Barbara Frye can drive. She likes mixing it up in the corners with the rough boys Friday nights at Potomac Raceway and she loves cruising the back roads of St. Mary's County in her school bus all week: 92.1 miles a day, nine years without a mishap.

But when the hood comes off for engine adjustments she takes a step back. That's men's work, she maintains.

At the races, Frye drives street-stocker No. 33F (no, F is not for female), and as long as the menfolk give her something to work with she does fine. Last year, her first on the dirt-track scene, she finished 10th of 49 drivers at Potomac and won a trophy.

But let one little thing go wrong. . . .

"She hit the wall a pretty good lick last year," chuckled her husband, George, patting the battered blue replacement fender on her bashed-up '66 Chevelle.

Some wires got caught in the pointy thing from the accelerator, Barbara explained. "I tried to slow down, but it just roared."

The Fryes are about the most cheerful racing team at Potomac, where another 20-week season of automotive beating, banging, roaring and sliding opened April 22 in front of a crowd of happy beer drinkers.

Mom and dad and as many of the four kids as fit cram into the front seat of the Frye truck weekly for the jaunt to the track. Barbara's brother drives at Potomac, too, and this year 17-year-old George Jr. will enter as soon as he gets his car right. He has a rear bumper sticker that says, "Bye, Mom."

Their story is all the more unlikely because 18 months ago there was doubt whether any of the Fryes would feel comfortable behind the wheel again after a horrible wreck on the highway.

"We carried a neighbor boy up to the demolition derby" at Potomac, Barbara Frye recalled. On the way home, the trailer bearing the derby car began fishtailing. It wagged the truck so violently it eventually flung all four passengers--George, George Jr., Barbara and the neighbor--out the passenger-side door and onto the ground.

The truck ended up on George Jr.'s face. His father, the only one conscious, pried it off his son with his bare hands. Barbara broke her back and had a severe concussion. She was paralyzed for a month. George Jr. is still undergoing facial plastic surgery and almost lost a hand, which was severed.

"I was lying there in the hospital bed, thinking, when Georgie came in," Barbara said. "I told him I doubted I would ever drive again, even my school bus. I said, 'It looks like we're going to have to forget about racing.'

"He looked at me and said, 'Oh no, Mom.' He had it all figured out. If he lost his hand, he was going to rig up a hook to drive. That's when I said to myself, 'If that little boy has all that courage, I guess I better pull up my bootstrings and get with it.' "

When Barbara Frye straps herself into the Chevelle's dirty cockpit, her hair is fixed just so, in a flip. Her jeans are creased and spotless, her blouse a crisp oxford. She covers it all with a jaunty white fireproof suit and dons a white full-face helmet. The suit has a few oil spots on it, she says, "no matter how many times I wash it."

"I just keep in the back and try to stay out of trouble," Frye said. "Wait till you see how these guys bust theirselves up, beating and banging in the corners."

True enough. In the feature race opening night Frye's defensive strategy in preliminary heats won her the unenviable right to start 14th on the outside lane in a pack of 20 stockers. Up front good ol' boys with names like Pistol and Vern banged away, whacking quarterpanels and burning valves. By the time it was over, 13 cars were left. In seventh place was unobtrusive Barbara Frye.

Grinning.

"Feels great," she told George Sr.

The Fryes met in the second grade. She became a horse fiend while at Gwynn Park High School in Prince George's County, racing her own horse with a Western saddle and then hopping onto someone else's for the English-style jumping competition. She didn't drive a car until she married.

George took a side job three years ago working security at Potomac and brought Barbara along to watch the races. Her competitive fires were instantly rekindled.

"I knew I could win," she said. "It turned out to be a little harder than I thought."

But slow and steady wins the race. She's shooting for fifth this year.