By Amy Dee Stephens
Look out NASCAR! This teenager is blazing a trail in racing circles. Shayla Waddell is only 17, but she’s been driving sprint cars for ten years and has already set records as the youngest Oklahoma female to compete in this male-dominated sport.
“She’s driving a car that pushes 550 horsepower, weighs 1,500 pounds and is nothing but torque,” said Barry Grabel, co-promoter of the Oil Capital Racing Series. “I’m not sure how an itty-bitty girl like that even hangs on to the steering wheel, but she’s a successful competitor against grown men.”
Shayla is pretty, petite and soft spoken – not what anyone envisions as a fierce competitor who calculates passing moves at speeds of 100 mph. Her calm, reserved demeanor may be the very thing that gives her a competitive edge.
“She’s very even-tempered and doesn’t get overly emotional,” said her mother, Shelly Waddell. “That seems to keep her focused on the racetrack.”
“The speed doesn’t bother me because I’ve worked up to it since I started driving when I was a kid,” Shayla said. “But I have a problem with forgetting to breathe and blink because I’m concentrating so hard.”
Dry-eyed and breathless, Shayla has earned numerous wins and consistently ranks Top 10 in points. Although she started racing against other kids when she was 8 years old, she moved up to competing against adults at the State Fair Speedway in 2008. That year, she won Rookie of the Year and became the youngest female driver to ever compete at the Speedway.
“Rookie of the Year was a big deal for me,” Shayla said, “as well as winning the main event on July 4th last year. That was really cool. Those wins are so hard to get.”
Since State Fair Speedway closed recently, Shayla has moved on to compete in the Oil Capital Racing Series, which includes drivers from Oklahoma, Kansas and Arkansas.
“Racing in this series has been a step up for me, because I’m on different tracks every weekend, some that I’ve never seen before,” Shayla said. “But now I’m more comfortable with how my car works, so I can focus on adapting to the different tracks.”
“These guys are professionals who travel every week,” said Scott Wadell, Shayla’s father. “They tolerate her really well because she races clean, and the series doesn’t show her any favoritism. She’s consistent, rarely makes contact, and if the car isn’t working right, she’ll get out of the way.”
“Most of these guys have been racing as long as I’ve been alive,” Shayla said. “They’ve been really good to me, but I have to earn their respect, because I lack their experience. I try to be nice to everyone, and I guess, because I’m a little girl, no one really messes with me.”
Despite their kindness toward Shayla, male ego is a consideration that her father keeps in mind. It’s the reason he hasn’t allowed her to get a pink car … yet.
“She’s always wanted pink, but I just can’t do it,” Scott said. “No guy wants to be passed by a girl in a pink car!”
Instead, Team Waddell Motorsports is known for its purple and white car (which now includes a thin pink outline to celebrate Shayla’s success). Hers is the only purple car on the track and easily identifiable by her fan base.
When Shayla raced at the fairgrounds, friends and family filled a whole section in the stands. Now that she races out of town, the crowd has dwindled, although she can always count on her grandparents to still attend.
“I miss having a crowd of people visiting our trailer. Fans are awesome,” Shayla said.
From April to October, weekends are devoted to racing by choice, and it feels normal to Shayla to only see her friends during the week. She remains at the top of her class at Westmoore High School despite her busy schedule, and already has college credit hours from Oklahoma City Community College.
“I really like math, and I want to get an engineering degree from the University of Oklahoma,” Shayla said. “My goal is to race professionally.”
According to her father, “On any day, Shayla could say, ‘I’m done racing,’ and we would stop. She’s subjected to the dust, heat and bugs of racing on a dirt track. I know it sounds crazy, but she still wants to do it and she handles it well. She’s really special.”
Shayla’s 13-year-old sister, Savannah, also has raced successfully, winning Rookie of the Year at I-44 State Speedway. She has since decided to pursue other sports, but still goes to the racetrack to support her sister whenever she’s able.
“And I like the smell,” Savannah added. “Ahhh … exhaust fumes!” The family laughs.
The extended Waddell “family” includes the crew, many of whom have worked on Shayla’s car for years. The crewmembers volunteer for the job because they enjoy it. Shayla credits Glenn Tidwell, the Crew Chief, with teaching her the most about driving the bigger sprint cars.
“The crew are like family,” Shelly said. “They have a vested interest in Shayla’s safety, because they love her. She’s like their daughter. They check every nut, bolt and seat belt so that she’ll be safe.”
Safety is certainly a topic of frequent discussion. The Waddells use every top-of-the-line safety precaution available, from a five-point harness system to specialized fire-repellent undergarments.
“All sports are dangerous,” Shelly said. “I can’t tell you I’m not nervous every time she goes on the track, but racing has more protection devices than most sports. Shayla’s in a roll cage, with a safety system, just like they have in the NASCAR series. It’s great to have a flashy car, but more importantly, it has to be safe. Otherwise, I couldn’t let her do this.”
“Racing is dangerous,” Scott agreed. “If you race, you will hit walls, you will encounter fire and you will flip. Every driver knows that, so you are as prepared as possible. Everything we choose helps buy Shayla a few seconds of time in an extreme condition – that’s all we need to get her out of the car. After that, the car can burn to the ground – I don’t care.”
From the stands, observers might be unaware that Shayla’s car is equipped with an automatic thermostat that will release Halon the second it gets too hot in the car. The “wings” on the car are designed to absorb shock if she flips. A custom seat is formed to fit her perfectly, rebuilt as she grows. The five-point harness seatbelt system goes over her shoulders and between her legs, strapping her in so tightly she can barely move. She also wears a Head and Neck Support (HANS) restraint system.
“The worst injury she’s ever had is when the seatbelt left strawberries on her shoulders because she was held in so tight during a hard crash,” Shelly said.
“If Dale Earnhardt had used that HANS device, it might have saved his life,” added Scott.
Before Shayla enters her car, she dons a fire-repellent Nomex suit, including underwear, long johns, socks, shoes, gloves, head sock and helmet. Although Shayla mourns how messy her hair looks after the race, she wears the layers of gear without complaint.
“I don’t know how she can stand the melting heat, but if she doesn’t wear it, she doesn’t race,” Shelly said.
“After a few washings, the undergarments start falling apart. She’ll ask, ‘Dad, should I get the $90 or the $120 shirt?’ I say, ‘Shayla, which do you want to be wearing if you are on fire?’ That’s the one we buy.”
Sound expensive? Shayla is fortunate to have funding from sponsors; most have been part of her entire eight-year career, and are an extension of the Waddell family: Production Engine furnishes the motors and equipment purchases, Lufkin Services and Red Rock Distributing pay for fuel, and Shores-Sentry assists with additional racing costs.
“Our cars cost $40,000 apiece,” Scott said. “Stuff gets torn up, it costs money, it takes time, and you move on to the next race. That’s the high and low of racing.”
“I guess some people get the impression that I’d be a spoiled, ungrateful brat,” Shayla said, “but I’m very quiet and very grateful.”
Shayla’s mother says she never gets upset with other people. “She admits when she’s made a mistake and feels bad because she knows how much everyone helps her each week.”
The Oil Capital Racing Series has high hopes for Shayla. “We’d like to see her in NASCAR down the road,” Grabel said. “She’s very competitive. I have no doubt this young lady will make it big time.
“I just have to be patient and get more experience so that I can follow my dream to stay in racing for the rest of my life,” Shayla said.