Living life an eighth of a mile at a time

Crew chief Brian Woodward, left, works with his daughter and driver Payton Woodward last Saturday at Hypoxia Dragway. Payton credits her father with instilling in her a love of racing at a young age. (HERALD PHOTO/Don Cogger)

Settling in behind the wheel of the family’s 632 big-block Chevy dragster for her first full pass four years ago, Payton Woodward — then just 14 years old — knew there were doubts among the regulars at Hypoxia Dragway as to whether she was ready.

Sure, she’d been a fixture on the track since she was old enough to reach the pedals — but there’s a monumental difference between the junior dragster Woodward cut her teeth on and the methanol-fueled dragon she was now attempting to slay.

“A lot of people at the track were iffy on it — they weren’t too sure I could handle it,” Woodward said. “It’s a lot of power. To step into that at 14 was a big test of what I was capable of.”

Woodward’s dad Brian agreed.

“There were many people — including one of the principals at the track — that thought a 14-year-old girl in a 1,000 horsepower dragster was probably inappropriate,” he recalled. “When she got ready to make her first full pass, he came over and stood by me at the starting line.”

The skeptics nearly saw their worst fears realized, when on her first pass, Woodward’s car got loose. A car from the race before had left some water on the track, unbeknownst to driver and crew chief.

“The first pass I made in it, I actually got sideways, because there was some water on the track,” she said. “I got sideways, but I got it under control. Then it shot a hard left again, and I got it under control again. I got back, and they said, ‘Yep, she’s fine, she knows how to handle a car.’”

Back at the starting line, Brian Woodward said his daughter made a believer of everyone watching.

“This old boy that was standing next to me turned and said, ‘I’ve seen people race for 30 years that couldn’t have done that any better. I’m not concerned anymore about whether she can handle this car.’”

Fast-forward four years, and Woodward — now 18 and a recent graduate of Evanston High School — has set and broken the Hypoxia track record several times since that hair-raising first run, and shows no sign of slowing down.

“It’s what I love to do,” she said. “I can’t imagine doing anything else.”

An early start

Racing has been a family affair for the Woodwards for as long as Payton can remember — her father Brian and mother Mardi are accomplished drivers in their own right, and built the Hypoxia Dragway in 2006 to fuel their hobby. Woodward grew up around the track, and a love of racing was instilled early.

“Being around cars just opened up this girl’s personality,” Brian Woodward said of his daughter. “It brought something new out in her. It gave her a sense of freedom, and I could see that in her, even back then.”

As a 6-year-old, Payton took her first ride in her dad’s highboy truck that he’d turned into a race truck. The elder Woodward said he knew from that moment that his daughter had a need for speed.

“We helmeted her all up, and strapped her in the five-points harness,” he recalled, laughing. “We went out and made a pass in that truck — the look on her face was absolute glee, it was rapturous. She was in her element.”

“I instantly fell in love,” Payton agreed.

When she was old enough to reach the pedals, Woodward’s dad tracked down her first ride, a junior dragster with a five-horsepower, single-cylinder engine. As her confidence behind the wheel grew, her times began to fall — she was soon clocking in under eight seconds for an eighth of a mile and hitting speeds of 80 MPH.

“It was a fast little rig,” Brian Woodward said. “After a while, she was really showing some skill — she was so aggressive, she would red light at first on her starts. When we got that worked out, everything began to click.”

As Woodward’s confidence in the little dragster grew, other drivers at the track began to take notice, especially the ones she began to beat. Soon she was accepted as just another racer, complete with a flair for good-natured trash talk.

“One day, I was over talking to one of the other racers in another pit — Payton had raced an adult on a motorcycle and beat him,” Brian Woodward said. “I went over to talk to him, and he told me, ‘The thing about getting beat by Payton is you get beat twice.’ I asked him how so, and he said, ‘Once on the track, and once when she comes over to your pit to remind you.’ And that’s when I realized that at 11 years old, she was one of the guys.”

Woodward’s parents invested in the full-size dragster a few years later, though she wasn’t able to make the jump until she had a driver’s license.

“We happened to come across the car that I have now — I was still pretty young, so my dad got it for him and my mom,” she explained. “When you have a state-issued driver’s license, you can race a full-size car, so I had to wait a few years.”

Woodward got her hardship license at 14, and immediately moved into the full-size dragster. She broke the track record that same year, and began racing at tracks around the region, turning in her best pass to date at a track in Idaho.

“I continued to drive the bigger car, and we continued to fine-tune it, make it faster and faster,” she said. “My dad took me to the Idaho Falls racetrack, just because they have better air up there — my car would perform a lot better. I ended up running my best pass ever, which was a 4.69 at 153 MPH.”

