind her and aims his gun directly over her head. She launches, she shifts, she shifts again. The red light comes on, she throws her chutes to brake, and she pulls off the track. Then she wakes up.
She told Tony that she wasn’t quite sure what the dream meant, but it felt real, like Chris was trying to tell her something. Her great-grandmother had told her on the morning of her wedding that clairvoyancy ran in the family; this felt like it might be that. She figured, for starters, maybe he wanted her to use her race car to represent fallen vets.
“What’s stopping you?” Tony asked.
“I have no idea how to get ahold of the family,” Nancy said.
“I can make a phone call,” Tony replied. “We can probably make that happen right now.”
Turns out, shortly after Chris’ death, Tony had met Wayne and Deby Kyle as they were checking in at the Marriott Hotel & Golf Club at Champions Circle, beside Texas Motor Speedway, for one of the veterans weekends hosted by Tony’s foundation. They had become friends.
Next thing Nancy knew, she was on the phone with Wayne and finalizing his foundation’s artwork for her car.
I ask Tony why he thought it made sense for her to drive for the Kyle family’s American Valor Foundation. She wasn’t a vet, for starters. She wasn’t even a native Texan. All she had was a dream.
“Nancy is such a good person,” Tony says. “And being a female and racing and things of that nature, that you mostly think about as being in the men’s world—or you used to—and she’s out there dominating as a female. And you take her, and then you take the fact that Chris was a legend, that he was our top sniper ever, and you kind of connect the two. It makes sense to me. And she said she wanted to do that. We want to honor these guys in any way we possibly can.”
In the meantime, Jeremy managed to increase the top speed of Tony’s car to more than 200 miles per hour. Tony was able to enjoy it for a while, but then he was diagnosed with cancer. By the time I talk with him in November, he has lost more than 75 pounds during the course of his treatment, and, although he’s doing better, he says his racing days are probably over. A year ago, he gave the juiced-up car to his daughter and son-in-law as a wedding present.
“It’s a catastrophic failure!” Ron repeats as we race back to the pit. By the time we get there, a crowd has already gathered and the crew is disassembling the engine. Nancy looks stricken. She says she’s fine, though, mostly just embarrassed that she’s left oil on the track, which she’s never done before. It means the John Deere tractor with the oversize scrub brush on the front, dubbed the Zamboni, has to be sent in to clean up. It’s already been a long night, and there are at least six cars left to qualify. Even the announcer sounds defeated.
“Well, folks,” he says over the loudspeaker, “you may want to get some refreshments. It will be a minute until we get these cars back on the track.”
Nancy knows she’s done for the weekend. She thinks it’s probably the rods; they knew they had a bad batch, but they thought they had salvaged the good ones. Instead, the rods have blown through the engine, and the oil pan has been split wide open. Nancy’s looking at thousands of dollars in repairs. Worst of all, there’s no way to fix it in time to qualify, which means they won’t be able to recoup any money. So the whole weekend has been a loss.
All that’s left to do is have some gumbo cooked by Bobby’s cousin, Daniel, in a large pot set over a propane cooker. He’s been working on it all afternoon. Best I can tell, it contains a whole lot of canned clams and about two feet of sausage per person. It tastes like what you think gumbo would taste like made by a lifelong smoker and inhaler of car fumes on a race track in Tulsa. But we all grab a Styrofoam bowl and gratefully tuck in.
Jeremy walks over, looking sheepish. When Nancy first met him at some race or other, his nickname was “Slug.” He’d spend all day working under a car, and when he’d emerge his hair would be slick with oil. He’d be so tired that he’d fall asleep in the tow vehicle. His head would slide down the window, and the oil would leave a residue, like a slug.
Turns out the catastrophic failure wasn’t the rods’ fault per se; Jeremy never took them back out after testing the engine to see if they had worn unevenly or if there was any damage, even though the size of the fuel pump had changed at some point, which I don’t fully understand but seems to everyone else to be a bit of an oversight. As he approaches Nancy, she gives him the cold shoulder. “Don’t talk to me,” she says, her eyes on her gumbo.
They’ll pack everything up tomorrow and head home to Lewisville. Jeremy will take the car apart and put it back together. Then they’ll pack up the rig, call up Charlie to see if he’s good to drive, and hit the road again.
Here’s the thing about drag racing: it is linear by nature. Everything happens in a quarter-mile straight line. At its essence, the sport is simply about leaving point A and getting to point B as fast as you can while doing your best to stay alive.
The same can be said of Nancy’s life. But what I find while trying to tell her story is that I keep getting caught in circles. It is about starting as much as it is about finishing, about getting away from something as much as it is about getting somewhere, about losing as much as it is about winning. It is a snake eating its tail, a chicken and an egg, an infinite, tangled loop.
I find myself caught in yet another unexpected detour when I meet up with her at the Lewisville shop after the race. As she gives me a tour, we pass a twisted heap of metal. It looks like a dune buggy frame that’s been balled up in a giant’s hand. “That’s Charlie’s car,” she says offhandedly.
My reaction is visceral. I flash back to a memory from when I was 10 years old. My mother, driving our mud-brown Dodge Ram conversion van alone in a snowstorm, hit a patch of black ice. She steered into the skid and figured, worst case, she’d be stopped by the fluffy snowbank plowed to the side of the highway. But the bank had frozen solid, and the van flipped end over end three times. It crumpled like a soda can, the steering wheel crushing into the driver’s bucket seat. It was the early ’80s, so my mom wasn’t wearing a seat belt. The police found her curled into a ball between the driver’s and passenger’s seats, the only bubble of safety left in the vehicle.
To steer into the skid is to give yourself up to a more powerful force in the hope that, given time and traction, you can regain control. My mom, who ended up with a broken collarbone, didn’t manage that so well, but Nancy did. She has spent her life steering into the skid. The rumble of a nitromethane-fueled motor could have forever triggered the feeling of Ted’s fist bruising her growing bones. Instead, she chose to get in the driver’s seat and let it fuel her.
Ted forced her to the track as a show of dominance. Instead of running away in a straight line, she circled back, returning to point A again and again, gaining more traction each time.
By the time Chris Kyle hopped in the car with her, he wasn’t so much a magic feather as he was a validation, confirming she was on the right path. On the days when she sets out a tin of silver-top Copenhagen chew and pours out a couple of Bud Lights in a circle on the hot Texas ground, in tribute to Chris and Chad—and perhaps sees an eagle take shape in the evaporating mist—she feels a sense of camaraderie and purpose.
In a lifetime of fear and uncertainty, one thing is clear: there can be few things more comforting than believing a SEAL Team vet is watching your six. Especially when you’re launching off the starting line toward 250 miles per hour. But even when Chris isn’t along for the ride, Nancy knows she’s finally in control, encased in her steel armor. No one can touch her now.
Correction: the print version of this story said Nancy rode with the Hells Angels; in fact, as a preteen she hung out with the Satan’s Slaves and, later as an adult, she befriended the Hessians.