When Alexis Vasconcelles was in 6th grade, she and her mom attended the Garden Isle Racing Association’s drags at Mana, and the 10-year-old became totally captivated while watching the junior dragsters.
Noticing her daughter’s sudden interest, Cheree Rapozo asked her if she wanted to try racing. From that point on, being a junior dragster became a sport, an education and a once-a-month challenge to organize, adapt and overcome.
A junior dragster is a smaller scale version of a full size dragster built with specifications designed for drag racing and runs on alcohol fuel. Junior dragsters must be between eight and 18 years old and are required to get a National Hot Rod Association license before entering the race track.
For Vasconcelles, the first step into the world of becoming a racer was learning how and where to find a junior dragster. After mom tracked down a lead on a junior dragster in Hawai‘i Kai, they enlisted the help of good friends to help ship and modify the newly acquired dragster.
“With the help of our good friend Bruno Ramos, of Bruno’s Auto body, we were able to ship my rail to Kaua‘i, and he was kind enough to repaint it, transforming ‘Girl Power’ (the old look) into the ‘Wicked Wahine,’ the name I gave my dragster,” said Vasconcelles.
After “Wicked Wahine” was repainted, reworked and tuned-up, Vasconcelles was finally able to take step two in becoming a junior dragster — making her first test run. Once again, fortune smiled upon the Vasconcelles clan in the form of Uncle Duane Shimogawa, who owns a large ranch with an old airstrip on it.
The Wicked Wahine was loaded into the back of mom’s Ford pickup because they didn’t buy a trailer until the second year. Once the dragster was fueled up and ready to go, young Vasconcelles excitedly slammed down the pedal and experienced the first rush of becoming a junior dragster.
“The first time was so scary that my stomach dropped because it went so fast,” said Vasconcelles. Within every race of a junior dragster, there is a feeling of speed, an accelerated thinking process, time strategy and accomplishment, even after a split-second loss on the clock.
Vasconcelles’ dragster is a 2003 Sportscraft Junior Dragster built in Hawai‘i that runs on a 400-stroke Blockzilla engine fueled through a 33 Mikuni carburetor. It uses a three-stage header, rolls on M/T race slick tires and has fully equipped safety harnesses and kill switches. When NHRA recently required new safety bars installed, she turned to Danford Kaeo of DMK Welding to modify the roll cage so the dragster is now safely up-to-date.
Another key person who has been invaluable to the Vasconcelles racing experience is Kyle Cremer, who has over the years given solid advice, insider racing tips and even repairs to her carburetor.
Vasconcelles even has her own all-girls pit crew which includes her mechanic mom, Cheree, her three aunties Malia, Chantel and Gina, along with her closest girlfriends.
For Vasconcelles, dragging at Mana has taught her many important life lessons such as working in time management, learning NHRA rules and safety regulations, applying racing strategies, keeping and following a check list before each event, and, how to make friends and influence people.
Vasconcelles is an honor student attending Kaua‘i High School, a rodeo roping wrangler and an award winning junior dragster. She has won several races and awards over the last three years, including the Kaua‘i Community College Best in the Class Car Show, the 2008 Junior Dragster Challenge and the 2008 Year End Junior Dragster Champion.
The 4th of July and Labor Day are the two doubleheaders for racing and rodeo, and Alexis Vasconcelles is often forced to make the tough choice between the two. Because Vasconcelles was ranked in the top four ropers in the State of Hawai‘i, she recently traveled to New Mexico for the National rodeo finals and missed the 4th of July drags.
Vasconcelles spends hours and hours perfecting her rodeo roping and keeping busy with junior dragging at Mana and yet somehow she is still able to keep up her studies. She is one busy teenager with a ready smile and a zest for life. When asked what she loves most about being a junior dragster she takes a moment to reflect and replied, “I have a lot of fun, and I’ve made a lot of new friends.”
If this determined girl ever sets her sights on the Governor’s Mansion, rest assured, it won’t be as the governor’s wife.
The next big race is the Junior Dragster Challenge at Kaua‘i Raceway Park in Mana, which will be held on Sept. 5 and 6.
To view a short video of Alexis Vasconcelles’ 2003 Sportscraft Junior Dragster, click on the “TGI video” link at kauaiworld.com
of this speedy 2003 Sportscraft Junior Dragster in action as part of The Garden Island’s recurring series on Kaua‘i’s Classic Car Club and check back each week for a new classic.
• Leo DuBois, contributor, can be reached via news editor Nathan Eagle at 245-3681 (ext. 227) or via e-mail at email@example.com.