In the groove: Maryville’s Erika Schmidt has something to prove in NASCAR circuit
By Melanie Tucker | (email@example.com)
A Maryville teen who first got her adrenaline pumping aboard four-wheelers and snowmobiles has taken it up a notch.
Erika Schmidt, 18, is racing late model cars on racetracks across the region and is competing for Rookie of the Year in the NASCAR Whelen All-American Series at Kingsport Speedway.
This 2012 graduate of Maryville High School who played basketball and soccer while there, moved to this area with her family from upstate New York when she was 16. She grew up with two brothers who loved to hunt, drive fast and compete at every turn. The three siblings have gone Alaskan black bear bow hunting together and have learned most everything there is to know abut engines from their father, Steve Schmidt.
It’s Erika, though, who decided she wanted to strap on the racing gear and run inches from the wall at over 90 miles per hour. She had her first race in March at Kingsport.
Thrill of the ride
“Riding snowmobiles and four-wheelers just made me realize the love I have for competition and engines,” she said. “I have been doing this since I could walk. I have older brothers — so that’s all we did.”
Erika’s goal at that first race was to finish, which she did. That was a tall feat considering she hit the wall the day before in practice. Her crew had to work to get the car back in shape to run the next day.
“I hit a couple of cars, and then I hit the wall,” Erika remembers. “It sounds bad, but I walked away with no injuries.”
She said race cars are built for safety and are much safer than the cars we drive every day.
That wreck didn’t do much to faze Erika’s courage. She suited back up and hasn’t turned back.
After graduating from MHS back in 2012, Erika made the decision to attend the University of Alabama. She went down there for a semester, but something got in her head and wouldn’t leave her be.
“I went to Alabama and had every intention of staying all four years,” she explained. “And do the normal college experience like most other kids. But all I could think about was racing while I was there. I moved back so I could race.”
She has enrolled in classes again but not at UA. At the end of September she will be heading to Phoenix, Ariz., for a racing school there, to sharpen her rookie racing skills.
Her first race was back in March, and Erika is gearing up for a racing season that will take her into November or early December. She races mainly at Kingsport, one of the race tracks across the country that is part of the NASCAR Whelen All-America Series. Whelen is a points championship for NASCAR-sanctioned local racetracks around the US and Canada. Erika has also raced at Lonesome Pine in Coeburn, Va. She is competing against a male driver for Rookie of the Year honors at Kingsport.
In fact, male drivers are the only ones she competes against, and most all have more experience on the track. Some are at least 10 years older than this rookie.
Doesn’t matter, Erika said.
Moving here from New York has given Erika the confidence she needs and the risk-taking attitude that carries her forward.
“I like the fact that I have to prove myself,” she said. “I like proving to people that I am serious about something. I will work my butt off to prove it.”
She has garnered respect from many of the male drivers. Others are waiting to see her fail. But Erika keeps focused on the task at hand. “You could look at that as a bad thing but I see it as positive,” Erika said. “I want to gain their respect.”
Erika’s car is owned by Aeroglass Motorsports and she has sponsors like TGS Distributors. Crew chief is Tony Ponkaukas, of Maryville. It is an expensive sport to get into, but it’s all coming together for a rookie who wants to go much farther in the sport.
The sky is the limit, Erika said.
“I expect to be in the Sprint Cup in five years,” she explained. “I am just going to work my butt off and hopefully get there.”
She is grateful for the people who believe in her. Her mom Patty, dad Steve and brother Bryan go to all of her races. Bryan is a mechanical engineer and helps his sister with her car. Erika’s other brother, Mike, lives in New York.
The work is paying off. Erika has qualified in the top 10 consistently and finishes in the top 15 out of an average of 22 drivers. When she’s not racing or practicing, she works at TGS Distributors in Greenback, the company owned by brother Bryan. The company is a distributor for Pop Corners snack foods.
Female NASCAR diver Danica Patrick has been good for the sport of racing, Erika believes, because her success has let the world know there are capable female drivers who are just as competitive as the male drivers. Her whole life, Erika has clung to the attitude that anything they can do, so can she. She doesn’t want to be the best female driver, she wants to be the best.
She’s proving it with every lap.