Pit Pass: Jenna Frazier
On balancing racing on a shoestring budget and gaining experience
Text + Photos: Saroyan Humphrey
Spotlight | Jenna Frazier is at her home in Sacramento, Calif. She’s standing in her workout room where she is surrounded by an array of racing mementos: a sprint car tail tank, wing, fire suits, helmets and a collection of trophies from her go kart, USAC, and dwarf car driving successes. Since 2018 she’s driven full time for veteran racer Jimmy Paniagua of Rancho Cordova on the King of the West 410 sprint car tour.
The last time Frazier competed was a few weeks ago but her time on the track was short lived. While taking the green flag for her heat race at Calistoga Speedway’s Louis Vermeil Classic, the engine blew in her race car, ending her efforts for the weekend. “It felt like it was going to fly out of the car—metal on metal—just chunkin,’” remembers Frazier with a mix of laughter and sadness. “One of the spark plugs had exploded. We got it home, took it apart and it looks like we broke a rod or two and a piston. It got a little messed up but we’re going to rebuild it—for the third time this year—and this is our backup motor. We have another motor that’s considered our good motor, but we haven’t been able to run it all season because of the cost to rebuild it.”
Racing is tough in the first place but racing on a shoestring budget is only for the most resourceful racer. “This whole season has just been bad luck. We hope we can turn it around for the last few races, at least,” she says. “Whatever doesn’t kill you can only make your stronger, right?”
Since Frazier first climbed behind the wheel of a winged sprint car in 2015 at Antioch, racing on an irregular schedule initially, she has continued to learn how to handle and drive the powerful open-wheel machines. As the team struggles with equipment, Frazier continues to be confident in her abilities as a race driver.
Besides racing, Frazier is also passionate about animals. A former veterinary technician, she owns her own business, Jenna’s Critter Care, and pet sits for all types of animals and reptiles.
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How do you feel you’re coming along as a winged sprint car driver?
Frazier: I still feel I’m behind where I should be, only because our equipment has failed so much. My goal this year was to get a top 10, or hard-charger award. Unfortunately we haven’t got either of those. But it’s difficult when motors keep going, or crashes take us out. I felt my last race at Stockton [August ‘19] was the first time this year I felt completely comfortable and confident in the car. Even my crew chief said it too. He said he was really proud of me. When I came in [to the pits], he was smiling and happy. Usually when I hear from him, he’s critical and this was the first time he wasn’t.
I feel I’ve improved greatly since last season. Even though our finishes were better last season, I think overall as a driver and competitor, I’m doing better this season.
Everybody says I look faster, especially my mom [Jeanne]. She watches the video replays and it kinda scares her a little bit, so that’s good. My dad [Greg] is happy even if I come in dead last. He still has a smile on his face. He supports me no matter what, which is awesome. He tries to make every race. He’s always there to help, work on the car and just help me get ready mentally and motivate me.
Tell me about the your driving background, before sprint cars.
Frazier: Most recently I raced Dwarf cars for about two-and-a-half years. We raced at Antioch and we traveled with the Nor-Cal Dwarf Car Association. Back in ’05 and ’06 I ran a USAC Ford Focus Midget on dirt and pavement and that series raced at least 30 times a year up and down California. It was my dad’s car. We were lucky enough to find an awesome sponsor: Johnsonville Brats. It was great while it lasted but then the recession hit in ’07 and they dropped all sponsorship and we had to sell the race car. It was a rough time; I thought my racing was over forever.
But then my boyfriend [Brian Keck] bought me a Dwarf [dirt] car and surprised me one day. It took him awhile to get comfortable working on it and knowing the setup and shocks and everything. But once we finally got it figured out, we were always a top five car. I got my first main event win in 2016 at Antioch Speedway which was one of my dreams.
How did you start driving for your current car owner, Jimmy Paniagua?
Frazier: We met at the race track in 2015. We were at a race at Antioch and we were pitted next to Jimmy and he came over and was asking me a bunch of questions.
