Photos provided by Harli White

10 years after being severely burned, sprint car racer set for best opportunity of career

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Nearly 10 years after being severely burned and almost killed in her first sprint car race, Harli White is feeling more alive than ever.

And now, at 22 years old, her racing career is flourishing.

The Lindsay, Oklahoma native, who began riding motorcycles at the age of six, was 12 years old when she competed in her first race ever. It was a USAC Mini Sprint Restricted Class event on April 5, 2008 at I-44 Riverside Speedway in Oklahoma City.

It ultimately could have been her last race, too.

Harli still has the burned firesuit from her 2008 near-fatal accident.

Her sprint car flipped and landed on its side, erupting in flames and trapping White, who could not get her belts released. Fellow racer Donnie Ray Crawford, who was competing in the following race, ran from the pits and managed to get White out of her car, but not before she suffered serious third- and fourth-degree burns over nearly half of her body.

“Donnie Ray Crawford is the reason I’m here today,” White told MotorSportsTalk in an exclusive interview. “He’s the one that pulled me from the burning car, and if it wasn’t for his quick reaction I wouldn’t be here today. He’s truly my hero.”

Following the accident, White was in intensive care for 21 days at Shriner’s Hospital for Children in Galveston, Texas, and underwent three skin graph surgeries, followed by six months of recovery, therapy and healing.

Since that fateful day, White has endured another 20 reconstruction surgeries.

“My injuries were a lot worse than I thought they were going to be,” Harli said. “I remember when the accident happened that I felt fine and I was ready to go back to racing but it was way worse than that.

“My injuries were on 45 percent of my body – deep third- and fourth-degree burns. The burns start at the back of my neck and go do down to my ankles, all on the backside, a little on the left side of my face as well.”

After her first surgery at Shriner’s Hospital, the first thing Harli did was tell her parents she intended to race again, something that obviously didn’t go over very well.

Harli White and her family during her recovery after her 2008 accident.

“Coming out of surgery, first thing she said was ‘how’s my car, can we fix it?’” recalled mother Michelle White. “I was totally against her racing again.

“There was no way it was going to happen. I told my husband to get rid of her equipment. When she brought it up, we would just change the subject.”

Then about nine months after her wreck, Harli gave her parents the most compelling reason to allow her to get back in a race car.

Said Michelle, “One day we were talking and she says to us, ‘You know what? I went through this accident, I’m the one who’s been through the pain. I’ve worked hard to recover. If you don’t let me race, I’m dead anyway.’ As a parent what can you say to that?”

Added Harli, “Giving up racing was never a thought in my mind. From the time the accident occurred, I was ready to get back in the race car and go again. Every day during that time I begged (her parents) to let me race again. I wasn’t going to take no for an answer.”

Her parents reluctantly agreed to Harli’s wishes. And there was no other place she wanted to return to race for the first time since her accident than the same track and the same racing class nearly one year later.

She wasn’t going to let that track beat her – and her racing career has flourished ever since.

Among highlights of her career since then:

* In 2017, she became just the third woman in history to drive a full season in the Lucas Oil American Sprint Car Series. She plans on running another full campaign this season.

* In 2013 she won the Oil Capital Racing Series Non-wing and Winged Sprint Car championship.

* White is the only female racer in modern history to reach the B Main at the Chili Bowl in 2016. Bev Griffis made the B in 1989, but the field consisted of just 80 cars at the time, compared to in excess of 340 in 2016.

* In this year’s Chili Bowl, she advanced to the D Main.

* She’s continued to run a small family-owned team (Harli White Racing) and this year landed her first major sponsor. She is running the CatSpotLitter.com Sprint Car in the Lucas Oil ASCS National Tour Series in a 360 Winged Sprint Car.

In addition to racing and due largely in part to all that she’s gone through in her life, White has also become an in-demand public speaker off the racetrack. She offers a message of spirit, perseverance and keeping the faith that obstacles can be overcome.

“I enjoy public speaking very much,” she said. “I do it as often as my race schedule allows. I typically speak to schools, churches and youth groups.

“I also like speaking to safety events that pertain to racing as well. I love sharing my story and hopefully move people and try and make racing as safe as possible.”

