RACER KEEPS DRIVE DESPITE LOSS.
The hardest thing Nicole Lyons' ever had to do was climb into her race car on that crisp March afternoon in Phoenix.
The second hardest was looking out the window of her Burgundy 1967 Firebird as she rolled to the starting line in the biggest race of her life, and not seeing her father, famed Los Angeles street racer Jack Davis, a few feet away.
Barely a week had passed since Davis died from a brain aneurysm. It was hardly enough time for his only daughter to bid farewell to the coolest guy she'd ever known, let alone not have him with her on a race day.
It's difficult enough carrying the weight of being a pioneer of sorts - the 26-year old Lyons is an African- American female climbing the male-dominated ladder that leads to the riches and fame on the NHRA PowerAde drag racing series - but now the Sylmar native was doing it without her most trusted confidant.
Lyons was in Phoenix to make her debut on the Lucas Oil Division 7 in the SuperStreet bracket, the first step in what she is convinced will be a determined march to the big time of the PowerAde tour.
Everything Lyons and her father had done over the previous three months, all those nights practicing at race tracks around the Southland and the weekends spent at drag racing events throughout California, was aimed at success in Arizona and on the ambitious, pro-style, 24-race schedule the two devised for the coming year.
Only Jack Davis never made it Phoenix.
``It was very difficult and very stressful,'' Lyons said, the unmistakable sounds of a busy race shop clanging behind her. ``I'm used to him rolling me up to the line, and him being there every step of the way for me from beginning to end.''
When the race ended barely 10 seconds later, Lyons was celebrating a surprising victory over Rob Knoles, who finished 2004 as the third-best points earner in the Super Street Div. 7 bracket.
Meanwhile, fellow racers and fans strained their necks to get a glimpse of the guy who just toppled the third-best racer on the circuit.
They in for a surprise.
``Out climbs this beautiful 105-pound girl,'' said Tony Williams, Lyons' crew chief. ``And you could just here everybody go, `Whoa.' That was a response I'll never forget.''
Neither will Lyons, even though she knows she had some help that day.
``My dad was with me in that car, I know that for a fact,'' Lyons said. ``And he's been with me every time I've raced since. I know it. I can feel him.''
During a recent visit at Quarter Mile Performance race shop in Chatsworth, she feels a different kind of power. It is the 565 cubic inch, Dart Big ``M'' engine.
It's an extremely expensive piece of machinery - powerful enough to provide a 1,100 horse power thrust (compared to the 850 her first engine produced) and enable her race car to easily cover the track in eight seconds.
And it's going to help Lyons fulfill a dream she had since the first time her father pulled her into a race car when she was 2 years old: To reach the pro stock drag race circuit in the PowerAde Series.
``Between the big block and Nicole's driving skills, she's got a bright, bright future,'' said Mike Consolo, who helps run QMP race shop along with partner Brad Lagman. ``We're just excited to be a part of it.''
Just then, Lagman interrupts.
``Hopefully she won't forget all the little people,'' he said, laughing.
Lyons has climbed to 29th (out of 110 racers) on the Lucas Oil Division 7 series and earned three points toward qualifying for the NHRA Nationals Nov. 3-6 at Pamona Speedway.
Once there, Lyons will debut the new engine in her dad's box Chevy II Nova in the Super Comp bracket. The goal is to draw interest from deep-pocketed sponsors with some electrifying times. With the new engine, Lyons is confident she will post consistent 8.90s, and that might be enough to lure investors interested in backing a beautiful female drag racer with speed to burn.
The money might not be far off, considering all the attention she is drawing so far. Already she has met Harold Martin, a top IHRA racer, and Fred Simmonds, the head of General Motors drag racing. Together, they have helped Lyons map out a plan that could have her testing in a pro- stock at a PowerAde, perhaps by August.
In addition, she has hired a public-relations firm, done radio and TV promotions and fielded a call from MTV, which is showing interest in doing a potential reality show about her.
Martin sees a little of himself in Lyons.
``The thing that jumped out at me about her was her burning desire to succeed,'' Martin said. ``And she's got heart, and by that I mean she's not afraid when she's racing.''
Much like her father, who earned money in street racers throughout Los Angeles in the 1960s - some legal, some not - Lyons seems most comfortable in cars that move very fast.
Davis took Lyons for her first ride in a dragster when she was 2 years old, and her reaction stunned him: When the car finally came to a stop, she was squealing with delight. From then on, Lyons was the constant companion of her race driver dad, traveling up and down California and the West Coast in search of races.
``Picture a 6-year old girl coming up behind a racer while he's working on his car telling him exactly what he's got on the hood and that was Nicole.'' Williams said.
Eventually it was Lyons who climbed behind the wheel of a race car. Now that she's here, though, she'll have to do it without her dad's help.
``But I know he's with me,'' Lyons said. ``And watching over me.''
Nicole Lyons, a 26-year-old drag racer from Sylmar, shows off her new, souped up 1,100 horsepower Dart Big ``M'' racing engine.
John McCoy/Staff Photographer