So, I told him my history: racing USAC years ago and my dream of running a sprint car. He said, ‘well, I got one in the garage if you want to try it.’ Of course, I’m thinking this is too good to be true. So, he let me run it a few times for a few play days and he thought I was ready to take it out [to race] and see how it goes. So, that was with a crate 360 [engine]. It wasn’t a ton of horsepower but it got me some experience and the feel for a winged car. So, he said, ‘how about running full time?’
Last year was our first full season together. I think we missed maybe one or two races with King of the West. We also went to the Knoxville Nationals. It probably wasn’t the best idea but it was an amazing experience.
Most of last year, I didn’t have a crew chief, per say. It was just my dad, Jimmy and Bobby McMahan, who’s his nephew. He would help us on and off while he was racing at the same time. So, it was hard for him to focus on me because he also needed to focus on himself.
But toward the end of last year, we were very fortunate to have David Vertullo come onboard and now he’s our full-time crew chief. It’s been a huge asset for us. He’s really great. At first he was setting up the car how he was used to. Kyle Larson, Kyle Hirst, Colby Copeland drove for him and he’d say, ‘well, they can drive it, so, you need to drive it like that.’ I was like, “oh no, I’m not any of them.” But now he’s tailoring it more towards my style, which he says is a little different than he’s used to.
But we’re getting it. These last few weeks, before the engine blew, we all felt really confident with it.
How much are you involved with the team?
Frazier: His race shop is in his garage. We only live about 10 minutes from each other. I help with the car, clean it, load it, put motors in and out. Generally do what ever I can, so we get to race. I help bring in sponsorships and all of that. And, we race when we can. We’re definitely a low budget team, compared to all the rest of the guys running with King of the West.
When we have an issue, it’s major. Other teams have four backup motors, two back up cars. At my very first race this year [at Kern County], we kinda destroyed the car. We bent the frame pretty good and we fixed it. It was repairable. It’s what we’re using using now. It’s only a couple years old but it’s had some pretty good flips on it. That was a rough start, it set us back. We were planning to go to Knoxville again this year but with the motor issues, too, it set us back.
What’s the best advice you’ve received in sprint car racing?
Frazier: A lot of people give advice. I hear things from everybody. But the main thing is being smooth on the wheel and consistent; not jerky and erratic. On the dirt you have to be smooth. Even though it might look erratic, there is a finesse to it. That’s what I’ve learned: to just calm down and relax and just let the car do what it wants to do. I was fighting that for a while. I didn’t know what I was searching for with feeling the wing. I was a little afraid. Going 120-130 mph into the turn; they say, ‘just floor it and it’ll turn.” But I wasn’t sure the first few times.
Well, you have to work your way into the speed slowly, right?
Frazier: Yes, and that’s what my car owner would tell me to do. We have the rpm computer read out and it would say, you've got 8500 rpms on the high but you're going down to 3200 on the low. He would say, ‘keep up on that throttle. And he would say, “how about this time out, keep it over 4000 and then 5000. Then we’ll shoot for 6000.” And you have to just feather the throttle, never abruptly let off because that’s just going to upset the entire car.
You had a wild flip at Stockton late last year. What do you remember about that?
Frazier: I was coming down the front stretch and I was going for a pass and the other driver didn’t realize I was there and he kinda came up a little bit and nudged me just enough and I went straight into the wall and went end over end with the throttle stuck wide open. It wasn’t too fun. We really destroyed the frame.
But the worst wreck I’ve had was at Knoxville. That was a really high one. They said I went 15 to 20 feet in the air. That was actually the first time that I’d ever flipped a race car. So, I went big for the first time in front of 30,000 people and the people watching live online. It was a hard hit because I landed up against the wall and I hurt my neck a little bit.
But afterwards when the adrenalin wore off and my nerves settled down, I said to myself, I guess that wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be. And, I think it helped my mindset because, up until that point, I was so afraid to crash. It almost eased my mind. But that’s not the way to go out at Knoxville. (laughs)
Growing up, did you always know you wanted to drive a race car?
