Hot Rod Heroine
Leigha Miller is a teenage drag-racing champ.
Miller, 14, says "you have a better chance of falling off a skateboard and cracking your head open than you do getting any injury drag racing."
The fine art of drag racing usually conjures up images of burly dudes with motor oil running through their veins nicknamed “The Snake” and “Big Daddy.” No doubt the upper echelon of the sport is a testosterone filled, high-octane thrill ride most of the time, but at the junior level, going against type, one of the current champs is none other than Leigha Miller. An unassuming 14-year-old of the female persuasion, she is as sweet as can be off the track, but behind the wheel, Miller takes no prisoners. Racing at speeds of up to 85 miles per hour, she was recently crowned the National Hot Rod Association’s 13- to 14-year-old age group Pacific division champ. Miller started her career as a crewmember on older sister Mychele’s ride and moved up to driving with a little encouragement from her dad, Dean. I caught up with possibly the most wholesome drag racer the world has ever known recently as she prepared to step up to the sport’s 14- to 21-year-old division.
Paul Kilduff: How did you decide you wanted to become a drag racer?
Leigha Miller: Well, my dad wanted me to start doing it, and I had absolutely no interest in it, because I was really scared of it. I just liked being behind the scenes. One day I came home from school, and I was sitting on the couch, and I went outside, because my dad was home, and there was a car sitting in the driveway for me with my name on it. I told my dad that he wasted his money. I was 8 years old at the time. I told him, “I will never ever drive it,” and that he should just go return it. Then he said, “OK, well, how about you just sit in it?” I said, “No.” Finally, I agreed to sit in it. It was kind of boring though, just sitting, so he asked if I wanted to roll down the driveway in it, so I agreed. We have four-wheelers at our house, so I already had prior experience driving. So I rolled down the driveway, and it was really fun, and we did that a couple of times, and that was it. Then one day, he started it with me in it, and I thought it was going to be really scary, but it wasn’t. Then he asked if I wanted to go down the track in it in Sacramento where my home track is. I agreed. I think I have the record for the slowest time anyone has gone down the track, and that is 63 seconds.
PK: Were you hooked after that experience?
LM: I was still pretty unsteady about it, but the more times I went down the track, the more confident I felt.
PK: I understand you did crash when you started out. Tell me about that.
LM: Yeah. There’s different age groups of racing, and each class that you get into goes a little bit faster, and the jump from 6- to 9-year-olds to 10- to 12-year-olds is the biggest change in speed. It’s four seconds, which is about 30 miles per hour, which was a lot. Forty-eight miles an hour to 73 miles per hour. What happened was I was going down the track, and I felt the car leaning towards one side, but in reality it wasn’t. It was just because the shocks were offset. I was trying to correct it, because I felt myself going from side to side, not being used to the shocks, and I overcorrected. I flipped and did two barrel rolls into the other lane and slid on my side into the finish line.
LM: My dad was scared, and he ran down the track as quick as possible, but he said that he remembered me turning my car off. I knew I wasn’t supposed to get out of the car. I just stayed inside and waited. I was completely fine. My dad said that when he heard me turn my car off, it was sign that I was OK.
PK: Have you always been a speed demon?
LM: No, I’ve always been really scared of speed. I never went on roller coasters. I didn’t ride my bike early as a kid. I don’t even feel fast when I’m driving in my car. I don’t feel the vibration when I’m going. I just notice that the world around me is moving.
PK: It sounds like you feel very safe in your dragster.
LM: Yeah, because I have a lot of gear. I also have a lot of experience with it. I never really think about the safety issue, because I know that isn’t an issue. Racing has also helped me overcome scary things in my life, because I tell myself, “If I can drive a race car at 85 miles per hour, then I can do this.”
PK: Can you give me an example of this?
LM: When I went on a roller coaster for the first time when I was 10 at Disneyland before a race.
PK: Are you just one of the—forgive me—one of the guys? How do the mostly boys you face racing treat you?
LM: Of course, we always want to beat each other, but after the race, we play basketball or volleyball, or we’ll find an activity to all play together. We always shake hands, and we’re always good sports after races. I probably see them more than I see some family members.
PK: Do adults ever come up to you and say, “What’s a nice eighth-grade girl like you doing drag racing?”
LM: No, I mostly just get that it’s really cool. You have a better chance of falling off a skateboard and cracking your head open than you do getting any injury drag racing.
PK: What’s amazing about your drag racing to me is you’re still too young to drive a car on the street.
PK: You don’t even have a driver’s license, and you’re doing this.
LM: I have a special license. You have to get a physical every two years and a notary. I don’t even know what that is, though.
PK: You can’t just show up at the races and say, “Hey, I want my daughter to get in on this. We’ve got winners.”
LM: No, you have to go through a tech inspection where you show the license to one of the race officials.
PK: Are you sponsored?
LM: No. There are some racers that are sponsored by oil companies.
PK: What motivates you to be a champ?
LM: I wanted to travel. I didn’t want to just race in Sacramento. In order to do that, my dad said I had to be in the top five, and I thought about it. I said, “The only way I can see my friend Nina in Arizona is if I’m in the top five.” I got to see her like a week and a half, if you added up all of the days together, over the summer.
Leigha Miller Vital Stats
Age: 14 | Astrological sign: Sagittarius
Book on nightstand: The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane by Kate DiCamillo
Motto: YOLO: “You Only Live Once.”
Office: Student body president of Stone Valley Middle School in Alamo
Chores: Keeping common areas of the house picked up, feeding the dog, emptying the dishwasher, and taking out the trash.
This report appears in the February edition of our sister publication, The East Bay Monthly.
Published online on Feb. 22, 2017 at 8:00 a.m.