Tooele • Her fingernails give Bridget Burgess away. They’re cut short and peppered with splotches of engine grease that stubbornly cling to the underside of the nail and the skin of her fingers.
Burgess, 18, wears makeup and cute clothes and has long wavy brown locks that cascade out even from under her black trucker hat. But she has never had a manicure. She doesn’t have much use for them since they would be ruined the moment she popped the hood of one of the cars in the garage of her parents’ home in Tooele and started rebuilding carburetors and tearing down transmissions. Even if she could get one in the midst of a pandemic, she hasn’t had time to. The only thing she likes more than working on cars is racing them, so she’s been busy fixing up rides to enter in drift races as well as in the ARCA Menards West series, both of which have started rolling again after taking a coronavirus-caused hiatus.
Her first race back will be Saturday’s July 4th event at Irwindale Speedway in California, where she’ll be driving for her family’s BMI Racing team.
“I absolutely love racing. I love cars,” Burgess said. “I definitely have a passion for working on them and then driving them and then working on them again. Race ‘em, break ‘em and then work on them again. But yeah, I definitely do love cars.”
Burgess is part of a surge in female drivers on the NASCAR circuit. About 120 women have started a race since the stock-car series’ inception in 1949. Of those, only three have won a race in one of NASCAR’s touring series (none of whom is named Danica Patrick). Two of those, Haillie Deegan of Temecula, Calif., and Manami Kobayashi of Japan claimed their victories within the past two years.
Kobayashi won her debut in the Whelen Euro Series Elite Club Division, a European circuit geared toward less experienced drivers, not unlike the ARCA Menards series, in Germany last September. She just beat out another woman, Austria’s Alina Loibnegger, who took second.
Deegan, meanwhile, won three races in the K&N Pro Series West between 2018-19. NASCAR acquired that series, which has east and west divisions that feed into its three national series, in 2018 and rebranded it the ARCA Menards Series. The series website lists three females among its 38 drivers: Deegan, Hollie Hollan of Oklahoma and Gracie Trotter of North Carolina. All three compete in the West division. Burgess was not included in that list because she isn’t on a major team’s roster.
Brandon Thompson, the vice president of diversity and inclusion for NASCAR, said the West has always been the most diverse regional series. He said the participation of more female drivers “is absolutely becoming more of a thing.”
“Really, across the country you’re seeing a lot more women get into the driver’s seat,” said Thompson, who served as the managing director of NASCAR’s touring series, including the Menards series, until June 16 when he took over the racing league’s newly created position. “It’s something that we’re really excited about. I mean, you know, what one of the cool things about stock car racing — really any type of racing, I guess — is that it’s the only sport where women and men can compete on the same surface at the same time.”
Burgess made her debut in that series last September. She expected to complete her first full season in the series this year starting with the opener in Las Vegas in February.
It did not go well.
Burgess had rented her car from a dealer known to provide less expensive, but also less reliable, race cars. Not officially driving for any team and working on a limited budget, she had little choice, she said, and was happy to just be able to enter the race. The car looked good, but a few laps into the main event, she knew it wasn’t as nice where it counted.
“I started driving around the track and I was like, ‘I can’t get this thing off the corner,’” she recalled. “And my mom radioed to me and I’m like, ‘I might not know everything about a car, but the gearing’s wrong.’”
Against her father’s radio commands, she pitted the car. Sure enough, the differential gear, which allows power to be transferred from the engine to the wheels, had failed. Her race was over.
Still, Burgess demonstrated the kind of car savvy that could help her reach the national level, a bridge crossed by only about 20 women. It would seem a grasp of car mechanics would be standard among drivers. But Burgess said that while drivers like to appear knowledgeable about cars on social media, some would have trouble even changing the oil.
“I’m just like, man, you can sell them a Chevrolet F150 and they won’t even know you just said two different companies,” she said.
