Karen Stoffer's ultimate dream is to ride her motorcycle to a National Hot Rod Association world championship. For the time being, however, the 40-year-old Minden rider is more than happy with the Cinderella season she is having in the NHRA's Pro Stock Bike division.
So much has changed since mid-March when Stoffer and her Jonco Motorsports racing team headed to the Mac Tools NHRA Gatornationals in Gainesville, Fla., which they expected would be their only national race of 2004. In what developed into an incredible series of developments, Stoffer and her team picked up some needed sponsorship and ran to a top four finish in Gainesville. The encouragement was enough that they decided to give it another shot at the 17th annual O'Reilly NHRA Spring Nationals in Houston, Texas, where Stoffer rode her Suzuki the distance to become just the seventh woman in NHRA history to win a pro event.
All of a sudden, Stoffer found herself mentioned in the same breath with legendary driver John Force on ESPN ... her picture appeared on the cover of National Dragster ... and today she is in Columbus, Ohio, for the start of the Pontiac Excitement NHRA Nationals.
It's an incredible story considering that back in March their sponsorship deal with Cycle-Guard by Geico Direct appeared to be good for only the Gatornationals.
"Gainesville was going to be our first and only race of 2004," Stoffer said. "We had no funding and we had gone a year and a quarter in hopes of getting some (sponsorship). But then, when we left Gainesville fourth in the overall points, we decided to give it one more shot in Houston. And within days before Houston, Cycle-Gard said they would give us backing for nine of 15 races this year, although Houston wasn't one of them. We were on our own for Houston and then we go and win down there - it's just a Cinderella story if I've ever had one."
A lot has certainly changed since Karen and her husband, Gary Stoffer, moved to Minden from Southern California in 1993 with dreams of breaking into the big time.
"It's definitely like a dream come true for us," she said. "Gary is the crew chief, he's the one on the starting line making sure everything is all set up to go. He's the manager. He's the travel agent. And he drives the semi truck with the bike on it. I just get to go down the race track and have fun."
This is the continuation of a story that began in 1990 when Karen began racing on two wheels. "Gary decided behind my back to build a bike for me," she said.
Stoffer earned Los Angeles County Raceway Rookie of the Year honors, then went on to capture a Division 7 Motorcycle championship. Her NHRA goal was realized in 1996 when she joined Angelle Savoie (a three-time Pro Bike champ) and Stephanie Reaves as pioneers among women breaking into professional motorcycle drag racing.
The first big break came in 2001 when the Stoffers hooked up with Jonco's Florida-based team owners, Doug and Debbie Johnson.
"They were looking for a rider and Bill and Dee Dee Peters, who are long-time friends of ours from Southern California, sat down with them in Las Vegas and told them, 'We have a rider for you.' We became great friends with Doug and Deb, and in 2002 we made our debut as a team in Indianapolis."
Four races into the 2002 season Stoffer reached the finals in Reading, Pa., and lost out to Savoie in the first-ever Pro Stock Bike all-female final. In 2003, Stoffer went to Columbus and defeated Savoie in the semifinals, before losing in the finals to Fred Collis due to a red light start.
Stoffer's third try in the finals turned out to be a charm when she defeated Antron Brown on April 18 in Houston.
"We took out all the big-budget teams," Stoffer said. "We beat the Screamin' Eagle Harleys back-to-back and they're No. 1 and No. 2; Craig Treble is definitely a heavy hitter; then we beat Antron Brown, who is backed by Army and has one of the biggest budget teams there are."
Stoffer, who was the No. 4 qualifier, got past Treble in the opening round, then defeated G.T. Tonglet and Andrew Hines of Vance & Hines Screamin' Eagle Harley-Davidson to reach the finals. Brown got out of the gate first in the championship run, but Stoffer chased him down by mid-track and won with a 7.159-second pass (186.38 mph) ahead of Brown's 7.176 - a margin of .0018, or about six inches.
"It was neat for the team as a whole," Stoffer said. "It was neat for Doug and Deb, because this was their first win since they started up in 1999, and it was our first win in a pro race, and we started 12 years ago at the sportsman level."
Now that Stoffer - who has a degree in GCS Logistics Management with a minor in Computer Science from the University of Nevada and works for Bently Nevada in Minden - has her first pro win, there are other goals to strive for. There is still that world championship dream, but first, there is another goal she would like to achieve.
"I think everybody on our team would like to do that (world championship)," she said. "That's an amazing goal just because all the pieces have to fall into place. But my first goal, my incremental goal, is to try and qualify No. 1 at one race."
That is a considerable challenge in itself.
"It really is," Stoffer said. "These races are so competitive. We've already had four races and four different winners. Harley is very strong this year. I don't think Army has shown all of their strength yet. Craig Treble, I think there's a lot more to come out of him. And Fred Collis is another one who can step up to the plate at any given time."
This is a sport where camaraderie among the competitors is high, which is part of the reason Stoffer is so happy to still be racing in 2004.
"That probably would have been one of the harder things, not only from a competitive point, but we've bonded so well together with the other racers," Stoffer said. "Not seeing them every second or third weekend would have been difficult. It's like having a second family out there. We go through a lot of emotions together, from hero to zero, fast and slow, but at the same time, it's very competitive out there on the starting line."
Stoffer will be racing on each of the next three weekends, including English Town, N.J., on June 17-20 and Madison, Ill., on June 25-27. But first up, she would like to try and get back to the finals this Sunday in Columbus.
"Our last race (the Route 66 Nationals) in Chicago, we had some problems with the wind, qualified low and then went out in the first round," Stoffer said. "Most teams have a row of motors, each geared for different cities and for different types of climates and specific weather conditions. We have one motor that has to be adaptable to all race tracks and all weather, and it's actually last year's motor. But we have put in for a new one and we're hoping it will be ready for Columbus."
And midnight still hasn't struck for this Cinderella.
Dave Price can be reached at 881-1220 or firstname.lastname@example.org