Frazier: I grew up around Antioch Speedway. It was a few miles away. My dad’s business partner actually raced a sprint car, so, I started going there when I was four years old. We’d bring a blanket and sit at the bottom of the stands and get covered in mud. I said, I wanna do this one day. So did my brothers, they all said the same thing.
So, for Christmas one year, my dad bought my younger brother a go-kart and he hopped in it and couldn’t reach the pedals. He was about four inches away from ‘em. So I gave it a try and I could reach the pedals.
We lived in a court and we took it outside and my dad said, “all right, just go for it.” I was turning left around the court and getting on the throttle. I came in with a huge smile on my face. And he was like, ‘ok, maybe we will get you into racing.” So, within a few months, my dad bought me and my brother professional style go karts and we were traveling California. I was about eight or nine years old.
Eventually I got up into shifter karts. I started racing those when I was 13. I got a few rookies of the year in different classes along the way. We raced at Prairie City Raceway [Rancho Cordova]; I won the track championship there in 2003.
How did you adjust to open-wheel midget racing after racing a shifter kart?
Frazier: It took me a little bit to get comfortable with it but after a few races I was in the top-10 and by the end of the season, I was a top-five contender. In 2006 I was given the most improved driver award from USAC. That was a great accomplishment.
As a woman have you had pushback from other racers over the years?
Frazier: I would say more so at the beginning and not so much now because I think it’s more accepted now with a lot more women being in racing. When I was a kid in karting, I would hear parents tell their kids, ‘you can’t get beat by this girl. I don’t care if you have to wreck her, you’re not going to be beat by her!’ That would happen often.
And if I would beat them, sometimes the parents, especially the fathers, would scream at them, ‘how could you let a girl beat you!’
But in USAC and coming up through the Dwarf cars and now in the sprint cars, I haven’t noticed anything like that. It’s more like the opposite. A lot more people are for women in racing. And everybody, especially the fans, they love seeing a woman out there. The only negatives I see would be on social media, where people can hide behind the computer screen. I’ve gotten some pretty nasty messages from people but it’s easy just to block and forget them.
When we went to Knoxville there were two other women that were racing and we had to longest lines after each race for autographs. I was a nobody. I could barely even compete with the top-40 drivers but all the girls, fans and guys wanted our autographs or pictures. Even more than the winners. It was really awesome.
There’s definitely a lot more women coming up. I love seeing it. Especially in sprint car racing. I think we need a full time World of Outlaws girl, too. That would be great to see.
The NHRA is coming up with a lot of women. It seems like half of the drivers are women. Which is great to see.
What are some of your short and longterm goals in racing?
Frazier: Well, being more consistent with qualifying. I’ve always been a horrible qualifier. I don’t know why. I think it’s because I’m the only one out there and I know everyone’s watching me and it’s just go go go and I just try too hard and always make a mistake. But the last few races, I’ve definitely improved and my crew chief just says, forget it. Just forget everybody. Pretend you're in your backyard and go hammer down and do it for yourself. Don’t do it for anybody else. Just do it for yourself. And, that’s helped. We can be capable of top 10, we can be capable of more.
But now my ultimate goal would be to go to a different country to race. Peter Murphy told me about racing in Australia and I think that would be amazing. A lot of California drivers go over there.
Are you still having fun?
Frazier: Definitely. I really just appreciate everything that Jimmy does. Like I said, I’m not paying for this ride. I know we’re low budget, so, as long as he’s having fun, I’m having fun. It’s always a blast., just being around all the other drivers, the atmosphere of being at the track and most of all the fans. They give me encouragement to never give up and that’s what I love.
Sometimes I’ve felt like giving up. I felt maybe I was setting my expectations too high. But I get support from all sides and they say, no, you cant give up on something that you love. Jimmy reminds me, most of these guys are third, fourth generation racers and I’m the first in my family. So, it makes it more of a challenge.
(Ed note: Frazier announced on September 21, the day after we posted our story, that she would be parting ways with Paniagua.)