By Beniamino Nardin, Harwood correspondent
At 14, Shea Wheeler, a Harwood freshman from Waterbury Center, will be the youngest car racer in her Thunder Road division, Street Stocks, when she attends the first race of the 2022 season. The idea first solidified during her childhood when she watched her father, Brett Wheeler, race and then riding shotgun in his car with a smile. “Seeing him go around the track really fast” planted a seed within her, one that hasn’t diminished in the years since her father stopped racing in 2015. Two years ago, Wheeler’s interest began to ramp up, and this year she began to pursue her passion with fervor, determined to get a car and race.
“I’ve been asking since I was 12,” said Wheeler. “Both my parents thought I was crazy.” But, as her parents began to realize how serious she was about racing, they decided, instead of being her opposition, to be her biggest supporters. Mark Lanphear, a family friend, convinced Brett Wheeler to get the car, as Lanphear’s daughters both race.
This June, her dream came true when she got a 1985 Ford Mustang, which Lanphear found for her. She’s been in the workshop since, tuning up the car, decorating it -- like her father’s old car, she has a black car with the number 1 painted white and yellow -- and adding her name. Wheeler has also been able to get to Thunder Road every two weeks to practice driving on a track rented for her. In order to drive, Wheeler doesn’t need a permit or a license. If a racer is under 16, the track coordinators need to observe their driving and approve it. If they do, minor drivers can race without needing to wait until they have a driver’s permit or license.
Thunder Road is a family-friendly racetrack in Barre that hosts races on Thursday nights and weekends throughout the spring, summer and fall. Built in 1960 as the brainchild of Ken Squier, a motorsports editor and WDEV sportscaster from Waterbury, the track began to hold weekly races that attracted workers from nearby granite sheds. The track hasn’t changed much over the years, and its traditions continue today, including a big annual race which she has her sights on for next year.
The 59th annual Northfield Savings Bank Milk Bowl, which will be held on October 17, has drivers racing three segments of 50 laps, with a $10,000 prize at stake. The victory will go toward the racer with the lowest overall score. Wheeler won’t be racing this year. Until she has garnered enough practice and is cleared to race, she’s been spending time observing and picking up on skills and techniques that racers use, just like she did when she was little watching her father go round and round on the racetrack. Shea has been part of her friends’ pit crews, observing them race and learning hands-on tricks.
Her goal is to race an entire season at Thunder Road and potentially at White Mountain in New Hampshire. She’ll be racing primarily against middle-aged men, so she isn’t anxiety-free. “Most are a lot older than me,” Wheeler said. There are two 14-year-old boys racing in Shea’s division currently, but one will be changing divisions next year, so Wheeler will be one of the youngest racers there. But her age isn’t an obstacle for her, and neither is the prospect of participating in races with predominantly adults. “Believe in yourself and don’t give up as you’re making progress,” Wheeler said. “Never think you can’t do it.”
“My biggest inspiration has definitely been my dad and my Uncle Chad.” Both have been racing since they were teens. Wheeler’s father started driving dirt bikes when he was younger and soon after that his father, Gary Wheeler, purchased a Busch North car for him to race. Wheeler’s father became involved with Thunder Road and went on to win the championship at Riverside Speedway in Groveton, New Hampshire, and continued to pursue his racing career, racing Tigers and Late Models. In following in her father’s footsteps, Wheeler hopes to follow her passions and race Thunder Road and beyond.