Heather Saalman Sails Through Junior Dragster Ranks and Prepares for Door Car Driving

Heather Saalman was in the middle of celebrating her eleventh birthday when she saw a junior dragster being pushed up her driveway, and moments after being told it was for her, she climbed in.

She recalls being a bit startled when her parents, Jenny and Kerry Saalman, fired the engine, but as she familiarized herself with the sights, sounds and scents of the machine before her, she found herself fixated and focused, and in no time, she was running it up the driveway and then lining it up at the track.

Since then, she has gone many rounds and won many races at Summit Motorsports Park, and in 2012, she was the Bear Motorsports Junior Dragster Advanced champion. That year — while continuing to race her junior dragster — she decided to explore door-car racing, too, and found the driver’s seat of the red ’93 Mustang GT owned by her cousin and fellow driver A.J. Buchanan, introduced herself to the Sportsman class and went on to be named Rookie of the Year. She followed suit in 2013 in the grey ’91 Mustang owned by her uncle and fellow driver Bruce Beard, again while continuing to race her junior dragster.

She credits all of them, as well as her uncle, fellow driver Paul Monak, for helping her remain focused when she needs to be focused and relaxed when she needs to be relaxed, and as she completed her junior dragster racing career last fall, she’ll now give her full attention to door car racing this season.

“Heather is a bright kid, and when she first started running juniors, I taught her the basics, like staging procedures and preparing mentally before a round, and she has executed all of that flawlessly,” said Buchanan. “Then, we really started getting after the driving strategies, and she took to it like a duck to water. There will be some adjustment as she moves completely from a junior dragster to a door car because cars accelerate differently and act differently down track, but I think that after one season, she’ll be a championship-caliber driver with a bright future ahead of her.”

Read on for more about Saalman, a freshman nursing major and member of the women’s basketball team at Otterbein University in Ohio.

You mentioned you were a little ambivalent about driving a junior dragster the day you got your first one, but your feelings changed quickly and you went on to run in the Intermediate class until you were thirteen and then in the Advanced class until you were eighteen last year.

We had no idea what to expect from the junior dragster and whether it was going to be fast or slow, and mom told me to let off the gas if I felt scared. When I started it, the idle was set too high, and even though my foot was on the brake, the car tried to make a move, but I hit the kill switch and it stopped. I remember shaking when I got out of the car because of the adrenaline. I raced in Intermediate that fall and didn’t do very well, but I knew it was something I wanted to keep doing. I’m glad I did, because I have had a lot of great experiences, including making the team to go to Bristol every year, and then in ’09, getting to the final in Bristol and runnering-up. The 2012 season was my most memorable season because we won four junior dragster races out of seven and wrapped up the points championship in July. That’s also the year I raced A.J’s Mustang GT in Sportsman and finished fifth in points and got Rookie of the Year.

Was it difficult to focus on driving a junior dragster in one class and a car in another class?

We usually raced juniors in the morning and then just about the time that was over, we would start racing door cars. It was different, that’s for sure. I would wear my helmet in the street car even though I didn’t have to, just to have it feel the way it felt in the junior. I also had to pay attention to a few more details in the door car than I did in the junior, and in the door car, sometimes I would forget I was racing the full track, rather than the eighth-mile, and I would play the finish line at the wrong spot on the track. Leave it to A.J. to tell me that he was sure that one time, he saw my break lights come on at the eighth-mile rather than at the finish line.

Your last pass in your junior dragster was at Shakedown at the Summit last October.

When I was going down-track in the junior at Shakedown at the Summit, I was thinking about how I was never going to be racing it again, and when I got out of it, I just sat there and thought to myself ‘I don’t know what to do.’ I’m definitely going to have to put on a different thinking cap. I liked my junior because it was in my comfort zone and I was used to it, so the move to the door car will be bittersweet and it will be a new challenge, but that can be a good thing.

Through the years, your dad maintained and fired up the engine in your junior dragster and your mom turned up the idle, pushed the car to the starting line and hit the roll cage while saying “Do your best.” You’ve had a lot of support from them, sponsors and friends.

Yes, I’ve had great support. I’m blessed, and doing this with them has made me a lot closer to them. I take this so seriously, and when I lose and have to figure out what happened, my family is there for me. Even my grandma and grandpa Saalman come to the track when they can, and Margaret Graves makes all of us pancakes on race mornings when she’s there, which is pure tradition.

We’ve noticed how you lock eyes with your cousin, A.J. Buchanan, and listen intently as he shares advice or encouragement in the staging lanes.

He taught me how to use the practice tree when I first started racing, and he has helped me all along, but last year, he really started stepping in and told me we were really going to get after it. We focused mainly on the junior, but he helped me with the door car, too. He would help me figure out what I needed to dial and he helped me remain calm by telling me a joke because he could see that I would get a little worked up when I was strapping in. When I made the team for Indy in his Mustang, he walked me through everything there.

You excelled as a point-guard at St. Wendelin High School in Ohio. What position do you play at Otterbein University?

I’m still a point-guard, but I’ll rotate to an off-guard every now and then. My life is pretty much basketball in the winter and racing in the summer.

Do you have a plan in place for the upcoming season, or are you still sorting things out?

We don’t have all of the details worked out yet, but I’m pretty sure I’ll be racing my uncle Paul’s ’72 Vega in the Pro class. Maybe one day, I’d like to get into a dragster.

You’re certainly an inspiration, Heather, and your autograph is still on the helmet I put on each race day. What advice would you share for drivers new to the sport?

I would just say be patient, because you will learn with time and you will learn from your mistakes. You might make the same mistakes twice, but it will all come together.

Interview by Mary Lendzion

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