10 Questions: Angelique Bell

Angelique Bell at Calistoga Speedway, 2015. The landmark half-mile dirt track is one of her favorites.

Angelique Bell at Calistoga Speedway, 2015. The landmark half-mile dirt track is one of her favorites.

Text: Michael Blanchard • Photos: Saroyan Humphrey

Feature  |  RUST sat down for 10 questions (more or less) with Angelique Bell and her father Bengie to talk sprint car racing. We sat in the garage of their suburban home in Rio Linda, California. Their partially disassembled pink and black race car occupied the center of the two-car garage with the concrete under it still wet from washing. There is a pile of old tires outside the door and a barrel of race fuel and tool boxes against the wall. A refrigerator stands against the back wall with a white board bearing a list of items that need attention on the car. The race trailer sits parked in front of the house and recently washed wheels sit drying on the lawn in the hot afternoon sun. Angelique came in fifth in the Hunt Magnetos Wingless Tour main event the night before at Stockton Dirt Track. 

Bengie and Angelique Bell.

Angelique, 23, is a shy tall young woman with short curly black hair and a quick smile. She is somewhat of an anomaly in sprint car racing in that she is a woman and, as she says, “Mixed,” a woman of color. She says she identifies more with her African American side. She seems slightly incongruous, like you have a hard time picturing her in the speed and noise of a sprint car. Until you talk with her and realize she talks racing with a very self-assured air. She knows what she is doing on track but there is not an ounce of arrogance or overconfidence. She is a really likable young woman.

Angelique, her father and her boyfriend are the team and they run on a shoe-string budget using a second-hand chassis and parts from racing swap meets. They have had a lot of help from friends, fellow racers and mentors. Angelique recently graduated from UCSB in four years with a dual major of Sociology and Women’s Studies. While going to school she worked three jobs so she could afford to race. “I would drive up Thursday night (from Santa Barbara), get set up Friday, race on Saturday and go home Sunday,” she described.

“Dedicated” is the word that comes to mind when talking with Angelique Bell.

So, how did you start out; how did you get into racing? Did your dad race?
Angelique Bell: 
Dad didn’t race. He went to the races and watched a lot as a kid. My cousin also raced motorcycles and I really wanted to race motorcycles with him but my dad was like, ‘No, you’re gonna get hurt.’ So we ended up looking at quarter midgets … started in that, fell in love with it and kinda moved up the ranks from there. I started in quarter midgets then to outlaw karts. I raced that for about a year then got into wingless sprint cars. ... I raced here at Capitol, then went up to American. We traveled around a little bit. We did the Grands at Madera.

How was it for you being a girl? Was that something that came up … the gender?
It wasn’t as much of a big deal when I was a kid. There were a few more girls racing quarter midgets and stuff than there was once I got to outlaw karts, or, you know, up to sprint cars. We would hang out after the races. With the quarter midgets it’s kind of a whole weekend thing so you’re hanging out with the people that you race against so there’s not as much of those, um, divisions I feel like. 

I definitely felt it when I moved up—especially sprint cars,—that big kind of, um,  barrier and being accepted. And also being singled out a lot for you know, if I would make a mistake or something. I’m a bit more noticeable than the guys. There was a lot of feedback in the beginning and I wasn’t very good. What surprised me the most was a lot of it was from the women—from the girlfriends of the racers and the moms. They would say, ‘Girls shouldn’t be out here. Girls shouldn’t be racing.’  We’re all women here, so, hey… it’s kind of interesting dynamics there.

Is it still happening?
It happens less now that I’m a little bit better and I know a lot of the people that I race with. It’s OK now … I get more accepted. Most of it’s from the guys who don’t know that I race. They’re like, ‘Oh, you’re a girl and you race.’ You know, that kind of thing. So that’s always cool.

We went to the sprint car races up at Placerville for the first time and I’m like, I want to do this, this is my dream, this is what I love, I want to do this so bad.

When you were coming up who were some of your mentors or heroes? 
I have a really good friend that helped me from quarter midgets and he helps us all the time now whenever we get stuck with stuff. His name’s Jimmy Paniagua. He used to race back in the day. He was always really involved in quarter midgets; his family was always involved in it. He’s always helped us out a lot and been a mentor and a kick in the butt when I need it. 

As I’ve gotten a little farther along in my career, more recently, Rod Tyner has been a great help for us, always taking the time to talk with me. Darren Smith, he’s helped us out a lot, too.

When did you feel you wanted to race a full size sprint car?
That was my dream since I started quarter midgets. We went to the sprint car races up at Placerville for the first time and I’m like, 'I want to do this, this is my dream, this is what I love, I want to do this so bad.' It was so exciting for me, and my dad surprised me with a sprint car. One day he took me over to one of our friend’s shop and he says, ‘Hey look at this car, go sit in it.’ I asked why and he said, ‘Guess what? It’s yours!’

What is the difference between a spec sprint and a USAC 360 sprint car?Angelique: They (USAC sprint cars) have aluminum heads and they’re (fuel) injected. They have more power. They’re basically like winged 360s without the wings. So for us, we’re carbureted with a two-barrel and we have cast iron heads so we’re a little bit down on the power. It’s supposed to be more economical, more of a starter class.

What is a normal work week for you during the season?
We probably spend at least six hours or more every week. It depends on what we have coming up. We have bigger maintenance weeks and smaller maintenance weeks and then we also have how much I wrecked it in the last race so … ha! Some of those are 30- or 40-hour weeks. But me and Dad, we do pretty much everything together on the car. It’s a lot of fun bonding time and razzing each other. I enjoy that a lot, too. It’s not just the racing for me. It’s the whole thing. I like it all.

