Dust and Ruffles: All-American Girl Racing on the Front Page of the OC Register

Heather, Robyn & Beccy

Thursday, February 8, 2007

‘Girlie girls’ team up to become off-road racers.

By VALERIA GODINES
The Orange County Register

Like all serious off-road buggy racers, they needed a sponsor, but they faced some challenges.

Big potential sponsors wanted more information. What would they race? What kind of track record did they have? How would they represent the sponsor?

One by one, they got their rejections. But the racers kept in touch with their contact at SoBe, which sells vitamin-enriched water, who promised he was working his connections. They crossed their fingers and hoped for the best.

The call came on a Monday. “Where do I send the check?”

They won’t say how much they got, but sponsorship in the racing world can range from $50,000 to $1 million.

And they had a race that Saturday.

That gave them four days to prepare.

Oh, and they officially became the All-American Girl Racing Team, an all-female team in the male-dominated sport of off-road racing.

They had a four-wheel dune buggy, but a lot of things stacked against them. They had no tires. They had no toolbox. They had to borrow fire suits and gloves.

“We literally did not sleep for four days. We were zombies,” says Heather Bonanni of Laguna Niguel, a driver and founder of the group.

Would they have a shot on Saturday? Would anybody take them seriously with their pink gas tanks?

•••

They wear lipstick and mascara and enjoy a good manicure. They admit with pride that they’re “girlie girls.” One is a former Miss Downey.

They also go 92 mph in an off-road vehicle, doing laps on a rough course fraught with dips and rocky bumps. The four-wheel buggy has beefy desert tires, big shocks and extra suspension. The women take turns as drivers.

And, yes, they can change their own 80-pound tires, thank you very much.

There are other women racers, such as Danica Patrick, but she works with a team of men. These women, who range from 28 to 34, run their own show.

The All-American Girl Racing Team, based in Orange County, formed a year ago.

Bonanni said she got bored watching her husband, John, race.

“I’ve got to get a bunch of us out there,” she thought. She called Robyn Gordon, who paused. But Beccy Gordon, Robyn’s sister, started yelling: “We’re in! You tell her we’re in!”

A friend and fellow racer, Brian Burgess, donated his off-road vehicle for a year with the condition that they return it in pristine condition.

“He was just totally hip on a bunch of girls racing. We put a brand-new engine in, brand-new seats and had all the shocks redone. We rebuilt the whole car,” Bonanni said.

•••

Racing is in their blood. Beccy, who lives in Dana Point, and Robyn, who lives in Orange, grew up in their dad’s shop in Orange. Their father, Bob, was an off-road racer who made sure his daughters knew how to take apart an engine. He never treated them any differently from how he treated Robby Gordon, who grew up to be a NASCAR racer.

Their family vacations weren’t typical. No skiing trips for them. Instead, they hit the racetracks. Beccy says as a kid she used to wear a bathing suit and make dirt angels.

Their mom did a practice run when she was seven months pregnant with Beccy and had Robyn sitting on her lap.

They’re an athletic family. Beccy, 28, surfs, snowboards, and plays tennis and golf. Robyn, 34, water-skis.

Heather, 34, whose dad is a mechanic, also grew up around cars. Heather was a tomboy who loved dirt bikes and played softball and volleyball. But one year she decided to try out for Miss Downey. She won.

“But then I was done with that, and I was like, ‘Can I have my dirt bike back, please?’ ”

Heather, now a soccer mom raising four kids, acknowledges that racing can be dangerous, and her youngest child, who also happens to be her biggest fan, is especially concerned.

“She worries the most about me,” Heather says. “She says a little prayer for me. She makes me kiss her hand to leave my lip marks on her while I race.”

She once was injured when she fell into a deep ravine. “I was going 35 miles per hour, and one of my harnesses was undone, and I knocked myself out on one of the bars,” she says. “I crashed and had a concussion and was out of it for a couple of days.”

And that isn’t the only time.

“I’ve spun out on the pavement a couple of times, and, knock on wood, I’ve never rolled. I’m not too worried about it,” she said. “If I was too worried, I wouldn’t do it. We’re doing it because we truly enjoy getting into that car and racing.”

The team has developed a loyal following of young women and girls who help with repairs and cheer them on.

And their Internet site has drawn interest from girls who want to go into racing, as well as from men whose girlfriends and wives are interested in the sport.

•••

They had four days to prepare for the 200-mile race in Primm, Nev. There were 100 entrants – all men, except for them.

They had to get the car painted. They were hoping for pink. Robyn went to the shop late at night and called the team in tears. “It’s yellow!” she moaned.

They got pink lizards – the logo for SoBe – embroidered onto their silver racing suits. The sponsor, who missed his wedding anniversary, flew out so they could take him on a prerun. They made sure to wear braids to keep their hair out of their faces. And this time there was no makeup.

When they showed up to the race, they had an entourage of about 50 people – family members and friends and a television crew from New York making a documentary on them. They got noticed.

Somebody snidely remarked that they were Robby Gordon’s sisters and wondered whether they’d make the cut.

“It was a little bit embarrassing, because we hadn’t proved ourselves yet,” Robyn says.

Heather was the driver at the starting line, watching the green flag.

“I was extremely nervous,” she says. “I just remember sitting at the starting line. I was so afraid that I was going to stall the car. I revved the engine so high. Your adrenaline kicks in. Five minutes into it, I got my groove. It turned out it was awesome.”

It turned out better than awesome.

They won.

Contact the writer: 949-454-7353 or vgodines@ocregister.com

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