Algie Ware thought it was a puppy tickling around his legs as he tinkered with his dragsters and show cars.
He was wrong.
“It was Ursula,” he said of his daughter, then 5. “She was always there.”
These days, Ursula Gillespie is one of four African-American women who are licensed drag racers in the United States.
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“I guess the bug bit me,” Gillespie said. “I’ve always been an outdoors person and an extrovert naturally anyway.
“Drag racing fit right into my scheme of things with no problem.”
A 1991 graduate of the N.C. School of Science and Math, Gillespie, 40, of Hillsborough, got a degree in communications from N.C. State University in 1995. She later went to Durham Technical College and currently works as a home-care pediatric nurse.
After college, Gillespie started going with her father to bracket finals events and high-dollar races on tracks across the country – as his crew chief, especially handy at calibrating computerized parts, such as the delay box.
“It wasn’t until later that I wanted to race,” Gillespie said. “I really enjoy doing the behind-the-scenes work as my dad’s crew chief, which I still am today.”
Although family illness has kept Gillespie off the track recently, she will complete this season, which runs from March through September, in her father’s pit. Even so, she’s ready to build on an already-impressive record of wins, and near-wins, since being licensed in 2005 by the International Hot Rod Association.
Gillespie, nicknamed Lil Bear, won her first race in March 2005 at the Piedmont Drag Race. That May, she won the IHRA Pro-Am Tour Gambler’s Race in the 5.70 Quick Rod class, running an eighth of a mile with a .003 reaction time. That September, she won the Dunn-Benson Drag Race. In September 2006, she won the Roxboro Drag Race.
Gillespie’s car is a dragster built by Horton’s Race Cars in South Carolina and owned by Mack McKinnie of Holly Springs. With her father and McKinnie, Gillespie completes the trio of the Carolina Thunder Racing Team.
Being one of only a few African-American women in the sport has its road blocks.
“It’s a challenge just like any other career … where there aren’t that many females and not many black people at all,” Gillespie said. “They definitely tried to play mind games, like, ‘What is she doing out here?’
“You deal with the stereotypes; I’ve heard the N-word a couple of times, too,” she said. “They wanted to throw me off my game, not knowing I am a very strong-willed woman. It doesn’t faze me at all.
“It’s a good feeling at this point down the line that I did break through. I didn’t break down.”
That’s because Gillespie took note of the mind games, shot them back and started beating her opponents. “They made me better, made me stronger,” she said.
Earlier this summer, Jackie Reid invited Gillespie as a surprise guest to the Vacation Bible School she coordinates at St. Ambrose Episcopal Church. She had first met Gillespie three years ago at the State Fairgrounds during a summer camp sign-up.
“When I first met Ursula and saw that race car, you could have knocked me over with a feather,” Reid said. “How many black women do you know who are professional race car drivers? Children need to see you can be a success at what you truly love, whether you’re a man or a woman, black or white.”
Reid’s grandson, Khaliq Reid, 14, was equally impressed.
“She is pretty amazing,” said Khaliq, sophomore at Enloe High School. “There are not a lot of females in that profession, so that makes it even more amazing she’s doing what she does.”
Gillespie also wowed the younger VBS crowd.
“It was really loud,” said Ronni Brockenbrouga, 4. “It was fun! I was covering my ears.”
It’s familiar territory to Lina Edwards, 5. Her dad, Maurice Edwards, owner of N Da Cut, videotapes drag races.
“I like race cars and my daddy likes race cars,” Lina said last week. “I never drive a race car, but I drew my daddy a race car, and I watch race cars on TV with my mommy, daddy, my dog and my pet bird.”
Mom Sonja Cloud Edwards said Gillespie inspired Lina, an Emma Conn Elementary kindergartner, to dream.
“Now, even she wants to drive a drag race car,” she said.
That’s fine by Gillespie.
“I would love to see the legacy of more African-American females infiltrating this male-dominated sport,” she said. “I would love to see them in a race car because I want to see more young black females move on.”