Overcoming adversity

As Woodward transitioned into high school, she continued to race — though a medical condition that had gone previously undiagnosed threatened to change the trajectory of her career.

“I was in middle school, and I would always have these weird injuries,” she explained. “My knees would randomly dislocate, or my ankles would hurt all the time. It was super-weird.”

Woodward began suffering chronic back pain as well, and decided to consult a local chiropractor.

“I was on the table, and he said ‘You have a pretty big curve in your spine. Have you always known you have scoliosis?’” she said. “And I was like, ‘What? What are you talking about?’”

An X-ray confirmed the chiropractor’s fears — Woodward was diagnosed with idiopathic lumbar scoliosis, the most common type of scoliosis, according to the Boston Children’s Hospital’s website.

“I ended up going to Primary Children’s Hospital and a few other hospitals, just to see what they could do about it,” she said. “I have a 36 degree curve, so there wasn’t anything they could do. It’s not the worst thing that could happen, but I’ve definitely been humbled by it.”

Woodward was unable to participate in sports in school due to her condition, so she found other ways to stay involved — that included a four-year stint as team statistician for the Red Devils wrestling program.

“I tried to do volleyball, but it just hurt, so I had to give that up and any other hope of doing any other sport,” she said. “So that’s kind of where drag racing came in — it’s been my saving grace.”

Woodward maintains a positive outlook, despite her condition — as any competitor would, she uses it to fuel her desire to constantly improve.

“I can’t do surgery, and I can’t do a brace — I’m kind of stuck with it,” she said. “I don’t really have any other choice than to learn how to live with it.”

Home track advantage

Hypoxia held its first event of the season in June, and with COVID-19 closing down many of the tracks in the region, the turnout was insane.

“We were packed,” Woodward said. “All the tracks in Utah are shut down, and everyone is itching to race. So when they found out we were open, they came here. We were running out of room to park people.”

Last weekend’s July event proved just as popular, though air quality wasn’t conducive to record-breaking times. Woodward ran five passes on the day, averaging around 4.8 seconds a pass and 142 MPH.

The Woodwards opened the track in 2006 — Woodward said she and her sisters Addi and Remi can’t remember a time when they weren’t at the track.

“It’s been our thing,” she said. “We aren’t one of those families that goes camping every weekend — we drag race. My younger sister [Remi Woodword] is 11, and she just got a drag bike. She started by racing dirt bikes, and she was enjoying it, so my dad decided to get her a bike. She wasn’t super-interested in the dragster — she’s more into the two wheels, which is cool. This season is her first on that bike.”

Woodward currently holds the track record with a time of 4.711 seconds with a top speed of 145.3 MPH. Asked what she enjoys the most about racing, Woodward said smashing stereotypes about female drivers tops the list.

“For me, obviously the thrill and adrenaline is amazing,” she said. “But the fact that I am a female — it’s a male-dominated sport, though there are quite a few female drivers. Being able to show that I’m capable of doing that is something I enjoy. Being different from everyone at the high school, that was really cool for me.”

For his part, Brian Woodward said the dichotomy that exists between being a crew chief and a proud dad has been an interesting one.

“As a dad, I couldn’t be more proud of the skills she’s developed, her aggressive nature, her will to win,” he said. “From a crew chief standpoint, I have an awesome driver. When we get out there on race day, the dad in me kind of takes a back seat. If she makes a mistake, I get on her about it. And she does the same with me. It’s driver-crew chief on race day.”

Racing toward the future

A 2020 graduate of EHS, Woodward plans to attend Northwest College in Powell in the fall, with an eye toward becoming an anesthesiologist. She also plans to make the six-hour trek back to Evanston on the weekends to continue racing, though making the jump to drag racing’s next level will be difficult.

“Eventually, I’d like to get my professional drag racing license and move into a bigger car,” she said. “Maybe race for NHRA someday.”

Brian Woodward said a lot would have to go right for his daughter to go pro, simply because of the ongoing financial expenses associated with the sport.

“We’re just country people — we don’t have that kind of money or connections to get her into the seat of a pro car,” he explained. “On top of that, she’s taking off to college. But if we can get the stars to line up right, we have designs on getting her into an “A” fuel car — an unblown top fuel car — which would be a stepping stone to driving a pro car. The reality of it would be very difficult. But there’s always hope.”

To that end, Woodward said she’ll continue to race every chance she gets — it’s in her blood.

“It comes naturally to me, it feels like,” she said. “It’s not something I’ve ever had to practice — I just know. Part of it is starting as young as I did, and my dad is a great teacher. And here [at Hypoxia Dragway], there’s no money, there’s no trophies — just bragging rights.”

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