This car has been a part of Gillespie’s
last decade on North Carolina’s dragstrips,
although it doesn’t belong to her. Mack
McKinnie, a family friend from Holly
Springs, owns the car and decided to let
her drive it as a surprise wedding present
in 2005 (Gillespie has since divorced).
McKinnie remembers when Gillespie
took the car for practice runs at Fayetteville
Motor Sports Park. Each time she took
a run, she knocked time off. “She could
handle the car,” he says.
Gillespie suited up in the rail car for
her first race at Piedmont Dragway a few
months later. She made it through one
round. Then another. And another. After
eight rounds, Gillespie was the only competitor left standing. “People were amazed
at how quick she did it,” says Algie Ware.
“To do it at an IHRA event, you have the
best in the U.S. It surpasses regionals.”
But gaining acceptance from other
drivers didn’t come as quickly as her first
victory. “Just by watching her and watch-
ing the guys when she first started, it was
kind of tough,” McKinnie says. “When
she would get ready to go to the line, they
would wait on her [so they could race in
the lane opposite her]. They knew she
didn’t know the tree and lights.”
Gillespie is all business on the track,
but sometimes shows another side, jok-
ing with a competitor that the dragways
should have a spa for racers to retreat to
after each run. Growing up around the
sport, Gillespie has always been comfor-
table being just one of the guys, some-
thing the environment demanded. “You
don’t see a lot of females,” she says. “Not
unless it’s a cute old woman sitting to the
side out of the way because guys are like,
‘Leave us alone. You don’t know what
you’re doing.’” On the track, she felt men
thought a female racer meant either an easy
win or an imminent wreck. She says they
would try to play mind games with her,
Weekends at a dragstrip, like Piedmont Drag way here, are family affairs. Clockwise from
left, Gillespie directs her father’s strategy, confers with him over notations from previous
runs, enjoys chicken and brats her mother cooks and visits with longtime friends.
Opposite, Gillespie in the rail car.
starting what she calls a “stage war” by inching their cars up in the starting box in an
attempt to lure her to leave the line early.
Gillespie is also conscious of her African-American identity in a sport that consists
mostly of white participants, but she says
it’s never been much of an issue for her.
Her early struggles were more about proving herself as a female. But she keeps
both identities in mind when she appears
at community events, like the African-American Cultural Celebration at the
N.C. Museum of History, to visit with kids.
“A lot of work I do outside of racing is letting a lot of girls out there know that this
is another hobby out there,” she says.