Renewed racing career puts female driver back on track

Trans-Am driver Mickey Wright lives in Clearwater. Joe Sale
Trans-Am driver Mickey Wright lives in Clearwater.Joe Sale
Published May 12 2014
Updated May 13 2014

It's common for aspiring racing drivers to try the sport when they're young but, if they don't reach the top, settle into a more conventional job by the time they reach middle age.

At 52, a woman in a male-dominated sport and one who didn't drive competitively for more than two decades, Clearwater's Mickey Wright is turning that scenario upside down.

She's a newcomer in the Trans-Am series, driving a Corvette far more powerful than anything she has driven before.

"I'm actually enjoying it," Wright said by phone last week from Road Atlanta. "I'm learning. It's not easy, but I like who I drive with. I look up to them.

"I'm the new kid on the block, I'm 'Kiddo,' " she said.

Wright is undoubtedly going through a learning curve, racing against veterans who have been in the series for years such as Derhaag Motorsports teammate Simon Gregg.

"I've raced with most of these guys before, and most of them are pretty cool," Wright said. "I get a lot of support from them."

After several years in smaller series, this season is seen as a chance for Wright to maximize her ability — and meet her greatest test — with a front-line team.

"She's come along very nicely," team owner Jim Derhaag said. "These cars are 830-850 horsepower, a lot of tire, a lot of brake, 3,000 pounds almost. They're monsters. They're really fire-breathing monsters, and they're not easy to drive. … And we're not far into the 2014 season but she's doing real fine. She has not hurt the car, bumped anybody, scratched anything. Maybe a little bit conservative, and I'm pushing her to be a little less conservative. Even though she's not the fastest person on the racetrack she has earned the respect of all the other drivers already because she doesn't do anything stupid."

Born in Chicago Heights, Ill., as the ninth of 11 children, her given name is Mary, but she has gone by Mickey since she was little — "my brothers and sisters nicknamed me because I squeaked," she said with a laugh.

Wright raced in local all-female events in her early 20s, then worked in construction at a Chicago company called TBS.

But she never completely shook the racing bug.

At 45, she left her job and moved to Clearwater for a chance to race. She sought out the Competition 101 driving school and attended the Richard Petty Driving Experience at Daytona International Speedway. She tried dirt and asphalt tracks, oval and street courses, in stock cars and road racers.

So were people surprised that she leaped back into racing in middle age?

"Yeah, especially if you're female," she said. "It's an expensive sport; it took a lot of years to get people to back me, to sponsor me."

But after a while, she said, "they actually respected me because you haven't really been in a race car, and you're coming to do this because you want to follow your dream. So I had to work harder, and I still have to work hard."

She found success in regional series, including the 2012 championship in the Sports Car Club of America's Central Florida SPO division.

When she struggled last season as a part-timer in the Trans Am series' TA2 class, she sought out Derhaag, a longtime Trans-Am team owner and former driver who also is part-owner of the series.

"I said, 'Here's the best advice I can give you: If you're going to do something, do it 100 percent right or don't do it at all,' " Derhaag said, recalling the conversation. "You're better off not racing than racing in a situation that's something less than optimum."

Months later she had put together enough sponsorship to reach Trans-Am's top category.

She has had three races this year, with two mid-pack finishes followed by a short day Saturday at Road Atlanta, where her car dropped out with a mechanical issue after three laps.

But her story is already having an impact.

"There's young people coming up to her saying, 'Boy, you're an inspiration. I really want to do this,' " Derhaag said.