Gritty. Tough as nails. Driven to succeed, no matter the pain in the game.
Those are some of the characteristics that describe 25-year-old Natalie Sather, an upcoming NASCAR racer who cut her teeth in some of the finest dirt tracks of the Midwest as well as asphalt short-oval arenas of the Southeast.
On the surface, she’s congenial, very apt to discuss racing as well as her family life that has inspired her through the years.
Certainly, she values the support given to those around her, and it shows with her ambition to succeed in this competitive field of motorsports.
When it comes to her mindset just as the green flag’s about to unfurl, all that’s on her mind is how she’s going to make the most out of it.
Ask for 100 percent, she’ll give you 110, making her way to the front with the precision and cunning of some of sport's most clutch drivers like the Labonte brothers or Jeff Gordon, the latter who has inspired her in her career.
Stumbling upon her when reading about this year’s Drive for Diversity class, I took notice of her racing record, which at first seemed to be filled with glowing highlights and statistics that couldn’t be tangibly appreciated.
However, when I read how she’s triumphed in her dreams despite setbacks, it showed me the kind of hunger and willpower she has to make it in this sport.
While others out there are all talk and just appear at the track for television time, Sather embodies that old Wrangler jeans motto of being “one tough customer.”
In a highly competitive game that involves high risk with one’s health and psyche, it seems as if nothing can derail the young gun from realizing her goal of becoming a full-time winner on the Sprint Cup circuit.
I interviewed Natalie Sather recently, getting her thoughts on her career, as well as her observations about her experiences in auto racing. You’ll see what I mean by her giving 110 percent in all she does, trying hard but not too much in making the most of her opportunity.
Without a doubt, she wants to make it badly in NASCAR, knowing she has to give it her all in a sport that requires sacrifices here and there to make it to the top.
Strap in, put on your driving gloves, and get ready for some short-track racing, when I put you in “The Driver’s Seat with Natalie Sather, NASCAR Whelen All-American Series Racer!”
Rob Tiongson : Some people get a thrill out of their need for speed, be it in their street cars, video games, or taking up auto racing in some shape or form as a means of recreation. What compelled you to embark on a career in motorsports, particularly with stock cars?
Natalie Sather : Growing up, my dad sponsored his best friend’s race car.
No one in my family actually raced, so I didn't necessarily grow up around it. However, I loved going to watch (races) much more than anyone in my family.
After years of watching the local sprint cars at the dirt track, the friend my dad sponsored saw a flyer for a local go-kart race and told my parents they needed to take me and that they should get me a go-kart.
After the race, we were all hooked, and so began my racing career starting in karts.
I grew up racing go-karts and eventually made the jump in to a sprint car on dirt. Growing up around the Mid-West, there are only dirt tracks in the area, so asphalt racing wasn't an option. So the asphalt dream seemed pretty far-fetched when I first started.
RT : Did you have any particular hero growing up in Fargo, N.D., at least, when it came to racing, or in particular, with your life?
NS : Growing up in Fargo, N.D., I looked up to a sprint car great named Donny Schatz. I would go to the World of Outlaw races sporting his t-shirt and a homemade sign, saying “I’m going to race against him someday.”
Well, that day did eventually come, and more to follow (oh and P.S., I have beaten him), and I will never forget it.
Another racer that I looked up to was Jeff Gordon...so much that my whole room as a teen-age girl was Gordon, and I even did my senior English project on him.
He grew up racing go-karts, and then moved up to Sprints and pursued his dream and made the transition to asphalt and has proved many wrong. His path is one I would like to follow myself.
I say one day I will race against Jeff, as well. One down (Donny Schatz), one to go (Jeff Gordon)!
RT : Now, like so many of NASCAR's hottest stars in Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart, and Kasey Kahne, you cut your teeth in sprint cars on some of the finest dirt tracks in America.
How much of an asset is it for you to know that particular brand of vehicle, as well as go-kart cars, in terms of driving the heavier stock cars on various asphalt arenas?
NS : Competing around the country at countless dirt tracks has played a huge role in my asphalt career. A great racer once told me dirt keeps you sharp, you have to be quick, always on your toes, and it’s 30 laps of wheel-to-wheel action.
I have been able to take a lot of what I have learned on the dirt and relate it to the asphalt. For example, when my car (late model) is loose, it is like driving on a dry slick dirt track, and it takes a lot of finesse.
I can't tell you how many times I have been watching the NASCAR greats like Tony Stewart, Kasey Kahne, Jeff Gordon, Ryan Newman, and Clint Bowyer, and see them get loose and they catch their car and the announcer will say, “Oh, look at that save, that’s their dirt background coming into play!”
So many of them go back and race on the dirt and I truly think that it helps with their asphalt driving.