Burgess, who moved with her mother Sarah and father Adam from Australia when she was 7, has been working on cars since age 13. That’s when her mom started racing.
Sarah said she began racing in the Lucas Oil Off-Road Racing Series because Adam, who had been a driver, shied away from the social media and self-promotion aspects. In a sport where athletes are dependent on sponsorships, that wasn’t sustainable.
“It’s like, we either just give up and go back to Australia or we make this work,” said Sarah, who in February became the motorsport development manager for the Utah Motorsports Campus. “And so Adam’s like, ‘Do you want to learn how to drift? Do you reckon you could do it?’ I’m like, ‘I’m going to make it work because I don’t want to move back to Australia.’
“And that’s when it all turned.”
One other woman was racing off-road at the time, though in a different division, Sarah said. But she was the only female doing drifting at the national level when she started in 2011.
Sarah had actually dreamed of becoming an Olympic speedskater. As a girl, she traveled internationally for the sport and set the 2002 Games in Salt Lake City as her goal. The financial burden became too much for her parents, however, and she had to abandon the sport (she said she hasn’t watched a Winter Olympics since).
Then she met Adam, and he introduced her to another thrill: motorized racing.
“I was hanging out in the garage and I’m not one to just sit there and do nothing. I’m a bit of a Tomboy,” Sarah said. “So I got my hands dirty. I learned how to wrench and fabricate and do all the electrical stuff on cars.”
She passed those skills down to Burgess, who became an integral part of the family racing team. With a shoestring budget to work with, most repairs and upgrades had to be done in-house. And with off-road racing featuring jumps and encouraging contact, there was plenty of work to be done.
For two years, Burgess worked on her mom’s truck with the hope that someday she could drive as well. At age 15, she got her shot. She entered an off-road race in her mother’s truck, which — at a cost of close to $100,000 — was also her family’s prized possession. That didn’t stop Burgess from going full throttle. She didn’t have the fastest line, but it was clear to her parents she possessed both talent and chutzpah.
“At the end of the day they were impressed because I wasn’t slow,” Burgess said. “But at the same time, when they, like, put their heads down, it was like, ‘Oh gosh, it’s going to get expensive. Now we have to get another race car.’”
BACK ON TRACK
Burgess raced all of 2017 on the off-road circuit with Sarah. Most of the season, she deferred to her mother, making way when Burgess saw her in the rearview mirror. It taught her patience and to wait for her opportunities.
“You don’t want to hit the person that makes you dinner and keeps a roof over your head,” Burgess said.
In 2018, Burgess started racing on asphalt at the suggestion of racing team owner Bill McAnally. In 2019, she competed in her first NASCAR race in Meridian, Idaho. She finished the season 31st among 71 drivers on the K&N Pro West circuit despite entering only two races for financial and licensing reasons. Of the 46 who started two races or fewer, she ranked eighth.
This was supposed to be her breakout season, but after the blowup in Vegas, COVID-19 dismantled the rest of the ARCA Menards West Series schedule. That included wiping out a return to Utah Motorsports Campus, Burgess’s home track, where the series last stopped in 2016. When that race was rescheduled for last Saturday and rebranded as a doubleheader, Burgess could hardly wait to climb into the driver’s seat. Only, she didn’t have a car. The Burgesses can’t afford their own — especially after losing at least one major sponsor in the fallout from the coronavirus — and their two plans to borrow one fell through.
Sitting at the UMC a week before the race, facing a window that looks out over the road track she could have been navigating, Burgess looked down at her grease-speckled hands. It’s hard to hide her disappointment at yet another setback. At the same time, she’s not one to take things lying down, unless it’s under a car on a creeper seat with a wrench in her hand.
“My number one goal is just the NASCAR Cup [Series]. And to get to it is just … I have to hustle,” Burgess said. “My parents, they don’t have the money to just buy me a ride, so I have to hustle. I have to work on my own cars.”
Lucky for her, she knows how to make them go fast.