Growing up in the fast lane

<p>Contributed photo Pendleton's Natalie Waggoner, 13, poses next to her junior dragster, which she races at the Walla Walla Dragstrip.</p>

PENDLETON — Natalie Waggoner dreams of speed.

The Pendleton 13-year-old has grown up around drag races, and has been a regular at the Walla Walla Dragstrip ever since her father took her to her first race at five months old.

It wasn’t long before Waggoner noticed the kids racing junior dragsters, and started counting down to her eighth birthday — the first year a child can legally race a dragster.

Other obligations delayed her racing debut, but Waggoner never gave up and her persistence paid off three years later when a family friend happened to be selling a dragster perfect for an 11-year-old girl.

Her father Scott, a veteran racer himself, said he didn’t take much convincing at that point.

“The next thing I saw was Natalie sitting in it at their pit and that was it,” he said. “My arm wasn’t twisted too hard.”

Junior dragsters are a half-scale copy of top fuel dragsters, and are limited to a single cylinder engine that runs on methanol fuel. Races are 1/8 mile, half the length of a professional run.

The cars can still reach speeds of 80 mph, though, and safety was the key concern her parents had in putting her behind the wheel.

But those were quickly quelled by the stringent safety rules put in place by the National Hot Rod Association (NHRA), which governs the Junior Dragster Racing League (JDRL) that Waggoner competes in.

Cloaked in a fire-resistant suit and strapped inside an NHRA-certified roll cage by a five-point harness, Waggoner would be well protected in the event of a crash.

“I worry a lot less about her getting hurt in the dragster as I do with her dirt bike,”?said her mother, Sunny.

Since passing her NHRA?driver’s test, Waggoner has proven she has some skill to go with her need for speed.

She placed second in her first race and third in her second, and she finished fifth in the points series her first season.

But like in any youth sport, Waggoner quickly outgrew her equipment.

At age 13 she became eligible to step up to a faster division — requiring a new car which would take her to top speeds of about 110 mph.

Making the step up took some adjustment, but by season’s end she had two wins, one runnerup and two semifinals appearances in the new rig.

She can race at her current class for another four years, but said she only plans on two.

“When I turn 16 and get my driver’s license I want to be racing a full size dragster,”?she said, adding that her goal is to drive a car that needs a parachute to slow down.

Until then, when she’s not flying down the track at breakneck speeds Waggoner can be found in the same place she’s been since she’s old enough to remember — at the starting line, watching, and dreaming of speed.

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