RT : You've been a part of some excellent programs in racing, from the Skip Barber Racing School to your current team, Sellers Brothers Racing.
How much have those contingencies helped Natalie Sather, the racer and person? It's had to help you get your name out there to places across the States that's given you some great opportunities.
NS : Throughout the last few years, I have had some great opportunities to attend some amazing programs. Finish Line Racing School in Florida is one that has played a huge role in my asphalt career. Mike and Krystal Loescher, who own, run, and operate the school, have an amazing program.
They have taught me so much about the asphalt side of racing. Mike, who I call "my driving coach," is always there for me if I need any advice and has even come to a few races to help me along in my career.
Another great program that I have had the privilege of being a part of is the Lyn St. James, Women in Racing Program. Through Lyn's program, I had the opportunity to learn the "behind the scenes" aspect of racing.
From Media Training, Money/Sponsor Management, Physical and Mental Training…and also attending Finish Line Racing School (through Lyn’s program for a second time), these programs have given me a great establishment into my asphalt career.
RT : Having accessibility to your fans is paramount in establishing your popularity in the grandstands, not only in the tracks you've competed at, but at places where you just might be at when you advance in your career.
Would you say that having a presence online, via Facebook, your website, etc., has helped draw in some new fans with your racing, as well as help you attract potential sponsors/teams in joining your efforts?
NS : Fans in my eyes are a huge part of this sport. I have always had amazing fans, and always take the time to talk to all my fans.
With the social network sites on the rise, Facebook, Twitter, and other websites, I have tried to have as many ways as possible for the fans, potential sponsors, etc., follow my career.
It’s hard to keep up with everything and I try my best - I do all the networking side myself from designing my race cards to creating and updating my website.
Since creating a Facebook and Twitter, I have been amazed at the response in friends and support. I even have hit my limit on Facebook, so I had to create a fan page, and group page called Natalie "Speed" Sather! It’s been overwhelming to see all the support.
RT : Competing in any sport means the possibility of getting hurt out there in the playing field, be it a premier soccer stadium or a hometown short track.
Having dealt with some injuries during various times in your career, how have you dealt with it and is it truly mind over matter in dealing with pain, both physically and emotionally?
NS : Throughout my career, I have sustained some pretty serious injuries that could have ended my career.
When I was 17, I was racing at my local dirt track in a sprint car when I was involved in a incident where I was t-boned at over 110 mph and it broke my leg in three places, requiring seven surgeries and sitting out the season.
It was a time in my life where I was just starting out in my sprint car career and where I really had to take a step back and ask myself if this is something I really wanted to do. “Am I willing to risk getting hurt, even my life for this sport?”
It was a challenging time in my life but I knew that this is what I wanted to do. From then on, I dedicated my entire life to racing. Over the years, I have had some severe concussions, neck, and shoulder injuries, but nothing has stopped me.
This year, I sustained an injury that I thought for sure would end my career. April 17 was an ultimate high and low for me in my career.
It was a double-header and I scored my first top ten at South Boston with a ninth-place finish. The second race, the Sellers Brothers team and I were fired up.
On lap eight, I was tagged from behind, sending me spinning down the front straightaway. Once I came to a stop, I realized I was hurt pretty bad, thinking I broke my wrist.
After the initial shock, the adrenaline was still pumping and I ignored the pain and continued on with the race till lap 68, when another accident hurt my car, ending my night.
My wrist was super swollen and I found out the next day that indeed I had broken my wrist. How do you drive with one arm? It was a hard time for me and I wasn’t sure what my future held.
I was determined not to let this affect, let alone end my career. I flew back home to Fargo, ND to have surgery on my wrist where they placed a fairly large screw in my wrist.
The doctor in town was very supportive in helping me get back in the seat as soon as possible. After a special brace was made, I headed back to Virginia to get back in the seat.
It was pretty difficult getting used to racing with a big bulky brace on. I really had to relearn how to drive, it was hard, but it didn’t stop me. I needed to have the strength, courage, and motivation to keep on pursuing my dream. My team and family also motivated me.
It’s really hard sustaining any injury and being able to bounce back, but I have always told myself, “Never, ever give up.” And I don’t plan on it anytime soon!
RT : When you're at the track, strapped up and geared up to go, do you have a particular pre-race ritual or superstition that you follow? Or are you more
like, "OK Natalie, this is our race to win?"
NS : Ok, well, I do have a few rituals that I do, have to wear, etc. Some are more personal than others, but I will let you in on the secret.
I have a racing angel pin that must be on my suit. I also do have a lucky pair of undergarments that I do wear most of the time (laughter). Also, once I’m strapped into my car, I always say a lil’ prayer and then tell myself that I can do this, and also ask my Grandma, who was one of my biggest fans, to cheer me on and give me the strength and courage I need to finish the race.
