Ashley Rogero, Sabre Cook forging own paths
The words make them cringe just a little. Danica. Patrick. You can feel it even over the phone.
Not that they don't respect the most successful woman in the history of racing. Or admire what she has done. Rather, it's the implication that she is the only female race car driver; that because she is famous, she is automatically a role model; that naturally, all other young female drivers would emulate another woman and not a man.
"All women in racing, particularly the young ones but really all of us, just want to be race car drivers as opposed to women race car drivers," said retired IndyCar driver Lyn St. James. "Everybody just wants to be themselves."
Sabre Cook, a 19-year-old mechanical engineering major from Grand Junction, Colo., who just finished her freshman year at Colorado School of Mines, said she had never heard of Patrick when she first climbed into a go-kart.
Ashley Rogero, a 15-year-old high school freshman from Naples, Fla., and also a kart driver, said she "idolizes" Brazilian Formula One world champion Ayrton Senna and British two-time Indianapolis 500 winner Dan Wheldon, both of whom were killed in crashes, and follows the career of another young up-and-coming driver, Ashley Freiberg.
"People ask me all the time, 'Are you going to be the next Danica Patrick? Is Danica your role model?' " Cook said. "I respect what she has been able to do and I think she's a great driver, but do I want to be Danica Patrick? No. Do I want to be successful? Yes."
Patrick started karting at age 10 and within two years won the World Karting Association Grand National Championship before moving to England to race Formula One cars at age 16. Likewise, Cook and Rogero are taking the popular path of karting to a possible career in pro auto racing and are two of the top young female drivers in the sport. But they are also two of the top drivers, which is far more significant.
"I don't really know of another sport that handles the girl-boy thing like racing does, and that's a really cool aspect of the sport," Rogero said. "Everyone views boys and girls equally, and whoever is smartest and toughest wins the race."
Rogero's father, Jim, like Cook's father, Stacey, introduced his daughter to karting because he had an interest in it himself (Melissa Cook had to leave one of her husband's races to give birth to Sabre). Jim Rogero also dabbled in stock car racing and owns an auto repair shop. So it was only natural for him to take his oldest daughter to the track when she was 5, racing in a car that topped out at 20 mph.
"She absolutely stunk at it," he said with a laugh. "But I was patient and saw improvement. We didn't enter an event to race in until a year later, when she was almost 7."
Rogero said he was astonished to see what he called "little league parent behavior. But I wasn't going to do that," he said. "And the first year, she was actually lapped by the leaders in some races. But we kept our heads up and had fun."
Stacey Cook, who came from the motocross/supercross world and is now in real estate, took his daughter go-karting when she was 8 but admitted he thought his son, Tristin, two years younger than Sabre, would be the future race car driver.
"Sabre would drive along the inside of the track, so slow that all the other kids would lap her and they started calling her 'Driving Miss Daisy,' " he said.
"I was really excited at first," Sabre recalled. "Then I spun out and it scared me to death."
A sudden change of attitude
For both Cook and Rogero, their attitudes changed as dramatically as their improved results at about age 11, and they haven't been the same since.
"It was like a light switch went on," Rogero said. "I have no idea what happened but I remember in 2009, I had been on the national circuit for a few years and I just suddenly became competitive. I won my first national event when I started in 14th place and ended up winning. When my guy friends and I talk today, they still remember it was that race where they said, 'Wow, she can actually drive. We can't mess with her. A girl just won the race.' "
Cook said she's not sure how or why the adrenaline kicked in, either. "One day, I don't know, I was sick of losing and I told my dad, 'You know, if we take this more seriously, maybe I'd be a little more successful,' " she said. "I started doing really well, won my first [national] title and fell in love with racing."
Stacey Cook remembered Sabre coming to him early on in tears.
"She was lapped by five guys and she was crying and said, 'If I had a faster kart, I could win,' " he recalled. "Her brother had a better kart, so it was only the fair thing to do. And literally, she drove like a turtle one day, got the new kart and overnight just killed everybody. It was amazing.
"I don't know why she took to it. But part of it was my fault. She'd probably slap me, but at the time I thought, she's a girl and girls can't be that competitive. She won't take it seriously, so we'll just get her a cheap kart she can drive around in. Little did I know I was creating a monster, and she took off from there."