Bengie Bell: When she first said she wanted to race and keep moving up, I wanted her to be really involved. I was learning, too; I had no background (in racing), so we kinda learned together. But for me it was important that she know how to do everything on the car so she could understand when the car was doing something different, what changes and how it all worked together. She can pretty much do most everything on the car.

What has been your lowest point in racing?

Angelique: I’ve had a few of those … (laughs) one time I spun out in the first corner of the heat race and took out half the field. And then people are all mad at me. I got the moms and sisters, like I was telling you about. They’re all yelling at me, yelling at my dad, or our other crew guy. It was just an accident. But to them, I shouldn’t be out there.

It’s not just the racing for me. It’s the whole thing. I like it all.

Bengie: You had another opportunity before you were ready. I was thinking that was one of the lowest lows.

Angelique: Oh yeah, that’s a good one to talk about. (laughs) I got selected the same year as Kyle Larson for the Drive For Diversity program with NASCAR. We both went back there (Langley, Virginia) together. There were three sections to it. The first section was physical fitness … they ran us through various tests and stuff and I kicked butt. The next part was the interview part of it and I did pretty well in that section as well. It had rained for all three days and it was a three-day thing so each day we were supposed to have time on the track. We were supposed to get like 50 laps a day. So, it had been raining all week and the final day they gave us 15 laps. The first five you were supposed to warm up the tires—then you got ten laps to get a time.

In a late model stock car, right?
Yeah, I had never been in a late model before. At that point, I had barely even driven a stick before. I was just really young and … I really didn’t have the throttle control. I just wasn’t ready. The opportunity came just before it’s time. I spun it out and then I went back out again and hit the wall with the car. Destroyed it. Just wrecked it really bad … that was really tough! 

It was 25 people from three different countries. They separated us. The girls in one room and the guys were in the other one. I’m back in this room and the other girls were there and I just started bawling—I just lose it—’cause this was my shot! So, all of the other girls start crying, too, and we’re all one big thing of tears. One of the guys comes in and he’s crying and all of us are all crying together. (Laughing) It was funny.

I had a lot of cool people after that experience tell me stories about the first time they got in their car and how they junked it and stuff like that. So it was a supportive environment from the other participants. So that was kind of a positive from it. Man, it was pretty devastating. 

Bengie: It was kind of a scary moment for us because one of the parents had brought in a race radio so we could hear it. Then immediately after she crashed the track guys were on the radio and they were asking, ‘Are you OK, Angelique?’ It was just quiet. She hit the wall really hard. No sound for a while and I’m thinking, oh my god, she’s really hurt. And her little voice comes over the (radio), ‘I’m so sorry. I’m sorry I wrecked your car.’

Racing on a shoestring, the Bell family’s sprint car at home.

Racing on a shoestring, the Bell family’s sprint car at home.

What has been the highest moment?
It was winning the championship last year. That championship night, it was, it was crazy how everything came together. Just luck and skill, just everything came together in one night. It was an amazing feeling. I was smiling for two weeks after. My face hurt (laughing).

Tell the readers what championship you won.

Oh my god, that excitement and that feeling, like all the times where people didn’t believe in me or thought I couldn’t do it or whatever, that didn’t matter anymore!

Angelique: Oh, yes. So I won the wingless series championship at Silver Dollar Speedway (Chico, CA). The night started out and I was in second by 35 points, I think. I went into the night thinking, hopefully I’ll get second—not really thinking that much about it. We went out there for hot laps and Terry Schank who was leading the points. Oh, when you mentioned mentors, he’s been a mentor to me in our division. He’s a legend; he has the most wins. He’s also taken time to coach me. For me, beating him is like winning a gold medal. It’s a big deal for me.  

We go out there for hot laps and Schank blows his motor. At that point I was still within reach in points. So, I had a chance. But it was one of those things where everything had to go right for it to happen.

Bengie: She had to win the heat race and finish third or better in the main or vice versa. 

Angelique: I go out in the (heat race), I’m supposed to start fourth, and the first two guys take each other out. We’re sitting there getting a little excited, thinking this might actually happen tonight. … So, the guy comes up to pull the pill for the main, I pull the one. I’m on the pole for the main. It’s just luck at this point … I’m on the pole for the main. Now I’m excited but I’m trying to stay calm and not drive crazy. You know, I go out there and I’m leading the race for the first like seven laps-ish. Somewhere in there I lose the brakes. I think a rock came in and took out the caliper and shredded the brake line. I lost all my brakes and the brake fluid was leaking onto the exhaust. From the stands you can see this big puff of smoke come out. So everybody is thinking, oh my god, the motor is letting go.

Bengie: I thought we were done—we were getting close and then the motor’s going.

Angelique: At this point I lose the brakes. I drop back to second. I’m racing in second and then I get passed for third and that’s kinda like the oh-shit moment, right? I can’t get passed again. So, I’m like, ‘Oh no, I just gotta bring it home.’ And we finished third in the race. Oh my god, that excitement and that feeling, like all the times where people didn’t believe in me or thought I couldn’t do it or whatever, that didn’t matter anymore! I did it—we did it—my dad—everybody. That was the most exciting moment!

What are your goals?
My dream would be running on the World of Outlaws tour, traveling with all those 410s. That’s of course what I would love to do. My more realistic goal, ha! I really just want to run a 360 and travel around. Do the Sprint Car Challenge Tour or Civil War Series … that’s my more attainable goal.

Keep up with Angelique:

f: @angeliquebellracing