On the fast track: Wisconsin woman working her way up stock-car ladder

On the surface, Kelsey Bauer seems to have it all. She’s a talented and emerging stock-car driver, she has an undying competitive streak, she’s intelligent and it doesn’t hurt her cause that she has a winning smile.

Even a D student in the nation’s worst marketing program would have a hard time botching the presentation of the total package that is Bauer.

Problem is, the Elkhart Lake resident does not have it all. She needs major sponsors, the kind of five-, six- and seven-figure money that will fuel her career more than will a truckload of trophies, a soon-in-hand mechanical engineering degree and her pearly whites.

The 2007 Howards Grove High School graduate, who lettered in four sports, has attracted some sponsorship money from good, local companies that believe in her potential and have backed to the hilt her three-year-old, late-model driving career.

But at some point, if Bauer really does have aspirations of one day burning rubber alongside the greats of the NASCAR circuit, sponsorships from deep-pocketed corporations and slick marketing will be paramount.

“Money is a big issue,” said Bauer, 21. “A lot of companies don’t sponsor due to the fact it’s an individual sport. Then they feel they would have to do it for everybody. It’s sad to see that because there are so many talented drivers, but they can’t do that because of the lack of money.”

As it is, even on the late-model circuit, bills pile high quickly. Bauer said a racing suit costs $1,200, a HANS device (which stands for “head and neck support”) costs $1,000, a helmet is $800, shoes are $300 and tires cost $400 each week for a new set. By comparison, the associated costs of racing in even one NASCAR event can be astronomical, she said.

“I’d like to get as far as I can,” Bauer said. “NASCAR is a big step. It was a big change to go from go-karting to late-model.”

In the meantime, all she can do is continue to perform well on the track and hope that opportunities arise. A former world go-kart champion, Bauer posted two top-five finishes in just four races at Columbus 151 Speedway last season. At Slinger Speedway, she qualified sixth last July.

“I’ve always been this way. I grew up as kind of a tomboy,” said Bauer. “Nothing ever bothered me when it came to speed. When you’re on the track, you don’t realize the crowd is there. You are focused, in the zone.”

This season, which is just getting under way for her because she recently completed her junior year at UW-Milwaukee, Bauer won a late-model heat at Columbus on May 2 and posted the fastest time in the feature at Slinger on May 16.

With two laps to go at Slinger, her car slid into the wall and she finished 10th. In 2007 at Slinger, she got her right arm caught in the steering wheel and broke her right, dominant wrist.

“I’m still working on getting over the fear at that track,” Bauer said. “It has the most banking (of any track in Wisconsin).”

In a recent interview, her mother, Donna, sat next to her daughter and talked of Kelsey’s strength and about the dangers of driving.

“Kelsey, as far back as I can remember, her competitive nature has gotten her success,” Donna Bauer said. “Yes, I’ve been nervous. She’s had a couple friends die. But late-model is safer (than go-karting), so I feel a little bit better. But it’s also faster.”

Her mother recalled a revelatory quote that Kelsey wrote for school in the fourth grade.

“It read, “The only time success comes before work is in the dictionary,’ “ Donna Bauer said. “And she has lived by that quote.”

“Lyn St. James was very determined,” says Kelsey Bauer. “She’s done a lot for the sport. More women are getting into racing, actually. I think in a few years, they will have a female in NASCAR full time.”
“Lyn St. James was very determined,” says Kelsey Bauer. “She’s done a lot for the sport. More women are getting into racing, actually. I think in a few years, they will have a female in NASCAR full time.”

The driver’s introduction to speed and the craft of racing was, like many things in life, accidental. Her father, Rick, who once raced snowmobiles in Eagle River, thought it would be fun to rent go-karts and see if his youngest daughter enjoyed it.

“She was kind of more an outdoors, tomboy type than the other two daughters,” said Rick Bauer. “We went on a vacation up North and we decided to race go-karts and it got to the point whee we couldn’t catch her. I was the only one who could get close to catching her. So we bought a go-kart and kind of started from there. That first half a season, she won three races, which we were impressed with.”

Bauer began her go-kart career in 2001 and, almost immediately, hauled in hardware: national champion, world champion, driver of the year, enduro driver of the year — all by age 17. Few titles eluded her.

At 18, she graduated to the late-model circuit, in which one of her idols, the late Alan Kulwicki, started his career decades ago. Bauer, who has a 3.2 grade point average in a challenging major, won the Alan Kulwicki Memorial Scholarship, worth $8,000, this month at UWM.

Her school year now complete, Bauer has an engineering internship at Bemis, where her mother works, and is able to spend more time in the garage and on the track.

The 5-foot-3 Bauer, who said she knows of only one other woman driving late-model cars in Wisconsin, said the men who race at Slinger and Columbus, many dyed-in-the-wool and 20 years her senior, give her respect, the same kind one of her other idols, Lyn St. James, earned in a long driving career.

“Lyn St. James was very determined,” Bauer said. “She’s done a lot for the sport. More women are getting into racing, actually. I think in a few years, they will have a female in NASCAR full time.”

Maybe it will be Bauer, but only if sponsorship, marketing and a few breaks fall into place. She could get one of those breaks soon. This summer, she plans to apply for NASCAR’s Drive for Diversity program, which encourages women and minorities to pursue racing careers.

“You apply, go to North Carolina to test, work on the car,” Bauer said. “They look at your entire racing career, if you’re marketable.”

As for this summer, she will continue to drive for Ratajczyk Racing and her crew chief, boyfriend Travis Dassow, and plans to add Wisconsin Dells to her racing schedule. As for marketing — and tomorrow?

“What Danica (Patrick) did was photo shoots,” Bauer said the driver racing part time in the NASCAR Nationwide Series this season. “Just to get your name out there, and then people can see who you are.”

(Published in The Sheboygan Press, 2010)