The fourth annual Chilly Willy 150 that took place in early February contained a unique quantity of a certain demographic that is not usually witnessed in short track racing. Among the field of 37 Super Late Models were four young women drivers, three of which have called Tucson Speedway home. In addition, Isabel Gonzalez and Shelby Frye compete regularly in the supporting Truck division.
One of these aspiring racers has an infamous last name, but is working hard to make a name for herself. Vail, Arizona’s Mariah McGriff is the granddaughter of NASCAR Hall of Fame nominee Hershel McGriff, who raced into his 80s and won more than 30 NASCAR K&N Pro Series West events.
While Hershel does not frequent the pits much anymore and chooses to remain a spectator for the main events primarily, Mariah has some hands of expertise helping her succeed and providing advice. Her father Hershel Jr., who raced for numerous years, as well as a close family friend in legendary Ron Eaton, a three-time NASCAR Northwest Tour champion and past winner at Tucson, keep the small team effort determined to move forward.
“The last few years have been kind of a struggle with pretty much my dad and I and my brother every once in a while when he comes from the east coast and a few friends,” the karting champion told Speed51.com. “We have a little bit of struggles when it comes to stuff like that, but overall we’ll get it worked out. I have a pretty good relationship with Ron (Eaton) so he’s been pretty helpful, especially with my dad because they’ve known each other forever.”
McGriff has competed in the SRL Southwest Tour and regularly at Tucson Speedway in Super Late Models over the last three seasons. She recorded one career feature victory in October 2015, and the group has been getting closer to adding more wins, all while she prepares for a career outside of racing which does occasionally conflict with some time on the track.
“I was in clinicals because I’m in nursing school so (Friday at Chilly Willy) I didn’t even get here until right before qualifying,” McGriff pointed out. “It’s somewhat difficult. The last few years I haven’t had clinicals on the weekends or Fridays so it has been a little bit easier to juggle with the racing, but I don’t have a choice over that. It’s pretty much given to me and I have what I have.”
Once all is said and done, McGriff knows there will be a wider array of opportunities, but for now she will be gunning for positive results at her home track.
“This year it’s a struggle, but I’m all finished with nursing school next spring and we’ll figure something out from there because I want to be able to do something travel-wise,” McGriff said.
Cassie Gannis is a popular name that has been around for a few years now. The Phoenix driver has travelled east including an ARCA attempt at Daytona International Speedway (FL) and starts in the former Pro Cup and ISCARS Series.
Now she is back in the running around the region she resides and has a pretty impressive schedule for 2017 set.
“I’m planning on hopefully running a full season at Tucson Speedway, especially for the championship,” Gannis mentioned. “And then we plan to make a couple trips to Vegas, the Bullring, and then hopefully we’ll go out to Kern County too if we have sponsorship.”
The plans also consist of a few possible starts on the SRL Southwest Tour when they come to the local tracks she will compete at.
While there has been some adjustment needed starting with her 19th-place finish at the Chilly Willy 150, the team has an optimistic attitude about the races ahead.
“I’ve been out of the car for almost two years so it’s kind of hard for me to get back in the groove, but I’m slowly starting to get there,” the 25-year old driver said. “This is a brand new car that I’ve never raced before. We just picked it up in December or January so we haven’t had a lot of time to work on it, and we’ve been changing gears basically all weekend. We’ve been kind of thrashing on it to figure out where we need to run.”
Vanessa Robinson, from Las Cruces, New Mexico, has seen success in a versatile variety of challenges. She captured a title in a Street Stock on dirt at Southern New Mexico Speedway in 2009 at the age of 19. Her racing plans for the 2017 season have yet to be finalized.
While they each of the “Ladies of Tucson” have a different specific set of goals they would like to accomplish and are at different phases in their young careers, the consensus was quite similar when asked about being a female in a rather male-dominated sport. In addition, they all applauded the opportunities women have been given at Tucson Speedway.
“It’s pretty much being another racer and run as well as you can,” McGriff answered. “Sometimes you have a little bit more pressure because of being a female, but overall we are lucky because most places don’t have that.”
“I think it’s good to bring more females in, because when I first started racing I was the only female racing,” Gannis added. “I think that’s good, but me, personally, I’m just another driver out there.”
“I just want to go for the win,” Robinson said.
-By Aaron Creed, Speed51.com Central NY & PA Editor – Twitter: @aaron_creed
-Photo credit: Mariah McGriff Facebook