September 2, 2014
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The Need for Speed
Racing cars isn't just for the boys
FAST WOMEN: Jan Confreda used to tear up the stock car track in the Powder Puff derbies of the 1960s. Now her 14-year-old granddaughter, Jessica O'Leary, hopes to take racing even further, as a mini-cup driver with aspirations to compete in NASCAR.

Kendra Levesque will get her learner’s permit this week. Jessica O’Leary is too young to get hers. Yet, without a driver’s license between them, Kendra and Jessica have been winning trophies for the way they drive.

This paradoxical situation has been brought about by a relatively new little sister of stock car racing called mini cup cars. Mini cup cars are like the more familiar go-karts, except they are about half the size of a standard stock car racer and mimic the sturdy frame, roll cage and other safety features now mandatory on stock cars.

“Kendra started when her grandma passed away,” said Norman Levesque, Kendra’s father and the head of her pit crew. “Kendra was really feeling down and I wanted to get her focused away from that and I was looking for something for her to do, so we went up to F-1 Boston [an indoor go-kart track]. She took to it and started to listen and was awarded the most improved driver.”

F-1 Boston offers beginners a chance to see if they like racing enough to commit to it more than an occasional go-kart ride. Norman and Kendra never expected that their plan to boost Kendra’s morale would go that well.

“I also wanted to prove something,” said Kendra. “Some of the guys said, ‘You drive like you’re going to the mall,’ and that annoyed me. I wanted to show something to the boys.”

Now she’s ready to show the boys some more. The Pilgrim High School junior will be racing with and against her best friend, Jessica O’Leary, a sophomore at Warwick Vets. Jessica also started with F-1 but, at 14 years old, she already has her mini cup rookie season behind her.

After completing the season at Seekonk Speedway racing her mini cup car, O’Leary took home a shiny trophy for her 10th place finish in her division. 

“I did pretty good for it being my rookie season,” O'Leary said at the end of the term. “My goals for 2013 are to get my first win and finish in the top five at the end of the season.”

“I have been driving since I was 9 and I watch races all the time and go to them,” said O’Leary. “I know that the chances of me becoming a NASCAR driver are not that good. There are so many people who want to do it. But I do want to be around racing, even if it’s in a pit crew. I want to study engineering to make that possible.”

She says, with a hint of pride, that her top speed was 72 MPH.

O’Leary said she intends to attend the New England Institute of Technology for their automotive program, but you might say cars are actually in her genes. Her grandmother, Jan Confreda, used to compete in the Powder Puff Derby races in the early 1960s and her grandfather, Alan Confreda, is her pit crew chief and a retired service manager for Inskip Motors.

Right now, O’Leary is looking for sponsors. Like their grown-up counterparts, mini cup drivers look to festoon their cars with as many logos as can fit. But that’s not because they are greedy; it’s because it cost a lot for a teenager to field a mini-cup.

The car is a half-scale stock car built just like the Winston Cup cars you see on TV. They have tube chassis, adjustable suspension, coil-over Carrera shocks, disc brakes, rack and pinion steering. The chassis is covered with a one-piece fiberglass body that comes in a variety of shapes that mimic their full-sized big brothers. The goal of mini cup is to provide an “inexpensive” entry-level stock car racing experience for new drivers. But inexpensive is a relative term.

While they are nowhere near the cost of a NASCAR rig, they still cost around $7,000 new or about $4,500 for a decent used model. They still need tires, oil changes, parts and gasoline. A fireproof driving suit with fireproof gloves, a good crash helmet, entrance fees and pit fees and any number of incidental expenses – pretty soon you’re talking about real money.

That’s why O’Leary and Levesque are always looking for sponsors.

Kendra Levesque would love to make a career of racing, but she too has her practical side. She has just started an apprenticeship of sorts at a nursing home as she prepares for a career in nursing.

“I would love to do racing all the time, but I know that’s not always possible,” she said. “I have to find a career and I like taking care of people. I also want to work for a cure for cancer.”

Kendra breaks down a little when she talks about her grandmother. She practically raised Kendra and her siblings and Kendra’s crash helmet is emblazoned with an extended pink ribbon that underlines the motto, “Fight like a girl.” Fifty percent of any prize money Kendra gets will go to cancer research, but for now, the prizes are mostly trophies and glory, or winning the “hardware,” as Norman Levesque called it. And he should know. He used to win a little hardware of his own before he retired from stock car racing himself, mostly at Seekonk, which is the go-to place for mini-cup drivers and fans in southern New England.

In an effort to keep all things equal, organized mini-cup racing has strict specifications for cars. Engines are limited to Honda GX 390, four stroke overhead valve 389cc one cylinder air-cooled with an electric start. Body styles are Chevy Monte Carlo, Ford Taurus, Pontiac Grand Prix or Dodge Intrepid.

The engines are specially tuned and limited in their output.

“The engines are adjusted and then they put a seal on it,” said Norman Levesque. “Once it has been sealed, there’s no more work you can do to it.”

Norman said being a sponsor is not as expensive a proposition as people would think.

“You usually get a series of small sponsors,” he said. “One sponsor for the wheels, one for the painting, the welding – there’s a lot of barter and trade going on. You don’t necessarily have to give money.”

O’Leary has been working with a specialty public relations company based in North Carolina owned by a NASCAR insider named Mike Calinoff who promises to keep the racing world abreast of any triumphs that are in store for O’Leary, who, with her cool demeanor and steely competitor’s face on, shows every sign of being a contender. You can see the Warwick drivers at Seekonk when the season opens on May 31.

“People ask me what the secret is,” said O’Leary. “It’s going to the front. You have to figure a way to get in front. I’m usually in the front half of the field.”

To learn more or follow the mini-cup series, go to seekonkspeedway.com. 


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