Though just a little girl (“I’m six feet and she came up to my hip,” said Mike Sprylan) she was fearless. And with the approach of her eighth birthday last week, the minimum age for a junior dragster license set by the Australian National Drag Racing Association, she was as pumped as a kid can get.
A few weeks earlier, she and her sister had taken their cars in for a safety inspection. Their father, Ian Board, proudly posted on his Facebook page a picture of the two of them beaming, Anita with her purple “Pony Power” model and her sister with her blue and black “Night Fury.”
Ian Jenkins, writing on Facebook, remembers the two of them, “both with race cars, and a very proud (although a little nervous) mum in tow coming through the tech shed . . . It was the young ones very first tech inspection. With a twinkle in her eye a very excited young lady enthusiastically showed me everything I asked to see, showing off her new car. . . . She so wanted to drive her car.”
Sprylan, who runs a website for junior dragster enthusiasts in Perth, says the children run through “all sorts of safety things” before they are actually roll down the track. They do a blindfold test, for example, where they have to escape from the car blindfolded. They do a forward roll and a burnout. They start out driving a very short distance on the 1/8th mile racing track and then gradually increase the distance and the speed.
Anita had practiced a few days earlier in a go-kart, her father said in a Facebook post, according to Australian media, and she was ready to roll at the Perth Motorplex on Saturday.
Neither the drag racing association nor the police were able to provide many details about what happened next, such as how fast she was going or how far. But as Anita accelerated, according to a news release from police, “at the end of the run she failed to stop and struck a cement barrier.”
“It is believed,” reported the Daily Herald, that “the junior dragster missed an exit” from the track area as she was “performing 200 meter solo sprints.”
According to the Australian, “Anita was making the first of two solo ‘drive passes’ required to get the license. After driving along a 200 meter length of track she appeared to lose control and smashed into a cement barrier near the exit. No other cars were involved in the accident.”
She was rushed to a hospital but died later Saturday, said a statement emailed to The Washington Post by police. “Police would like to speak to anyone who was at the Motorplex who saw the crash” or might have video of it, the statement said.
Drag racing has been suspended for the time being by the government of Western Australia.
Anita’s father told Australian media he wanted the sport to continue. “The history speaks for itself and sadly this one-in-a-million event happened to us, to our little girl,” according to Australian Broadcasting. “We understand there needs to be a couple of changes but we don’t believe there needs to be major change.”
Roger Cook, acting premier of Western Australia, said he thought it was “extraordinary” that such a young child was allowed to race at speeds up to 60 mph.
” . . . I think it would strike anyone that it’s an extraordinary speed for an eight-year-old to be having the sole control of a vehicle,” he said, according to WAtoday.com. “I’m not an expert in motor sports, I’m certainly not an expert in motor sport safety and so it’s appropriate we wait for the various inquiries to go into this to make sure we get to the bottom of the matter.”
Junior Dragster racing “in Australia was introduced in 1993 following the lead from the USA,” said a statement from the association. “More than 100 children between eight and 17 years of age currently hold” licenses.
The junior dragster program has a following in the U.S., where children can start as young as 5, as well as Australia, the United Kindom and New Zealand, and the appeal is as obvious as its dangers. The races are a big social event for parents and children alike.
The cars are lean and mean and personalized with all kinds of decorations. They look like the real thing, with tachometers, rack and pinion steering, tinted windshields and quick release steering hubs. The smallest cars, based on a look at the website of a company that sells them, are made for the 5-to-7 crowd. Half Scale Dragsters, for example, sells the “Jr. Fueler Junior Dragster” for about $6,000, upgrades available of course.
With a wheelbase of 140 inches and 16 inches wide, it’s smaller than the cars the bigger children drive. An optional Briggs 206 motor is available with 8.8 horsepower. (A midsize go kart engine is about 5 horsepower and will to 20 mph.) Many run on 210-cubic centimeter engines, about the power of this Yamaha bike.
No worldwide data was immediately available on the number of accidents in these dragsters resulting in personal injury. But a driver who loses control at any speed, much less 60 mph, is taking a considerable risk. As this 2008 video shows, the cars can spin around and smash into protective barriers.
No information was immediately available on the power of the car Anita Board was driving Saturday.
Her death produced an outpouring of condolences from junior dragster enthusiasts across the world, particularly from members of racing teams.
“8 years of age and you’ve been taken away,” said a fellow racer on the Facebook page of Girls Torque Motor Sports. “I may not know you but there’s not many girls that are brave enough to race cars, so when we do we stick together. I’ll be racing for you on the 2nd of December”
The sympathy was accompanied in some quarters by bewilderment.
Junior dragster cars with top speed of 96km per hour driven by 8 year old... ??? How is this even a thing??? That’s basically the same speed as the top legal speed allowed for cars on highways and we don’t let people get a license until they’re 17 for the road. Just unbelievable— Dave (@davey0511) November 12, 2017
“Not much to say,” wrote Anita’s father, responding to heartbroken messages on Facebook. “But hug your littles tight. Remind them that you love them. We will need the love and support in the days weeks months ahead. We know the racing family are the best bunch ever,” he wrote. “It’s the reason why our girls fell in love with the sport . . . the wonderful people not just the driving.”
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