Forget About `Mustang Sally'; CUAO has "Sand Rail Sallie'
BEAVERTON, Ore. - Sallie Sylvester sits in her car anxiously waiting for the light to turn green. As soon as it does, she is off in a flash, spewing clouds of dust and dirt behind her. Within seconds, she is tearing down the road at 75 mph, the 350 Chevy supercharged engine screaming in her ears. "I'm just having fun," explains Sylvester, vice president of credit union services for the Credit Union Association of Oregon. Don't misunderstand, that's not the way she drives to or from work or around town. For those weekday trips, you'll find Sylvester tooling around in her recently purchased Corvette (she previously drove a Dodge Stealth). But on weekends, you'll often find the 43-year-old Sylvester behind the wheel of her sand rail, competing in sanctioned sand drag racing events at a track in Longview, Wash. Racing season usually runs weekends from May through September. Since taking up the sport in 2000, Sylvester has amassed a shelf full of trophies, much to the consternation of her male competitors, some of whom have been racing for 20 years. "I'm considered one of their serious competitors," she says. She took Rookie of the Year honors her first year after capturing all of the first place spots in the Sportsmen's bracket competition. The following year she didn't fare as well, suffering through a string of mechanical failures. "We changed the car and I kept breaking things," she said. But she came back in 2002 to finish third overall in the Sportsmen's bracket. Results have not been announced for the current year, but Sylvester said it was a year much like 2001 filled with car problems. "Even numbered years are my years for having lots of fun and getting first place trophies," she said. "So we're expecting 2004 to be a pretty good year." Sylvester said she has always been interested in drag racing - she even likes the "Funny Cars" that compete in the National Hot Rod Association sanctioned events and which hit speeds of more than 300 mph - and got serious with the sport at the urging of her fiance, Rod Dilworth. Dilworth serves as her "pit crew captain" and works on the car, adding the supercharger to the engine and installing additional safety devices. "I just do the driving," Sylvester said. "He's raced a few times but he prefers being the pit crew and watching me race," she added. "He gets a lot of enjoyment seeing me beat the other people racing. More specifically, he likes it when I beat the other guys who have been doing it for 20 years. The sand rail racers compete on a track 300 feet long. Two cars start at a staging line as three amber lights come on one at a time. When the fourth light comes on green, the pedal goes to the metal and the cars race down the track. The fastest car isn't always the one to win the race. Much of Sylvester`s success is credited to her hand-eye coordination and reaction time. Being first off the line when the light turns green is key, she said. "That's where you have a real good chance of winning the race," she explained. It also helps to know exactly when to shift gears when zooming down the track, she added. "I have a certain RPM on my tachometer that I look for," she said. "I shift when it reaches 6000 rpm." While some drivers take the competition pretty seriously and are often nervous as they prepare for a race, Sylvester sees the events as a "stress reliever." "Most other racers say they get extremely nervous when they pull up to the staging lanes and pull up to the lights to do their race," she said. "Me on the other hand, you'll probably see a smile on my face whenever I'm pulling up to the lights. "I get such a thrill out of it. There's nothing that makes me nervous. I use it as a stress reliever," she said. Sylvester, who last year won the coveted "King of the Hill" title at the Northwest Sand Competition Association races, joking says the event may have to be renamed "Queen of the Hill." Her success on the track has earned her a professional sponsor, Oregon Motor Sports, which builds sand rails and sells parts for the vehicles. Sylvester dons a protective racing suit, helmet and gloves when competing. She said she feels confident her sand rail is safe, thanks to the work that Dilworth has done on it. Among the modifications, he's installed a "tranny blanket" over the transmission as a protection device and roll bars to protect her in the event the car flips over. The closest Sylvester said she has come to any real danger was when a car she was racing rolled over. "We were right next to each other going about 75 mph and his car literally rolled four times next to me," she recalled. "Thank goodness it rolled away from me. I stopped as fast as I could and helped him get out. He was still upside down after his car stopped flipping." For the coming season, Sylvester and Dilworth plan to replace the large tires in the sand rail with original size tires, add a better suspension system to the back end and possibly paint the vehicle. "We're not going to do any mechanical changes other than routine maintenance," she said. "It's a very reliable car." Sylvester said her racing activities have caught the attention of some of her co-workers at the Credit Union Association of Oregon, who often stop by to ask how she fared in the weekend competitions. "I don't think of it as unusual or amazing," she said, explaining that those were some of the reactions she gets from people who learn about her racing. "I'm just having fun." -