By Kyle Barr
Alyssa Paprocky parked her car, her acrylic nails still wrapped around the steering wheel. She got out and took off her helmet, her hair pulled back in a ponytail. She just finished 9th out of 14 in an Aug. 5 race and she was happy enough with the placement. She’s only been racing for a few years, and is still considered a rookie. She looked to the front of her car where there was a mark of pink along her front driver’s side wheel well — driving that close that fast on such a speedway is bound to rub a few the wrong way. She shrugged.
“Rubbing is racing,” Paprocky said.
The 22-year-old Coram resident is one of only two female racers at Riverhead Raceway competing in the Blunderbust class of cars. She started racing three years ago, and said even with a number of female outliers — like Janet Guthrie and more recently Danica Patrick — being a female in what has traditionally been considered a man’s sport has had its challenges.
“People think that there’s this stereotype that women don’t know how to drive,” Paprocky said. “People assume that you’re not going to do well. Us girls want to go out there to prove them wrong.”
Racing is in Paprocky’s blood, but she is the first female driver in her family. Her grandfather, and father Joe Paprocky both raced in their day, with her father working on fixing cars and even sponsored some in the 1990s and early 2000s. Being an only child, Paprocky grew up constantly surrounded by cars..
“Once I get in and strap into the race car — the car doesn’t know if I’m a guy or a girl,” she said. “It doesn’t know the difference.“
When Paprocky was young, she would watch NASCAR events and knew the names of all the drivers, their numbers and even their sponsors. She would help her dad work on cars — holding the flashlight so he could see while he was deep in the car’s “guts.” She spent so much time by his side she knew what size socket wrench he needed based on the part he was working on before he even asked for it. Now, she gets in there, puts the wrench in and gets her own hands covered in grease and oil.
“People think that there’s this stereotype that women don’t know how to drive. People assume that you’re not going to do well. Us girls want to go out there to prove them wrong.”
“She wanted to drive for years — you know, being a daddy’s girl,” Joe Paprocky said. “I was like ‘no, no, no, no.’ Then one night, I just thought what was I doing holding her back. It’s been a work in progress, but each week we get something out of it.”
Natalie Fitterman, an English teacher at Centereach High School and friend of the Paprocky’s, said she enjoyed watching the pair work together.
“I saw a man taking the time to teach his daughter about something he is very passionate about, and it is something most fathers would never want their daughters to know about, let alone actually do,” she said. “I have a hard time finding models for my students, but she’s one of them.”
Lenore Paprocky, the young driver’s mother, has also worked on cars. She marveled at the fact that her daughter has taken it one step further than she did — not only working on cars, but driving them. To her, it’s the family and community developed in racing that sets it apart from other sports.
“Camaraderie is a big part of why people stay with this sport,” she said. “It’s competition, yeah, but you could call it a friendly competition.”
Cassandra Denis, the other female racer at the speedway who also races in the Blunderbust class, came up as a rookie around the same time Alyssa Paprocky did. She said she respects her competitor, and admires the courage it takes to be a female in the sport.
“It’s about earning respect on the track, and that means you do the work turn laps and get a victory,” Denis said. “I respect [Alyssa] going through the same struggles. We have to work harder to get here and prove ourselves.”
Paprocky has been in 16 races since she started at Riverhead Raceway. Last year’s season was cut short because her car kept breaking down, and at first, she felt defeated.
“My first engine blew and it was the most depressing thing — it was as if someone had come and shot my dog,” Paprocky said. “Then, it was rebuilding … a smaller engine. That meant everything had to change. Even my driving style.”
Paprocky tries to remain realistic, and though she might place well in some races, what she really looks for is consistency in her improvement.
“I set realistic goals for myself, and every week I would put the hours in and I feel like I met those goals for the most part,” she said. “I take a positive out of every week.”
She said the spirited young fans that approach her after her races keep her going.
“I’ve had little kids come up to me in the pits to sign autographs and they ask ‘whose the driver?’ and I say ‘That’s me,’” Paprocky said. “I still sometimes feel like a rockstar. A couple weeks ago two little girls came up to me, and I went to get a marker to sign their flag and I heard them go ‘Oh, she is the driver? Oh my God.’”