By Nate Fain Cronkite News

Flames shoot into the air as cars cross the finish line in the first heat of the weekend race at Arizona Speedway in San Tan Valley.

Up next is Abby Meulebroeck. She climbs into her silver, steel-coated No. 67 car, tucks her long brown hair under her white helmet and hits the gas.

As her car rolls onto the damp, muddy track, Meulebroeck, of Gilbert, joins a pack of seven other racers, and the pressure mounts.

It’s a lot to ask of a 15-year-old girl — her smooth, calm face makes her look even younger. She doesn’t even have her driver’s license yet.

“I get nervous before every race, but it’s just because of the waiting,” Abby said. “That feeling always goes away once the race starts.”

She’s no rookie. Meulebroeck has been racing for three years, often against drivers twice her age. On this night, as her car picks up speed, she glances to the left into the visor of a very unique opponent: her father.

Travis Meulebroeck owns a flooring company in Chandler, but he’s spent most of his time over the past 13 years racing.

“My old man was a racer. I’ve been around it my whole life,” Travis said.

Navigating the tricky turns on the inconsistent surfaces of dirt tracks is a family tradition passed down in the Meulebroeck family.

Now, it’s Abby’s turn.

“She’s going to beat you!” yells Austin Kuehl, a family friend and fellow racer who helped construct both of the Meulebroeck’s cars.

The starter waves the green flag and the cars zoom around the 3/8-mile track, accelerating at speeds greater than 70 mph. Clumps of dirt and mud fly and turn each car a nasty dark brown.

The Meulebroecks spend most of the race at the back of the pack. Travis is getting a feel for his brand-new car. Abby is competing for only the second time this year after taking a hiatus to focus on school. She just wants to get a feel for the speed she’s been missing.

At Arizona Speedway, 47346 N. Ironwood Road in San Tan Valley, Abby has witnessed pileups, flipped cars and injured drivers. She’s been in a few wrecks herself. None of it seems to faze her. For these 10 minutes, she is at her happiest.

A man’s game

She fell in love with racing, and the rush that comes from driving as fast as possible, from the beginning. Skirting by the competition came naturally, so easy that she doesn’t even seem to understand how much of an anomaly she is.

Racing has long been considered a man’s game. But the Valley is home to several famous female racers. Lyn St. James and Danica Patrick, among the nine women ever to qualify for the Indianapolis 500, reside in the Valley.

St. James works with the Women’s Sports Foundation, encouraging woman to get into racing.

“Racing is an individual sport, but it takes a team to get a car on the track,” St. James said. “We have a culture where women seem to be looking for an invitation to things, which makes it easy for them to get left out.”

St. James says that things are better for women than they used to be, and that lesser-known dirt tracks, like Arizona Speedway, have a reputation for embracing female drivers. But real progress is hard to quantify.

“What we need is a good set of data,” St. James said. “All we have right now is anecdotal evidence, so it’s hard to say for sure if there are more or less female drivers than before.”

With Patrick’s recent retirement, the future of women in racing is even more unclear, but from what Abby sees, the upward trend has continued at Arizona Speedway.

“I’m the youngest driver out here, but I’m not the only girl,” she said. “I think dads without sons just started to let their daughters race, and now more and more are doing the same.”

Father’s Day fallout

After the heat, Abby and her dad still have another race. A four-lap, one-on-one “Father’s Day Fallout” showdown.

The crowd of several hundred rocks the rickety wooden bleachers as the drivers of the two No. 67 cars now hold nothing back, jostling for position. Travis, a two-time main-event winner at Arizona Speedway, takes a slim lead.

Coming around the final turn, a slick patch of mud sends Travis’ car spinning. Abby capitalizes and makes the pass to take the checkered flag.

“This was pretty special to us because it’s maybe the only chance we’ll get to do this,” Travis said. “I’m probably going to sell one of these two models, so we won’t be able to compete against each other after this.”

The father-daughter duo race in a class called B-Mod, which aren’t as expensive to maintain as other classes. Abby also dabbles in the stock-car division, where she once finished 14th among 24 drivers, her best result in a main event.

The final race

Abby puts her fire suit back on. She has one more race, a stock-car race featuring seven female drivers, ranging from drivers’ wives to Abby to full-time professional drivers, like Shelby Frye.

“Gas it on the straightaways,” Travis tells Abby. “Stay high on those turns to avoid the mud.”

Abby, like any teenager, doesn’t seem interested in advice. It’s hard to tell if she’s fearless or oblivious.

“I don’t really think too much there. I just try and focus on what I need to do,” Abby said.

A low turn – one her father warned her not to make – gets Abby stuck behind a slower car. She doesn’t win. Frye does.

Abby watches the long hours that the full-time racers, like Frye, put in every weekend. She doesn’t know if she’s ready to give up trips to the beach and lazy Sundays watching the San Francisco 49ers just yet.

“I try to balance racing with other parts of my life,” Abby said.

She’s not even a sophomore in high school, so she still has plenty of time to decide if she wants to try to fill the seat that Patrick vacated.

“Abby’s probably 80 percent into it right now,” Travis said. “I’m probably holding her back, having to work. If I spent more time out here, she’d be right here with me.”