A typical American teenager, Marissa Earle sports snug, designer jeans, a camisole top and long, straight hair at Eagle Point High School. But Earle's slender build and warm, toothy smile are just as compatible with fire-retardant coveralls and a crash helmet.
The seemingly typical teen pursues a decidedly atypical avocation on weekends at the Southern Oregon Speedway circle track on the outskirts of White City. It is there that Marissa campaigns a winged Sprint Car 360, one of the most potent racing machines on the planet. Only a relative handful of racers care to even try driving one of these brutally powerful, dirt-track thoroughbreds. Far fewer sprint drivers happen to be female, as well. When Marissa climbs into the cockpit of the purple-hued 93 car, she's one of only two women in Oregon who dares to race these methanol-fueled beasts.
The clash of femininity with a stereotypically testosterone-fueled pastime makes for occasionally comical moments with some of Marissa's growing fan base at SOS. Between races on a recent Saturday evening, the teen strolls through the main grandstand area to sign autographs. One new fan, a man around 60 years old, approaches.
"Are you a driver here?" he asks, after noticing her tailored, black coveralls. Marissa flashes an engaging smile, nods her head and says, "Yeah, I race the 93 sprint car."
There's a pause as the fan digests what he thinks she just said. "YOU drive a sprint car?"
Yes, she does. And she's determined to achieve levels of proficiency equal to her numerous seasons of success in the winged karts racing next door to the big track at SOS. Known variously as "cage karts" or "outlaw karts," the highly modified miniracers have served as stepping stones for many nationally renowned professional racers. Most notable in Marissa's mind is a certain Indy car driver you may have heard of.
"Someday I hope to be as famous as Danica Patrick ... but an even better driver!" she declares.
In one sense, Marissa has already surpassed her more famous racing sister. Patrick's never yet turned a wheel in a sprint car. Sure, her career path veered from Marissa's, as Patrick's debut at age 10 made her a relative latecomer to the sport. But don't discount the fact that winged sprint cars boast one of the most intimidating power-to-weight ratios of any racecar in the world.
Stuff all that V-8 horsepower into a short, narrow, tubular chassis — driving wide, sticky racing tires on the back — add a driver gutsy enough to steer, and you've just produced a racing spectacle that appears to defy the laws of physics.
Marissa's affinity for racing machines began when she was 6 and joined a friend's family on their Rooster Crow Parade float in Rogue River. What caught her attention was the array of gleaming cage karts sprinkled about the float by the Shubins, who happened to be the SOS kart-racing promoters at the time.
"She came home and announced that she wanted to race a kart," says Don Earle, Marissa's dad. "I said OK, and we went and bought an entry-level kart for her."
The combination of racer's heart and competitive equipment worked its magic on Marissa. "I guess I like going fast," she says.
Fast-forward nearly eight years to a late-fall day when Marissa announced a new ambition to her dad: "I want to race a sprint car."
Had she even tried driving a sprint car?
Thoughts of cost and complexities dazzled the dad momentarily. But it seemed doable, so long as Marissa's first — and still only — engine builder and crew chief, Richard Andrest of Andrest Performance in Shady Cove, would join the effort.
"Without him, we wouldn't survive. I'm not sure we'd be racing at all; he's very important to us," says Don Earle.
With the full support of Marissa's mom, Michelle, and year-younger sister, Alisha, the crew built their first sprint car. Marissa earned SOS Sprint Car Rookie of the Year honors in 2010, her first full season in sprints. More importantly, she gained the respect of her peers, men all.
"They like me," she observes of her fellow drivers. "They're always real nice to me. If I ask, they're always willing to help out."
As Marissa begins her senior year of high school, her thoughts of future racing glory glow brightly.
"I want to be a World of Outlaws Sprint Car 410 driver. And I think Indy car road courses would be a lot of fun."
But she's added a new dimension that Mom and Dad heartily applaud.
"I'm planning to enroll at Rogue Community College to study business and marketing. So I guess I could do that kind of work with a racecar team if I'm not driving full time. And I'd like to have my own team someday."
The loudspeaker squawks as track announcer and technical inspector Russ Bryan shouts, "Sprint cars! Let's line 'em up. Sprint cars next."
Marissa's smile vanishes as she dons a fire-retardant helmet liner, leaving only her alert brown eyes visible. She easily folds herself under the roll cage and into the form-fitted racing seat. A neck brace goes on, then a crash helmet and gloves.
Her focus never wavers beyond the stubby front wheels, somewhere only the driver can see. It's a racer's focus, free of all thoughts and concerns except one: the checkered flag.