Tisha Wilson is in full-throttle pursuit of her racing dream
By Chris Verner
The way Tisha Wilson tells it, what happened that day at Atlanta Dragway in Commerce, Ga., was no big deal.
She was roaring down the track at 200-plus miles an hour in a nitro funny car. There was a “little incident.” An explosion. Some flames.
“It burned my eyebrows,” she says. “Burned my driving suit. My feet felt hot.”
No big deal, really (her mother, Teresa Wilson, has a somewhat different take, as you will see). It’s just something that can happen when you combine explosive speed with explosive fuel mixtures while chasing your dream of becoming a professional drag racer.
Still a few months shy of her 21st birthday, the South Rowan High grad has been driving toward that dream for a long time. She started out racing junior dragsters ó a miniature dragster powered by a souped-up lawnmower engine ó when she was 5. A family photo shows her grinning from the cockpit, a sandy-haired, gap-toothed sprite of a speedster already clearly at home amid uncorked exhaust headers and tire-melting burnouts. In her first year competing in the juniors, she won the track championship at Mooresville Dragway, where she still tests and occasionally competes. At 16, she was already the clutch specialist for another racing team.
Racing isn’t just in her blood. It’s part of the family bloodline.
“It’s all we know,” says her father, Tony Wilson. “It’s what we’ve always come back to.”
Both mom and dad Wilson are drag racers ó that’s how they met. Their parents raced. Tisha’s older brother, Tony Jr., is also a drag racer who, like his little sis, was getting seat time in a race car when most kids are just starting to lose their training wheels. Together, along with an assortment of relatives and friends, they make up Wilson Drag Racing, a two-car team based out of a workshop beside the family home in southwestern Rowan County.
One of the cars is Tony Jr.’s “big dog” dragster, a full-bodied racer that’s currently parked for engine work while he drives for another team. The other car is Tisha’s “super comp” dragster. While the scores of drag-racing classes can be as confusing as the federal tax code to the uninitiated, here’s what you need to know about her car: It’s a thin, orange pencil of a machine with absurdly small wheels up front, huge slicks in back and a powerful V8 engine sitting a foot behind her head. In her capable hands, it can blast through the quarter mile in less than 9 seconds, topping out at 160 mph or so.
Last October, she won the super-comp category at the National Hot Rod Association (NHRA) Virginia Nationals. It was the first time she had reached the finals of an NHRA event, and she did it in a car she had finished assembling only months before and was still tuning and tweaking. Her win was the equivalent of a minor-league baseball pitcher moving up to the bigs and pitching a no-hitter in his first season.
What she did “just doesn’t happen,” says Frank Cervelli, a veteran drag racer from Mt. Holly who’s Tisha’s “racing buddy” and mentor. “That got some people’s attention.”
To those who know her best, the win probably wasn’t that surprising. Tisha Wilson isn’t just a driver. She’s driven ó “headstrong,” her mother says, with a wry smile that says this can be both a good and a bad thing. Tisha finished high school a semester early because she wanted to enroll in the motorsports management technology program at Rowan-Cabarrus Community College.
“I finished high school one day and started college the next,” she says.
The family’s racing activities meant they were on the road a lot of weekends, so she didn’t do a lot of typical teen “hanging out.” She played on the varsity softball team. She believes her experience as a catcher helped sharpen her reflexes and hand-eye coordination, both crucial in racing. She was a drummer in the marching band. But most Fridays, it was “bye-bye,” she says, as they hooked up the transporter and headed out to a racing venue.
She credits former South Rowan High Principal Ron Turbyfill with helping to incorporate her academic requirements with racing activities.
“She was always super busy,” Turbyfill says. “She had her mind made up about what she wanted to do, and she was determined to go after it.”
Richmond Gage, head of RCCC’s motorsports program, saw those same qualities. “She was a great student in our program,” he says, “and very determined is a good way to describe her.”
Now, having completed the motorsports program, she’s working on her marketing degree while competing in as many race events as she can. While she’s mastered the mechanical aspects, she knows the marketing end is equally important ó attracting sponsors who can help expand her racing schedule and, ultimately, help her move into the full-time pro ranks, perhaps in the top-fuel class, where speeds reach 300-plus mph and elimination runs take less than 4 seconds.
Currently, her main sponsors are Carolina Blonde beer and three racing enterprises, Carolina Carz, MBE Cylinder Heads and Simpson Racing Products. Still, it’s a struggle to scrape together enough money to race, she says. To earn money for fuel, equipment, fees and other expenses, she sometimes takes on concrete-pouring jobs with brother Tony, who has worked as a heavy-equipment operator. It’s not a cheap sport, especially at higher levels. The basic chassis of dragsters like hers can cost upwards of $20,000 if purchased new, the engine another $20,000. She credits her parents with making it clear early on they would help support her racing ambitions but there were no free rides in racing, or in life.
“If you’re really going to do something,” she says, “you have to work at it.”
As for the lure of drag racing, she likes every aspect of this exacting sport where victory is measured in hundredths or thousands of a second. She enjoys working on the car in the shop, with “Big” the bulldog carrying around wrenches, and she enjoys being on the road. Racers tend to be a close-knit tribe, fierce competitors on the track who kick back together beside the barbecue grill or join in a friendly hand of poker.
“You can never replace the people on the road,” she says. “It’s not just another group of people. This is family, too.”
But the ultimate satisfaction comes in those brief seconds on the track when the light flashes green, the engine bellows, the tires bite and she’s slammed back into the seat as life condenses to a thread of asphalt blurring past. Each race race lasts only a few heartbeats, a brief convergence of mechanical fury and human finesse.
“I get a lot of joy out of driving,” she says. “I wouldn’t do anything else in the world.”
While she has no second thoughts about the dream, mother Teresa admits to a few ó which brings us back to that day three years ago at Atlanta Dragway.
Teresa Wilson was standing at the end of the track.
“That’s where I always want to be, just in case something happens,” she says, her voice trailing off.
As she watched her daughter rocketing down the strip, she saw the detonation and fire.
“About midway down the track, I saw the body of the race car rear up, and there was a big ball of flame.”
The body of the car broke away, as it’s designed to do. She knew Tisha’s five-layered firesuit offered only seconds of protection ó a precious few moments to wrestle the car to a stop from 220 miles per hour without wrecking and scramble out of the cockpit. Somehow, her daughter did that, but those seconds seemed an eternity.
“It was just unreal,” Teresa Wilson says, shaking her head.
When Tisha emerged from the car, the heat had melted the visor of her crash helmet. Her firesuit and driving gloves had disintegrated down to the last layer. Fortunately, although her eyebrows were gone, everything else was intact ó including the desire to do it all over again.
“That was one wild ride!” her mother recalls Tisha saying. “That was awesome!”
After that, they took some time to regroup. Teresa Wilson acknowledges she had some misgivings about seeing her daughter strap herself into a dragster again. But she knows the lure of racing, and she knows any dream worth chasing requires sacrifices and brings its trials by fire. She’s confident her strong-willed daughter will succeed.
“She will drive a top-fuel dragster in her lifetime.”
For more information about Wilson Drag Racing, visit www.wilsondragracing.com or call 704-652-8301.
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