In Male-Dominated Racing, A Girl With Big Dreams

The Daytona 500, considered NASCAR's biggest race, takes place in Florida this weekend. Sixteen-year-old Annabeth Barnes aims to win that race someday. She's featured in the new PBS documentary Racing Dreams. Barnes talks with host Michel Martin about why she loves the sport and how being a minority on the track doesn't stop her ambition.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

And now, something for those with a need for speed. The biggest event and one of this country's biggest sports is this weekend - NASCAR's Daytona 500 in Daytona Beach, Florida. Many people dream of competing along the speedway there and those dreams can start awfully young.

There's a new documentary on PBS about that called "Racing Dreams." It premieres tonight. And one of the people featured in the film is 16-year-old Annabeth Barnes, where she talks about her start in racing.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "RACING DREAMS")

ANNABETH BARNES: We raced 48 weekends out of 52 this past year. We raced Thanksgiving, 4th of July, Christmas Day. We left after we had dinner at my grandma's house to go to a race. Like not even NASCAR people do that much racing.

MARTIN: And Annabeth Barnes is with us now from the Daytona International Speedway in Florida. Annabeth, thank you so much for joining us.

BARNES: Thank you so much for having me today.

MARTIN: And I won't mention that you're missing school to be there.

BARNES: All right.

MARTIN: We'll just that to ourselves.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

BARNES: OK.

MARTIN: How did you start racing? And why do you like it so much?

BARNES: Well, my dad actually raced stock cars you before I was born and after I was born. He stopped racing quite a few years ago. But so I was born into racing and I was always going to races as a kid and my older sister, she's four years older than me, she started racing when she was about 10 or 11, and she started racing go-karts. And I had to do it. You know, I had to race go-karts, because, you know, one, because she's my older sister and I want to be just like her anyway. And two, because I loved racing so much and it's something that I wanted to be a part of and I wanted to put my input into the sport some way.

MARTIN: Sure. Tell me little bit about what it is that you like about it. I mean when you're going, what is it that is going through your mind or can you just describe it for people never done it?

BARNES: I love going fast. I love having control of something. Because, you know, I'm 16 years old, I don't have much control over my life and there's teachers, there's parents, you know, everything people. Other people have such an impact on your life when you're younger and when you're racing it's something that you control and it's 100 percent on you when you're in the go-kart or race cart or whatever your in.

MARTIN: Hmm.

BARNES: And that's something that I loved so much, being able to depend on myself for something, rely on my own instincts and my own talents and abilities.

MARTIN: Makes sense. One thing though, that I think you don't love is the fact that you're still a minority in your sport. You're a girl...

BARNES: Right.

MARTIN: ...in a sport that is still dominated by boys. And you were talking a little bit in the film about the way this plays out. And remember, you were only 11 when the film was being made. And there's a part at which you talk about a certain sponsor - I'm not going to really feel the name - and you said that they sponsored you because you are a girl and they're hoping that when boys see you they'll think oh, if she can do it I can too.

BARNES: Mm-hmm.

MARTIN: And, you know, what is up with that? I mean don't you think that's kind of sexist?

BARNES: Well, of course it is.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: I mean what is the implication, that a boy would necessarily be better than you at something?

BARNES: Well, right. But I mean I'm in a male-dominated sport in racing and it's for sure a male-dominated sport. You know, a guy is going to think well, you know, I'm better than a girl could ever be. And that's just the thought and something that I've had to deal with my whole life in racing.

MARTIN: How do you deal with that?

BARNES: It is still a big issue but it's not as big as when I first began racing. When I was younger and first started into racing it played a huge part because, you know, I started winning and the boys did not like that at all me. They would wreck me and they would say bad things to me. But now that I'm older, really, it's not been a huge issue in the past few years.

MARTIN: I was struck by something that you talked about in the clip though, where you talked about that you raced - what is it - 48 weekends out of 52 this past year? Do you ever worry that this is taking over your life to the point where you, you don't have other things?

BARNES: Particularly in middle school it was kind of like OK, is this what I want to do because I'm never getting to do anything else. But now it's kind of just OK, you know, you had to make that decision that is this what I want to do? Is this what I want to pursue? And, you know, of course, I chose that yes, this is what I want to pursue. And so it's not that it's taking over my life but it is my life.

MARTIN: You started so young. Do you feel that you are really in a position to make that decision at such a young age? And I do want to say look, that there are a lot of other sports that are time intensive - like swimming or skating or, you know what I mean? So I don't want to...

BARNES: Yeah.

MARTIN: ...just single out racing as being the only one that's like that, but there is always that question of whether kids have to make a decision to compete in something at an age where they're really too young to make decisions for themselves. And I just wanted to ask about that.

BARNES: I begged my parents to let me get to race. And they let me. And it's always been that if I ever felt I didn't want to do it anymore, if I wanted to quit, you know, my parents would respect that decision. And it's never came to that point. I mean, of course, there's been times when I said oh, I'm so frustrated, I don't want to do this anymore. And my parents were like OK, well, let's think about this. Let's take time with this and if you decide this is really not what you want to do then we'll respect that decision.

MARTIN: And I think many people might want to know, who don't already know that professional football is the only sport with more viewers than NASCAR.

BARNES: Right.

MARTIN: So it's obviously a very popular sport in this country. Is it your plan to go pro?

BARNES: Of course. I mean I think that whether you're you want to go pro in NASCAR or in IndyCar or, you know, whatever it is you want to do, it's everybody's dream to go pro. And, of course, it's my dream. It's been my dream since I was seven years old that I wanted to be a professional race car driver.

MARTIN: So Annabeth, will you act like you know us when you're a famous professional driver?

BARNES: Of course, I will.

MARTIN: Will you...

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

BARNES: Yes.

MARTIN: ...still say hi to me?

BARNES: Of course.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: OK. And finally, before we let you go, what - I'm just trying to think, what would success look like for you? What is your dream so that we can know when you've achieved it?

BARNES: I think that success for me in racing would be definitely to make it to the Sprint Cup level. I mean that's my dream. You know, I've always said my whole life that I want to be the first woman to win the Daytona 500 and that is my ultimate goal for my life. And, you know, if success goes another way, then being a part of a team period would be a huge thing for me.

MARTIN: Well, good luck.

BARNES: Thank you.

MARTIN: We'll keep an eye on you. We'll say, we knew her. We met her.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: Annabeth Barnes is 16 years old. She is a racecar driver, as you heard. She's featured in the new documentary "Racing Dreams." It premieres tonight on PBS, although you'll probably want to check your local listings for exact times. And Annabeth Barnes joined us from the Daytona International Speedway in Florida.

Annabeth, thanks so much for joining us.

BARNES: Thank you so much for talking to me today.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MARTIN: And that's our program for today. And remember, to tell us more, please go to NPR.org and find us under the Programs tab. You can find our podcast there. You can follow us on Facebook and Twitter @TELL ME MORE/NPR. I'm Michel Martin and you've been listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News and African-American Public Radio Consortium. Let's talk more tomorrow.

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