Sabre has worked her way up the karting ranks, to the semipro class, where she won the national championship last year as well as the Superkarts! USA Pro Tour championships, and to pro class this year, where she earned a spot on the podium in her first pro race, the SpringNationals in Tucson, Ariz.
"She's absolutely a sweet girl, then she puts the helmet on and drops the hammer," said Rob Howden, editor-in-chief of eKartingNews.com. "She definitely has the ability to make a move [to NASCAR or IndyCar], but it's unbelievably hard to get there. You need a lot of money and support."
Difficult road to the big time
The Cooks are well aware of the challenges.
"None of us want to crush her dream," said Stacey, "but we understand the reality. We're trying to fight the battle and keep going, but car racing is such a different animal. It's so expensive and so hard. Financially, I can't just write a check, so she's going to have to figure it out, find a sponsor or several, and if it's meant to happen, it'll happen, and if she gets a chance, I think she'll be ready."
Sabre, who has several sponsors underwriting her but nothing long-term, has taken a proactive approach to her career, operating her own website and taking an active part in her business dealings since the age of 15. St. James also has agreed to mentor and help manage her.
Her engineering education, Sabre said, will help her in many ways.
"I definitely can apply what I'm learning here to racing," she said. "I can better relay feedback and communicate to the engine builder and look at the mechanics [of the car] more on a scientific basis. And as much as I would love to race all the time, going to school and pushing through to get my degree is really important because if racing falls through, it's always something to fall back on."
There's contact in karting and she [Rogero] doesn't get pushed around. She makes a statement that she is not to be messed with, which is very evident. And you know when she's out there that there's a very good possibility she's going to be in front of the pack.Rob Howden, eKartingNews.com
Between college classes and the limitations of Colorado winters, Cook still races at least once a month until summer, when she races almost every other weekend. Rogero, who just started an online home-school program this school year, raced 47 of 52 weekends in 2012 and is keeping a similar pace this year.
Howden called the Rogeros' dedication to Ashley's racing "amazing'' and called Ashley "an unbelievably hard competitor.'' She represented Team USA in Italy at the Rotax Grand Finals in 2010 and won a North American championship last year.
"You know if you're going head-to-head with her, you're going to get what you give," Howden said. "There's contact in karting and she doesn't get pushed around. She makes a statement that she is not to be messed with, which is very evident. And you know when she's out there that there's a very good possibility she's going to be in front of the pack."
In it for the long haul
On a recent weekend, Jim and Ashley Rogero drove 4½ hours to Ocala, Fla., returned home to Naples, then drove 20 hours to Indianapolis. From there, it was on to Charlotte, N.C., back to Ocala and then home. Ashley's mother, Tammy, and her 7-year-old sister attend races in Florida, and in other places when school isn't in session.
"I really do love being with my dad. All we do is drive all over the country," Ashley said, only half-kidding. "I love talking to him about racing and hearing about the races he was in. I can learn so much from him. He tells me about his mistakes and we talk about what I would do in the same situation."
Though they are taking slightly different routes, Rogero and Cook have the same preferred destination and a similar determination to get there.
"I want to have a future in motorsports," Rogero said. "It has always been in my mind since that [first] race. I love the people, I love the quality time with family, I love the racing community. I never want to leave racing. I definitely want a career in it."
Unlike Cook, Rogero has solid sponsorship with Ocala Gran Prix owner and CEO Jorge Arellano contributing almost $200,000 per year, according to a grateful Jim Rogero. "He loves this sport, he loves the kids and he helps us a bunch," Rogero said.
"We're trying to go farther in the sport, but we're not in a hurry. We don't need to do it today or tomorrow," he said. "Myself, my wife and Ashley all have a two-year window. If she decides racing is not going to be for her, or sponsorship is not available, we prepaid her college before she was 1, so she can go to school. She's an excellent student. But I think she wants to be a racer and I don't ask her that often because at 15, I don't think you know what you want to be and I don't want to put pressure on her."
Instead, Jim Rogero said, when she does have the occasional bad day, as she did recently, he will pose a question to her. "I said, 'Ashley, If you don't want to do this, if you want to go play volleyball, you can do that, but I want you to give 110 percent in whatever you do.' But she'll always stop me and say, 'When is our next race, Dad?' "