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This weekend, White will experience the biggest opportunity of her career.

White will compete in the “Shamrock Classic,” the USAC P1 Insurance Midget National Championship season opener Saturday in DuQuoin, Illinois. She’ll run the SiriusXM Toyota for Keith Kunz Motorsports, the most dominant and successful team in Midget racing.

KKM has helped launch the racing careers of numerous drivers, most notably NASCAR stars Kyle Larson and Christopher Bell and two-time Chili Bowl winner Rico Abreu.

Harli hopes to have a lot more celebrations like this, perhaps even this weekend in DuQuoin, Illinois.

At this point, it’s a one-off deal for White, who will be filling in for Holly Shelton, who is recovering from recent shoulder surgery. Yet at the same time, it could potentially become a life- and career-changing race if White does well.

“Getting to run for Keith Kunz Motorsports and Toyota is the biggest opportunity in my career thus far,” White said. “It’s an opportunity that I have been working for, for a very long time.

“Even though it is currently just one race, it is for sure one of the biggest races for me because it is with the best team in midget racing. I am honored to be able to work with KKM and Toyota, and I hope more opportunities will come after the Shamrock Classic.”

Because she is a veteran dirt racer, it’s not like she’ll be coming in cold to Saturday’s race. In fact, with her talent and KKM’s equipment, she is positioned to do very well.

“I know as a driver the car will be the best it can be and it will be up to me to wheel the car and I know I am capable of doing so,” she said. “The pill draw (where you start your heat race from) is pretty important this weekend and I am hoping it works in my favor, but as a driver I have to race my race. I am looking for a good finish and just to be working with the whole KKM crew.”

White hopes to open enough eyes Saturday that could lead to a full-time ride with a top team, perhaps even KKM if the opportunity arises.

And while she loves sprint racing, Harli isn’t ruling out running in NASCAR or other series. The key, she says, to make her happy would be just to make a living at racing.

“My goal in racing is to be racing everywhere and anywhere,” White said. “As long as I can keep racing for a living, that is the ultimate dream.”

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F1 Preview – 2018 French Grand Prix

Photo: Getty Images
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It’s hard to believe that the French Grand Prix, the oldest grand prix event on the planet, as it dates back to June of 1906, was ever removed from the Formula 1 calendar.

Alas, not since 2008 at Magny-Cours has Formula 1 held a race on French soil. Yet, that all changes this weekend, as Formula 1 visits the Circuit Paul Ricard for its first French race in a decade.

Formula 1 teams are not strangers to Paul Ricard. It has been a popular testing facility for years, as evidenced by the below photo from 2016, featuring Sebastian Vettel and Ferrari in a wet tire test.

LE CASTELLET, FRANCE – JANUARY 26: Sebastian Vettel of Germany and Scuderia Ferrari drives during wet weather tire testing at Circuit Paul Ricard on January 26, 2016 in Le Castellet, France. (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)

However, in terms of racing, Paul Ricard has also been absent from the calendar for quite a long time – the last time Formula 1 race at Paul Ricard was in 1990. Alain Prost won for Ferrari that day.

1990: Alain Prost of France punches the air in celebration after passing the chequered flag in his Scuderia Ferrari to win the French Grand Prix at the Paul Ricard circuit in Le Beausset, France. Mandatory Credit: Pascal Rondeau/Allsport

As such, despite being a known quantity as a testing facility, how a race weekend will shake out is anybody’s guess.

And what’s more, it marks the beginning of three consecutive race weekends – The French Grand Prix, The Austrian Grand Prix, and The British Grand Prix – which F1 teams and drivers are calling “the triple header.”

Talking points ahead of the French Grand Prix are below.

A Journey Into the Unknown?

Like all new venues, or resurrected and refurbished ones in this case, the Circuit Paul Ricard represents somewhat of an unknown, as there’s no available race data to make predictions off of.

And the 3.61-mile, 15-turn track itself represents a range of challenges. It has fast corners, like Turns 1 and 2 (S de la Verrerie), a technical section between Turns 3 and 7 (Virage de l’Hotel through the Mistral Straight Start), and a 1.1-mile straightaway in the Mistral Straight, though it is separated by a chicane (Turns 8 and 9).