RT : Alright, so it's down time, race isn't for a few days. What's a typical week in the life for you, during a race week? How about during a true off-week?
NS : A typical race week for me, well honestly, it’s been a lot different this season due to the fact that I broke my wrist at the beginning of this season so it has limited how much I can do. But normally, I would help out in the shop.
I had started working on the shock dyno this year and really enjoyed it. Otherwise, I work out as much as I can and get prepared for the next race, whether it’s washing my suit, cleaning my car, etc.
On an off-week, I usually try to go home to spend time with my family and friends. I go to the lake, hang out with my puppies, and work on my hunting cabin.
RT : What's been your favorite track that you've competed at thus far in your career? Any particular track that you're absolutely floored to compete at some day?
NS : My all-time favorite place to race would hands down be Knoxville, Iowa! It’s a half-mile dirt track located in a small town outside of Des Moines.
From the staff to the facility, to Dingus (a lil’ bar across the street), everything about that place, I just love.
My favorite part is the track, as it is where I really found out what I could do in a race car. From the high speed, the intense wheel-to-wheel racing, to the slide jobs, there is never a dull moment. I hope to one day go back and race a sprint car there!
A track that I someday hope to compete at is Daytona, the birthplace of NASCAR. This is where the legends made a name for themselves. To be able to race where the founding generation drove would be such a privilege!
RT : Free Association time for you, Natalie! No pain, no gain...this will be child's play. Tell me the first thing that comes into your mind with the following, all right? Here we go!
NS : "¡Andale! ¡Andale! ¡Arriba! ¡Arriba! ¡Yii-hah!" (Speedy Gonzalez)
RT : Three wide.
NS : My favorite way to pass.
RT : Starting position.
NS : Outside pole.
RT : Family.
NS : Support.
RT : Confidence.
NS : Most of the time.
RT : A real racer's track.
NS : South Boston (asphalt) and Knoxville, Iowa (dirt).
RT : Your ideal street car.
NS : Chevy Truck!
RT : If I could organize a music concert, I'd have...
NS : Country music.
RT : Best motto ever given to you.
NS : “Save your fork - the best is yet to come.” My Grandma told me that.
RT : Faith.
NS : Christian.
RT : Where you see yourself down the road...
NS : Racing, or anything to do with racing.
RT : When it comes to distinguishing yourself amongst your peers, what are some qualities or factors that make you such a special, unique racer to fans out there who may be looking for the next big star to follow?
NS : I am the “girliest” tomboy you will meet. I can work in the race shop, hunt, shingle a roof, and don’t even mind a lil’ dirt under my nails. On the other hand, I own about 30 pairs of high heels and love putting on a fun dress and going shopping at the mall.
I carry a hand gun and lip gloss in my purse. I am an energetic, outgoing person, passionate about what I do and that comes out on the track.
I am always myself, and tend to show a lot of emotion, but it’s who I am. If I didn’t love this sport and put everything I had in to it, I would have nothing to lose…but I do.
I am also passionate about the opportunities to help out in my community that racing has presented. I have had the chance to meet many strong kids at the local hospitals that have opened my eyes, and taught me how to be a stronger, better person.
This I hope to continue on throughout my career and help these young kids work towards their dreams for the future.
I have faced a lot of difficulties in my career from breaking my leg (in ‘02) and my wrist (just this season) to being scrutinized in my career, giving many reasons for one to quit or give up. All of these things have only made me stronger and shaped me into the woman I am today.
RT : Say I'm your team owner...and we're competing for the long haul of a season. How would you impress me, as far as proving yourself out there? Would you go all out for wins or go for top-10s, gradually working your way to becoming a race contender as a season goes on?
NS : I am a very competitive person, but you have to be realistic. This is only my second season racing asphalt, but I still tend to set my goals very high.
Consistency is key…I would go for the top fives, top 10’s, and of course I will take a win.
In order to win championships, you have to use your head and be consistent. In 2007, I won the American Sprint Car Championship and didn’t win a single race (although I came very close a few times) but I was always in the hunt, finishing every race, and making sure I made smart decisions which paid off in the end.
I am always looking to improve every race, learning something new every time I hit the track.
Author's Note : Thanks to Shannon Myers Tipton of Creative Designs for the photo in this piece, and major kudos to Natalie Sather for taking the time out of her busy schedule for this interview.
Follow her on Twitter (@SpeedSather) and find her on Facebook at her "Natalie 'Speed' Sather" fan page. Visit Natalie's official website at http://www.nataliesather.com/ right now!
Also, if you want to check out more of my thoughts on all things racing, check out my blog "The Podium Finish" at http://thepodiumfinish.com .