Michelle Leh, 13, of Montague enjoys speed on the racetrack
ADVANCE FOR SUNDAY DEC. 9 - In this Nov. 14, 2012 photo, Michelle Leh, 13, of Montague, Mass. poses with her stock car in Montague, Mass. Leh has been driving for two years, has crashed twice and has racked up her first stock-car racing win, all by the age of 13. (AP Photo/The Greenfield Recorder, Paul Franz)
MONTAGUE — Michelle Leh has been driving for two years, has crashed twice and has racked up her first stock-car racing win, all by the age of 13.
Michelle began racing in the Young Guns youth division at Monadnock Speedway in New Hampshire at the age of 12, feeding a passion sparked watching NASCAR races with her parents.
“And then we went up to Monadnock and found out that there was a Young Guns class, and I kept begging my parents, and begging them, and begging them,” Michelle recalls.
“And she has really cool parents who said ‘Yes, we’ll buy you a car’ and sent her out on a racetrack,” her mother, Sheryl “Sheri” Leh, added with a smile.
Sheri Leh said Michelle showed an affinity for speed from a young age, racing around the house and yard with her walker at 6 months old, and soon moving on to an electric toy jeep.
“Then at 5 we bought her a four-wheeler and that was the end of it,” she said.
Now, still more than two years from a learner’s permit, Michelle is on her second race car.
Michelle’s parents taught her to drive a standard transmission, mostly in the family’s short driveway and around the yard on North Taylor Hill Road. With a race official’s sign-off, Michelle can drive on the track.
Traveling at speeds in the range of 60 to 70 mph she estimates — it’s hard to judge without a speedometer, which her parents worry would be a distraction — Michelle said she usually places somewhere around fifth.
The races consist of 15 laps — 10 if there are so many competitors the officials choose to split the field — around a quarter-mile asphalt track.
Before the race, the competitors are allowed two practice rounds, the only real opportunity Michelle has to learn beyond the confines of her parents’ yard.
Michelle said she is usually content to follow and learn from those ahead of her, and is often complimented on her clean lines heading through the turns.
This season, Michelle competed in 22 races beginning in the spring and ending in October, earning her first win and becoming the only girl in the Young Guns class to win a race at the track this season.
The class is open to boys and girls ages 12 to 15, and this year, five of the 17 drivers listed in the class were female.
Michelle feels the gender barrier in racing is dissolving, particularly at the Monadnock track.
“Bad-ass toys aren’t just for boys,” reads a sticker above the trunk of her car.
It’s a motto “not really appropriate for a 13-year-old,” Sheri Leh comments.
“Well, I don’t think racing is really appropriate for a 13-year-old,” Michelle shoots back, laughing.
The door of her first car, a 1992 Honda Accord, hangs on the wall in the family garage. The rest of the car became scrap metal after a crash that ended her first racing season last year.
Her new car is a 1996 Chevrolet Cavalier, fitted with an interior roll cage, a harness system for the driver and stripped of all non-essentials, including headlights, passenger seats, most of the dashboard and door handles. The doors are welded shut and the driver slides in through the window.
Sponsors helped with paint and tire changes, but even buying the pre-stripped, well-used race car, it’s not a cheap hobby.
“It is expensive, but we do know where she is on Saturdays and it is fun for the family,” Sheri Leh said.
The car, raced by two others before her — both girls, Michelle notes — carries evidence of swipes and close calls in the buckled body panels.
This year, a few more sideswipes and a few spinouts are the worst the car and driver have suffered.
The Honda took the brunt of the learning-curve abuse, and crashed into a wall once before the accident near the end of the season that sent Michelle and the car airborne over the hood of another car and left it unable to be driven.
After the first crash, doctors initially thought her knee was broken, discovering it was only bruised once they got over the shock of the injury’s cause and did some tests, according to Sheri Leh.
“They were so concerned about why I would do this for her, why I would let her race,” Sheri Leh said.
The second crash resulted in a minor concussion, but neither discouraged Michelle.
The lion’s share of the stress seems to fall on Sheri Leh, who films all Michelle’s races from the stands.
Leh admits her film work isn’t always perfect, the camera jumping with worry or sliding off the track to focus on the ground, accompanied by a commentary Michelle says could sometimes use a parental advisory rating.
Leh said her husband, David, manages to take a more relaxed approach.
David Leh serves as crew chief, Sheri Leh as manager and Michelle usually has her grandparents and a friend or two in the stands to cheer her on.
“I definitely hope that it’s a career,” Michelle said, but in the meantime, she has two years left in the Young Guns class before she can advance to the next division, and needs time to work on convincing her parents she needs a faster car.
Michelle is in the eighth grade at Great Falls Middle School, where she also competes on the basketball court during the winter — the only sports season that doesn’t interfere with her racing.