Shawna Robinson isn't the first woman to take time off work to have kids and, four years later, discover how hard it is for a 35-year-old mother of two to get back on the career track. She's probably the only race car driver to fall into that category, though. Like every other feel-good family story you read these days, Shawna's begins with a daredevil older brother (in this case, the not-so-aptly named Bland) who jumped semis over street cars on That's Incredible! One of the show's producers was so impressed by Bland that he urged Bland's father, Lefty, who promoted truck races and his son's act at the Iowa State Fairgrounds, to take Bland on the road.
Lefty took the advice and formed a truck-racing circuit in 1980 that barnstormed through the Midwest. Shawna had just graduated from high school in Des Moines, and she decided to tag along for one year, ostensibly to help Lefty with marketing. At their first stop, in Toledo, Lefty dared his daughter to get behind the wheel of one of the giant rigs and turn a few laps. Shawna did and was hooked. She wound up racing that night. (She finished third.)
She moved into stock cars in 1988, and that year she became the first woman to win a NASCAR touring series event—a Dash Series race at Asheville Motor Speedway. But her career leveled off after some Busch Series racing in the early '90s, and by '95 she felt her biological clock ticking. "I was 30, and I wanted to have children," she says. "I didn't know if racing was meant to be. I knew it was what I wanted to do, but being a mom was also important to me."
She and her husband, Jeff Clark, a Winston Cup mechanic who's Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s jack-man, had a son, Tanner, in 1996, and their daughter, Samantha, followed a year later. Soon afterward Robinson began an interior-decorating business, but last year she got a hankering to swap her Suburban for something with a little more giddyap. She persuaded owner James Finch to let her drive his car in the ARCA race in Daytona, and her second-place finish caught the attention of Michael Kranefuss, who co-owns the Winston Cup teams of Jeremy Mayfield and Rusty Wallace. Kranefuss and Mayfield had formed their own ARCA team in 1999, and they picked Robinson to drive for them in 2000.
Her decision to become a real fast mother was a no-brainer. "Racing is part of who I am," she says. "If I became a different person because I had kids, then the kids were not going to know who I was my whole life before them."
Robinson, who is currently fifth in the ARCA points competition, will likely run in five Winston Cup races for Kranefuss next year, and if all goes well, she could race a full schedule in 2002. "If she wants to go Winston Cup racing and wants to make the commitment, which is basically forget the family for a while, I feel like we should go see what we can do," says Kranefuss. A tough decision, for sure, but if Robinson takes that full-season deal, she can at least take solace in one little fact: NASCAR always takes off the second weekend in May, which happens to coincide with Mother's Day.