Retired racer recalls exciting days on the track
It was 1989 and rain was plundering the Talladega Speedway. Fighting the summer thunderstorm the best she could, NASCAR racer Sissy Owen rounded turn two banking in her 1971 BMW 2002 ITB at well over 100 miles per hour.
“It happened so fast, I can’t say that I was scared,” says Owen, who quickly lost control hydroplaning. She hit the outside wall twice but landed inside the track. “When I stepped out, my car looked like a banana. At some point, physics kicks in. You can’t beat it.”
Owen would go on to drive another day, racing with the Sports Car Club of America (SCCA) for 11 years and working for BMW of North America for decades. Now retired, she lives on nine acres in Hendersonville with her husband, Ryland, where they both live and breathe cars.
“I am just a car nut, always have been,” says Owen, who grew up in Bradenton, Florida, where her older sister raced sailboats and her younger brother raced motorcycles. It took a bit longer for the middle child to find her own way of reaching top speeds.
In 1975, after vacationing in Europe, Owen and her husband purchased the soon-to-be-totaled 1971 BMW 2002 and a 1972 BMW Bavaria. The cars joined the couple’s menagerie of automobiles over the years — a Mercedes, an Alfa Romeo, and a slew of Minis. Hungry for an opportunity to put the BMWs to work, the duo began participating in Autocross events. During these competitions, drivers navigate a serpentine course — often demarcated by orange cones in a parking lot — as fast as they can. (Autocross is like the appetizer to full-blown racing.)
Craving even more speed, Owen soon picked up drag racing as well. “They didn’t know what to make of us,” she says. “First of all, they had never seen a BMW in a drag race before.”
But it was also uncommon to see a woman in the driver’s seat. In 1987, when Owen attended a racing school hosted by SCCA at Savannah International Raceway, she raised quite a few eyebrows. After spending several hours in a classroom with none other than Tom Cruise, Owen and more than 30 other drivers gridded up on the track for a race. It was a cold, wet weekend — maybe 50 degrees, with a steady spray of rain — but Owen finished second, beating the Top Gun star and losing to NASCAR team owner Rick Hendrick. When she headed over to the racing instructor to receive her license, he didn’t believe that she completed the race.
“He stared at the bottom of the list of finishers, got about halfway up, and said, ‘You didn’t even finish,’” Owen recalls. She was quick to suggest he look higher on the list of drivers.
Years later at Michelin Raceway (then Road Atlanta), Owen pulled off first place. As is customary, the runner-up who finished just behind her (though in a different, faster class) got out of his car and started walking over to congratulate her — the victor. But when Owen pulled off her helmet and let down her blonde hair, he turned on his heel without a word.
“The car world is a man’s world,” says Owen. Even decades later, this remains the case. At the local Classic Car Cruise-Ins on Main Street, for instance, most of the participants are men driving American-made vehicles.
“There are some interesting cars tucked away in Henderson County,” says Owen, who’s known the area since she was a child, vacationing with her family. “But this just isn’t a big town. Whereas in Atlanta, a typical show might attract 1,000 cars, here you only get 20.”
There’s a bit more diversity at The Vintage, a BMW-only show in Hot Springs that attracts some 500 to 700 older automobiles each fall. Owen and her husband have attended several times, jumping at an opportunity to show off their 1962 BMW 700 Sport Coupé. A hot pepper-red with a white top, the car attracts lots of attention.
Nevertheless, any show is a chance to talk shop. Owen is quick to chew the fat, going on about engine types and racetrack banking. But she also shares trade secrets that have oddly universal implications, even for people who have no clue what a crankshaft is.
“There are lots of tricks in racing,” she says. “First, don’t look at where you are — look at where you’re going.
“Second, if you start sliding, just look down the track at where you want to be.”