Carol Henson is a fast car driver, one of the fastest in the country. They call her "Crazy Daisy," but no crazy woman could ever do what she does.
"It requires the most intense concentration I've ever known," said Henson, a real estate accountant supervisor, standing near her sleek red race car in the driveway of her Springfield house.
Her vehicle is known as a "funny car," a carry-over nickname from the old days when street cars were decorated in a funny manner and placed in races. The "funny" car uses alcohol as fuel.
"Funny cars don't allow for incompetence. If you're incompetent, you die," said Henson, who uses for her racing name the nickname given to her by a sports magazine editor.
The first woman to qualify in the National Hot Rod Association alcohol classes, Henson has had one crash in her nearly 10 years of racing. In a night race in Long Island in 1977, one of the tires of her super Camero slipped over the edge of the track and the car rolled over three times, then slammed into the guard rail at 150 mph. "Crazy Daisy" walked away with bruises all over her body and a scratch on her lip. She and her husband, Dennis Whitestone, sold the car, put a down payment on their house, and took a sabbatical from racing.
The sabbatical lasted a few years. Both of them, particularly Henson, missed the sound of rumbling motors and the smell of burning rubber. She is happiest in her "funny" car, zooming around a racetrack at 215 mph in about 6.5 seconds for a quarter mile, her fastest time. Last year she finished eighth in the hot rod association's Division I.
She is one of three women licensed to drive alcohol funny cars, the third fastest cars in drag racing, said Henson. (Faster cars burn other types of fuel.) The cars are actually powered by alcohol fuel called methanol. They earned the name "funny car" from the first races in the '60s, when people took their regular cars and elongated them or constructed them in strange shapes to amuse fans. Although the cars are sleeker and made of paper-thin fiberglass now, the name has stuck.
At most national events, "Crazy Daisy" is one of about four women out of 600 competitors. This year her goal is to win a National Hot Rod Association national event. Her determination was reinforced recently when she was named a Woman of The Year by the Washington Woman magazine.
She is proud of the award, but it is a bittersweet accomplishment. "I wish my father was alive to enjoy this," said Henson, who credits her father with guiding and encouraging her through competitive sports when she was a child.
"I was always a tomboy," said the platinum blond, her voice faltering. "My dad coached a Little League team, and he had me play first base."
She was active in school sports: swimming, basketball and hockey. When the family lived in England, she joined cricket and net ball teams.
Her mother, Carola Stark, said, "We are a sports-minded family, but never in my wildest dreams did I imagine her doing this. I'm proud of her."
Henson's quest for a national championship began in 1966 with an innocent visit to the racetracks with her first husband. Tired of watching, she hopped in her Corvette, entered a race and placed first in her class. "I'm not one to sit and watch people do things," Henson noted.
Now she spends most weekends on the circuit. "It's nothing to be in New Jersey on a Saturday night and in New Hampshire to race all day Sunday, then home just in time to change and go to work," she said.
Sometimes her two daughters, 16-year-old twins, and her 20-year-old son travel with her, but mostly it is just Henson, her husband and the other crew members.
Henson says that itt helps their marriage that she and her husband work together on each race. "It's . . . a total life experience," said Whitestone, who owns an automotive repair shop. "We experience more than just a humdrum life. There's always excitement. Sometimes there are disappointments, but there's a lot to share.
"If it wasn't for the expense of the car, Carol wouldn't have to work," he said, pausing before adding, "but she probably would work anyway. She's an accomplisher."
The monetary rewards are small, said Henson. This year the budget for the car and expenses is $100,000. Some of the money will come in the form of donated parts from sponsors.
For races, Henson dresses in a heavy two-piece fire suit and a padded helmet. "The temperature inside the suit and helmet goes to 120 degrees easily," she explained. "Then, racing isn't very glamorous."
She has 30 races scheduled for this year, and the season is just beginning. There are usually three rounds to each race. You have to win one round to advance to the next. "Crazy Daisy" said she rarely loses a first round and wins 75 percent of the races she enters.
The only sign of discrimination that Henson recalls was long ago when, after qualifying as the first woman driver in her class, she was required to get a "Ladies Driver's Permit," while the men were not required to get anything similar. Her male competitors, she said, "coach me and act like brothers."
At 5-foot-1 and weighing 120 pounds, Henson has a slight handicap compared wity her male competitors because the weight of the driver that helps give the wheels friction. To compensate for her lighter weight, the car was built with 100-pound weights under the seat.
"Racing is about the attainment of perfection," said Henson. "It's not beating the guys that is a thrill. It's beating anybody. It's very self-satisfying. In addition to competing in a race, you're competing against yourself."
On this day, Henson describes in detail the start of a race, that popular time called "burnout," when fans hear cars rev their engines and see them spin their huge tires. She climbs into the cockpit, built especially for her body size, placing one high-heeled foot in the car, then another. She wraps her fingers, with their blood-red fingernails, around the padded steering wheel.
In the middle of the description, she got a far-off look in her eyes and she said, "You're waiting there. Your adrenaline is flowing. You're in there by yourself. You're excited. You hear the sound of the motor. I love it. I just love it."