There are two types of girl to be found around American auto racetracks, says Sylvia Wilkinson, who wrote this week's account of the Chimney Rock Hillclimb, To Be King of the Mountain (page 84). The first variety is the walking girl, whom Sylvia identifies as one who parades around the paddock wearing a white jump suit or leather bikini, her hair whipped and shellacked into a rigid fluff and her midriff emblazoned with a ribbon proclaiming her Miss Firebird-Tubeless-Tire-Golden-Gearshift beauty queen. "The other kind is the working girl," Sylvia says. "She dresses in jeans or coveralls, ties her hair back with a bandana and spends most of her time scrambling around the ground looking for a six-inch extension on a speed handle for the guy under the car. I'm a working girl."
In a way, Sylvia Wilkinson came to her twin callings as mechanical working girl and selling author simultaneously. It was when she was only 6 years old, and a Durham. N.C. toy store advertised a poetry contest, which Sylvia entered and won. The prize was a talking doll that Sylvia, upon receipt, promptly took apart to see how it worked. This fascination with machines—and more particularly machines with four wheels and racing slicks has been with her ever since.
So has her ability 10 write. When she was 12 she completed the first draft of a novel which, after 11 rewrites, became the well-received Moss on the North Side ("...a work of high quality"—The New York Times). She followed up with A Killing Frost, written during a year at Stanford's graduate school, which won the Sir Walter Raleigh award, North Carolina's top fiction prize. Her third novel, Cale, came out last fall.
Sylvia's first automotive love was a Model A named Bessie, which she and her brother rebuilt in their garage when she was only 14. She drove Bessie through high school and college, then bought a '58 MGA and a Morgan whose wooden frame succumbed to termites at about 100,000 miles. Simultaneously, Sylvia succumbed to what she calls her "sports car disease," an infection serious enough that she even enrolled in a race-driving school. She gave up after one session when her oversized crash helmet kept falling in her eyes and her doors kept opening on hairpin-turn exercises. "On top of everything else, I had the flu," she said, "so I decided I'd better stay a spectator."
And now, whenever she can break away from her duties as a PR consultant and novelist, she is to be found around the pits at places like Daytona, Sebring and Road Atlanta, last summer she helped Owner Pete Feistmann prepare the car that Skip Barker drove to win the SCCA Formula Ford national championship.
Curiously (and unfortunately for racing bulls), she has never written a book about race driving, but she would like to. "Most of the books on the sport make drivers into racing monsters. Can you imagine Jackie Stewart sabotaging someone's engine?"
No. But then we can't imagine Sylvia Wilkinson as a racetrack tire monkey, either.