“We call it chasing money,” Gillespie
Gillespie, 43, is one of a few African-
American female drag racers you might
see at a race. She came to the sport later
in life through a kind of osmosis, learning
from her father, who has raced for the
past 40-plus years, instead of formally
studying racing at driving schools as
some drag racers do. “I grew up looking
at it, paying attention, asking questions,”
she says. “When I got into the car, that
first rush hit me and I was like, ‘Wow!’
The power. The G-force.”
That’s what Gillespie
has been doing—in cars
belonging to her family
and friends—for the last
11 years as a licensed
driver with International
Hot Rod Association, a
drag racing body sanctioning races at local tracks
around North America.
Gillespie and her family
are part of a vast concrete-
track congregation whose
members gather from
March to October on Saturdays and
Sundays (church services are sometimes
held at a track’s concession stands before
the race) at drag strips across North
Carolina to race their rebuilt cars. Hun-
dreds of fans come to watch at places
like the Piedmont Dragway outside of
Greensboro, the Roxboro Motorsports
Dragway in Roxboro and the New
Thunder Valley Dragway in Red
Springs. The drivers pour
thousands of dollars into their
rebuilt Chevy Camaros and
Novas—and even converted
hearses and minivans—and
spend the offseason rebuild-
ing engines and rewiring to see
if they can beat 50 to 75 other
cars showing up at a track on any given
weekend. Some racers want to win.
Others want to spend their weekends
tinkering with cars to see if their work
pays off for one good run. They’re all
going after purses that can be 1,000
or as much as 10,000.
Ursula Gillespie ’97 hopes to transform
this ’97 Camaro into the ride that belongs
at a dragstrip, opposite, like her father’s
’ 69 Camaro that she sometimes races
and helps out on as crew chief.
“WHEN I GOT INTO THE CAR, THAT
FIRST RUSH HIT ME AND I WAS LIKE,
‘WOW!’ THE POWER. THE G-FORCE.”
—Ursula Gillespie ’97
LITTLE BEAR NEEDS A RIDE.
Not like a ride-into-town type of ride. Ursula Gillespie ’97, known as Little Bear, has her
Saturn SUV to get her around Hillsborough, N.C., where she has lived most of her life, and
to her job as an allergy nurse at a clinic in Chapel Hill.
We’re talking about a “ride,” or what drag racers call their cars. And not just any car.
The ride Little Bear needs is a 1997 Camaro that now sits under a blue tarp in her front
yard. The burnt orange paint is chipping off and dirt is collecting around its headlights.
But this is the car that she hopes to transform into her first modified speed machine, one
that she owns and drives. One that can roar through a spectator’s body like heavy-metal
shrapnel when started, burst across a starting line, blaze down an eighth-of-a-mile
straightaway at 150 mph in five seconds, assault the laws of aerodynamics and heighten
the upper limits to which an engine can be pushed.