HAMPTON -- The competition tends to take notice when Gina Nicolai takes off her helmet at the race track.
The presence of Nicolai's long, flowing blond hair comes as quite a shock to many of the ''old boys'' in drag racing.
''They will ask who they are racing against and when they look over at me, their jaw drops,'' said Nicolai, who races in the Super Comp division of both the National Hot Rod Association and International Hot Rod Association. ''They don't expect it to be me. It is mostly the older guys that you can just see it in their eyes.''
The 19-year-old Hampton racer takes the wide-eyed stares in stride.
''Sometimes you hear them say, 'What am I going to tell my wife if I lose to this girl?''' said her father, Jerry.
They can tell their spouses they lost to one of the up-and-coming drag racers in the country.
Nicolai is a two-time national champ in the junior dragster division and has won four season championships at the Colonel's Brainerd International Raceway.
She plans to compete in more than 20 races this summer across the country. It is a schedule she has been following since she started racing seven years ago.
The family picked up her first dragster at a swap meet when Nicolai was 12. Racing in the junior dragster division, her vehicle topped out at speeds exceeding 70 mph on an eighth-mile track.
By the time Nicolai was 16, she was being asked by several car owners to drive for them.
''I remember this one owner asked me if she could drive for them at a race in California,'' Jerry said. ''I told him I couldn't take the time to drive her out there and he said, 'Don't worry about it, you just get her to the airport and I will pay for her flight.' Gina said she wanted to do it.''
Nicolai has a practice area in her home where she can work on her reaction time at the start of a race.
When the light turns green, she is ready to go in literally the blink of an eye. A perfect reaction time is .400 and Nicolai is consistently in the .415 range. If you consider the difference between winning and losing is almost always a fraction of a second, a good start is imperative.
''You have to get a good reaction time,'' she said. ''You have to stay focused on what you are doing.''
A lack of focus can result in tragedy. Nicolai speeds along the quarter-mile track in the super comp division at more than 170 mph. The need for speed overcomes her concern of danger.
''It is exciting,'' Nicolai said. ''Stepping up into the faster car was fun. You have to make sure your head is back against the roll bar when you take off or your head will get thrown back.''
It was also the speed that caused her parents to wonder whether putting their teen-age daughter into drag racing was a good idea.
Their answer came quickly, when Nicolai was qualifying for her drag racing license. As she took off down the track for a test run, there was a problem and the car started to spin out.
''She just made a quick adjustment and it straightened right out,'' her dad said. ''That is when I knew we made the right decision. She hadn't even been told what to do in case that happened. She just did it naturally.''
Although Nicolai has no fear of speed, she does respect it. She understands the safety issues and isn't afraid to take precautions. When she took her license test, Nicolai was forced to locate various gauges and levers in the vehicle while blindfolded.
''They really test you so you know what is going on,'' said Nicolai, a graduate of Randolph High School. ''And if it doesn't feel right, you just pull the chute.''
As her racing ability has improved, so has her relationship with her parents. Her father handles pit crew duties and her mother, Peg, tracks weather and track conditions and puts the data into a computer that regulates the engine.
''All three of us have our own little jobs,'' Jerry said. ''It brought us three real close together.''
Nicolai works at Marquette Bank of Cannon Falls and attends Dakota County Technical College, where she studies retail management and sales.
She has been named to the president's list each semester she has been enrolled at the college.
''School is really important to me,'' said Nicolai, whose ultimate goal is to be a top fuel drag racer. ''And I want to own my own racing motorsports store someday. Maybe even do both at the same time.''
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