Junior Dragster Racing Champion Keeps Moving Up the Ladder



ELLSWORTH — In the world of junior dragster racing, Whitney Saunders is no stranger to the winner’s circle.

Whitney Saunders and her dad and crew chief, Andy Saunders, stand behind “The Black Widow,” Whitney’s new half-scale junior dragster, at the New England Dragway.—ANDY SAUNDERS
Whitney Saunders and her dad and crew chief, Andy Saunders, stand behind “The Black Widow,” Whitney’s new half-scale junior dragster, at the New England Dragway.—ANDY SAUNDERS

ELLSWORTH — In the world of junior dragster racing, Whitney Saunders is no stranger to the winner’s circle.

The Ellsworth girl is a three-time junior champion at Winterport Dragway, won the MacTools/Eric’s Autobody Series championship in 2007 and has been a consistent top-10 finisher at Oxford Plains Dragway for the past two years.

Now she’s a top 10 contender at the even more competitive New England Dragway in Epping, N.H.

And she’s not yet 12 years old.

The daughter of Andy and Gayle Saunders, Whitney’s interest in junior dragster racing was piqued when she saw the Disney Channel movie “Right on Track” on television.

But one might say that racing is in her genes thanks to dad Andy, who made a name for himself on the Maine stock car racing circuit before retiring at about the time Whitney’s interest in junior dragsters came along.

“When I sold my stock car stuff, I heard that someone had a junior dragster for sale,” said Saunders, who serves as crew chief for his daughter.

The purchase was made and Whitney had an entry-level vehicle that got her started on the track at Winterport back in 2006.

“I was nervous because I didn’t know what was going to happen,” recalls Whitney, “but it was fun.”

A few months later, with a first-year championship under Whitney’s belt and her interest in racing now fully developed, Saunders invested in a new half-scale dragster for his daughter to drive in the 2007 season.

That vehicle brought her championships in 2007 and 2008, and this year, she’s nestled in the cockpit of the spanking new “Black Widow,” a half-scale extreme bracket dragster capable of speeds in excess of 70 miles an hour on an eighth-of-a-mile run.

For Whitney, that higher speed is just fine.

“I wanted to go faster,” she said, noting that in those early days she was only attaining speeds in the 35-miles-per-hour range.

Saunders said that, when junior dragster racing began in the 1990s, it was never meant to be very fast.

“But as time goes on, everybody wants to go faster,” he said, “and the technology has come so far that cars are safer.”

Accidents are minimal in junior dragster racing, said Saunders, and Whitney wears a protective jacket, neck collar, helmet and gloves whenever she races.

So far, she’s never had a mishap.

Every engine used in the junior dragsters is a Briggs & Stratton design and designed specifically for the vehicles, said Saunders.

“But they produce 40 or 50 horsepower out of something that was designed to mow the lawn,” he added.

Unlike some forms of racing, with the junior dragsters, the winner isn’t always the car that’s first across the finish line.

The way it works, according to Saunders, is that on each race day, the car’s time has to be “dialed in” during practice runs. That’s especially tough with beginner cars, he said.

“You can’t imagine how sensitive these cars are to weather,” said Saunders, “so you have to keep records of what the car did in various weather conditions.”

Once the car is “dialed in,” race officials are told, as nearly as can be determined, what time that car will run over the eighth-of-a-mile course.

Then the cars then are handicapped at the start, and the goal of each driver is to beat the opponent to the finish while hitting that expected time as closely as possible in every run.

That means a driver must get off to a near-perfect start and control the speed as precisely as possible.

There’s no shifting involved in the junior cars — just hit the throttle and go.

“But if you go too fast, you automatically lose,” said Saunders. “Lose once and you’re done for the day.”

So when the green starting light flashes, quick reaction time is all-important — and that’s the biggest challenge, according to Whitney.

There are devices — she has one — that allow for practicing at home, but there’s really no substitute for the race experience.

An entire run lasts only 8 or 9 seconds, so fractions of a second count.

“It doesn’t seem like very long,” said Saunders, “but I’m here to tell you that it seems like forever” when one is watching his daughter compete.

Racing, even with junior dragsters, involves some considerable cost. The engine alone can run $5,000 to $6,000 for the top class and there’s the transportation, lodging and other expenses of the weekly trips to and from the Oxford Plains or New England dragways.

Whitney currently has a number of sponsors: Junior Anderson and Daughter Pressure Washing of Franklin, Merchant’s Auto of Hancock, Jordan’s Snack Bar of Ellsworth, Moosabec Marine of Jonesport, Saunders Jewelry of Ellsworth, Duke and Rose Norton of Addison, Finishline Graffix and Butch Urquhart.

She has been invited to compete July 31 to Aug. 2 at the Maryland International Raceway as part of a New England Dragway team in the 13th annual Junior Dragster Team Championships.

Between now and then, she’s hoping to come up with some additional financial help toward the estimated $2,000 cost of the trip to Maryland.

Tax-deductible donations can be sent to Whitney’s Racing, c/o Whitney Saunders, 3 Saunders Way, Ellsworth 04605.

As is often and the case with junior dragster racing, the experience has become a family affair for Whitney and her parents.

“A lot of parents race themselves,” said Saunders, “so the race track is where they spend their time. And everybody is incredibly nice.”

Whitney, an honor student who will be a seventh grader at the Ellsworth Middle School this fall, plans to continue racing for the foreseeable future.

And with an impressive list of accomplishments already in the books, it’s likely that the junior dragster world will be hearing a whole lot more from this young Ellsworth girl.

For more sports news, pick up a copy of The Ellsworth American.

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