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Rising star

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Morgan Turpen holds her own in national racing series

By Greg Summers

Eighteen-year-old Morgan “Hot Shoe” Turpen has lofty dreams.

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They include earning an education degree from the University of Memphis and becoming a teacher and high school softball coach and possibly, one day, a principal.

But should that plan go awry, the Cordova, Tenn., native does have a back-up.

For now, she has a 1,300-pound winged sprint car with a 360-cubic, 700-horsepower engine and a pair of racing gloves to fall back on. Later on, if she continues to grow and develop, that could mean NASCAR. 

If it does, fine. If not, Turpen isn’t worried. Right now, she is having fun.

In only her second year of competition, the former softball shortstop is making a name for herself on the United Sprint Car Series (USCS) Outlaw Thunder Tour. Turpen was named series Rookie of the Year in 2010.

Right now, her college coursework is done online out of necessity since it’s impossible to be two places at one time.

“Racing is a horrible addiction,” Turpen said. I’ve tried to get out of it, but I just can’t. It’s about like someone who has been smoking for years and years trying to quit.” 

To say the unusually quiet and well-mannered Turpen has been impressive on the 2011 tour is an understatement.

“It takes a lot of patience,” she said. 

The teenager, who started racing go-karts before moving to the wingless 305 Sprints, is more than holding her own in a sport dominated by men. 

She is near the top of the four-division USCS national standings and keeps flipping the points lead in the regional Southern Thunder Tour standings back and forth with competitor Matt Linder. 

That meant one thing – her performance Saturday  at the high-banked Lancaster Speedway – a track she had never seen before, needed to be flawless.

“My teammate has raced here before, so that’s a big help,” she said, before taking to the red-clay dirt oval for the first time.

That teammate is nine-time USCS national champ Terry Gray, whose one bit of advice for his protege before the practice session was to take it easy. 

When asked about Lancaster Speedway, Gray had a one-word description.

“Long,” Gray said, of  the paper clip-shaped track. 

At Lancaster, the lighter open-wheel, winged sprint cars, which race announcer D.J. Everett called “an engine with a seat on it,” carried a little more speed into the turns after rocketing down the long front and back stretches at nearly 130 mph.

Gray’s opinion of the track changed little after the first practice run as he chatted with his young teammate in the pits before the two started making adjustments. Some things, he said, had not changed since the touring series’ 2004 visit here. 

“It’s still long,” Gray said of the track.

Turpen’s opening practice time of 18.01 seconds was well below the track record of 18.54 set by Ross Bailes in 2010.

“Wasn’t quite as fast as I thought it was going to be,” Turpen shrugged. 

However, the sage Gray reminded her not be fooled about her first impression of what is considered the fastest half-mile dirt track in the South.

“Trust me, when something happens at this place, you’ll know how fast you were going,” Gray said. 

When the green flag dropped on the main feature, Turpen was sitting on the pole after accumulating the most qualifying points for the night.

Thirty laps later, she finished second to Gray.

That outcome was no fluke. Turpen finished third at Carolina Speedway in Gastonia, N.C., on Friday night.

But Turpen longs for more of the spotlight she enjoyed June 18, when she won the first race of her career, the Fourth annual Randy Helton Memorial, at East Alabama Motor Speedway near Phenix City, Ala. 

Turpen is only the second female sprint driver to win a USCS feature. 

The other one is Erin Crocker Evernham, the wife of former NASCAR crew chief and Gillett Evernham Motorsports team owner Ray Evernham. 

Crocker, who has competed in both the NASCAR ARCA and Truck series, won April 15 at Carolina Speedway. A little more than a month later, it was Turpen’s turn in the winner’s circle. 

“Of the female drivers I’ve seen race, she is the real deal,” said Lancaster Speedway announcer Duane Goins, who follows dirt racing across the Southeast and has a radio show.

Goins said that includes Crocker and Tony Stewart’s one-time girlfriend, Jessica Zemken.  

“Morgan is learning from one of the best in this sport with Terry Gray and is quite marketable in every sense,” Goins said. “Plus, according to Terry, she knows how to work a race car and understands how to make adjustments. That’s always a big to-do.”   

Turpen said that first win was special in more ways than one,” she said. 

“I had absolutely killed the car in practice and we had to fix everything,” she said. “At the time, I was thinking, ‘boy, I hope it’s not going to be like this all night long.’”

The Southern Thunder Tour, sponsored by Goodyear, includes 23 races in the Carolinas, Mississippi, Georgia, Florida and Alabama. The series tour started in April and ends in late October.  

“I’d like to win them all if I can,” Turpen said. “I’ve learned on the nights I have a third-place car to show a little patience and just be satisfied with a third -place car. With a 30-lap feature, you don’t have a lot of time. You go hard every lap and take what you can get.”