Mercedes team principal Toto Wolff discussed the challenge of the circuit, highlighting the lack of data to build off of as well the tough three-race stretch ahead as especially challenging, in a preview on Formula 1’s website.

“France should be an interesting race. We don’t often get to race on a track where we have little to no historical data. It makes preparing for the weekend a bit trickier than usual, but that element of the unknown also adds to the challenge. The French Grand Prix marks the first race of the triple header, which will test all F1 teams to their limits, but also offers the chance to score a lot of points over the course of three weeks – which is precisely what we’re setting out to do,” said Wolff.

That element of the unknown makes Paul Ricard one of the biggest wildcards on the 2018 F1 calendar, and a championship shake up could be in the cards as a result.

Ferrari, Mercedes Continue Their Back and Forth

MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA – MARCH 25: Sebastian Vettel of Germany driving the (5) Scuderia Ferrari SF71H leads Lewis Hamilton of Great Britain driving the (44) Mercedes AMG Petronas F1 Team Mercedes WO9 on track during the Australian Formula One Grand Prix at Albert Park on March 25, 2018 in Melbourne, Australia. (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)

Ferrari and Mercedes have traded jabs throughout the 2018 season, with neither able to pull away from the other so far through seven races.

Sebastian Vettel enters the French Grand Prix with a one-point lead over Lewis Hamilton, and holds a slight edge in victories – three to Hamilton’s two – and comes off a thorough domination of the Canadian Grand Prix.

Vettel led every lap at the Circuit Gilles Villeneuve on his way to victory, while Valtteri Bottas had to carry the Mercedes flag in finishing second. Hamilton languished in fifth, a surprising and disappointing result given his previous success there.

The aforementioned Toto Wolff described it as a “wake up call,” though Mercedes will roll out a power unit upgrade this weekend – Ferrari and Renault, which also powers Red Bull Racing, rolled out upgrades of their own in Canada.

With four long straightaways present at Paul Ricard, power will certainly be at a premium, so such upgrades will be vital in giving Mercedes a chance to make amends after Canada’s disappointment.

Trio of French Drivers Look to Impress on Home Soil

It comes hardly as a surprise that the three French drivers – Romain Grosjean, Pierre Gasly, and Esteban Ocon – are keen to make an impression at their home race.

And all three could certainly use a boost. Gasly has only one finish inside the points (seventh in the Monaco Grand Prix) since his stellar fourth place effort in the Bahrain Grand Prix. Ocon is coming off back-to-back points finishes (sixth in Monaco, ninth in Canada), but he has only one other finish inside the points this year (tenth, in Bahrain). And Grosjean, despite showing the speed to finish in the points, is yet to score any in 2018.

As such, all three are hoping for big things in their home race this weekend.

“I want to get a good weekend, have some luck, get my first points of the season, and get a lot of support from the fans,” said Grosjean. “I think we should be in a nice place at Paul Ricard. I’m always looking forward to jumping back in the car. I just love driving an F1 car.”

Ocon, who has raced and won at Paul Ricard in the past, expects his prior experience could be a big help.

“I did race at Paul Ricard early in my career – it was actually where I had my first victory in single seaters in 2013 so I have some fantastic memories of the place,” Ocon described. “I hope we can add some more success this weekend. Having been there in the junior categories makes getting used to a new track in a Formula One car much easier. I think I will find my rhythm quite quickly.”

Gasly’s excitement level obviously matches that of his French compatriots, with the added bonus that the return coincides with his rookie F1 effort.

“For me it will be absolutely incredible that my first full season of Formula 1 coincides with the return of a French Grand Prix to the calendar for the first time in 10 years,” said Gasly. “That has to be a reason for me to be very happy and I’m really excited to be racing in my home country. I can tell it will be a special feeling going out on track and actually, I have spoken to Jean Alesi and Alain Prost about it and they both told me that it will feel really special and something that you really have to experience as a Frenchman racing in France.”

Qualifying for The French Grand Prix begins at 9:55 a.m. ET on Saturday, with Sunday’s race at 9:30 a.m. ET.

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