The term “viral spread” has a pretty negative connotation today ̶ and justifiably so. But for the purpose of this story, “spreading like a virus” is a good thing because Karen Thomas, one of three Wendi Allen Scholarship Fund recipients in 2021, caught the autocross “bug” something serious, and she’s helping spread the infection in a positive way with magnificent results.
Not a Passive Spectator
Karen, formerly a member of SCCA’s Central Pennsylvania Region and now part of Old Dominion Region, knew nothing about Sports Car Club of America or autocross just five years ago. Her husband, Jeremiah Thomas, was familiar with the motorsport activity and in 2017 purchased a used MINI Cooper he thought would be perfect for SCCA Solo events around Pennsylvania where the couple lived at the time. Soon after, Karen was attending events, too, with their 2-year-old daughter in tow.
“My start in autocross began on the sidelines,” the 39-year-old Virginia resident remembers. “I let him (Jeremiah) go and have fun driving while we tagged along and cheered him on. We went to almost every race he had for his first two years, including National races.”
In actuality, the word “sidelines” isn’t really a factual depiction for Karen’s involvement early on. While not competing behind the wheel of a car, she became deeply involved in other ways.
“I would always help with waivers, with food service, or anything else they needed that didn’t involve racing or working course,” she said. “On race days I would try to come and help set up the course and help the family in charge of food service with anything they needed. I also was able to take photographs for events, which we know everyone loves getting.
“I never had an actual position with Central Pennsylvania Region, but was always a helping hand,” she continued. “In our new region, ODR, I took on any position they offered. I have been working on creating a new website for us, I created business cards and have solicited sponsors for the club. I am also the Social Chairperson. Once COVID is out of the picture… I will be working on creating social events for the club. Also, last year I became a Solo Safety Steward, and this year I hope to get my Junior Kart Program Safety Steward certification.”
Catching the Competition Bug
Club autocrosses became a social outlet for Karen, and the close camaraderie was greatly appreciated. But as is so often the case, it wasn’t long before Karen decided to jump behind the wheel late in 2018 for some added excitement.
“I kind of went ‘all in’… and did anything and everything I could,” Karen says about her early competition experience. “My first event was a doozy. It was a very big course. I was pretty much just a ball of nerves. I tend to psych myself out and I think about all the bad things that can happen. Getting behind that wheel and putting my foot to the floor is just not something I ever thought I would do. But you just go out there and you do it. And I actually didn’t do bad that first time.”
Those early course runs completely hooked Karen. Since then, she has won a couple region class championships and started participating at National Solo events around the country. Today she is still amazed by what she has learned to do in a car, and finds the whole activity a mind-blowing experience.
Future Plans Thanks to Wendi Allen Scholarship Fund
Now in existence for eight years, the Wendi Allen Scholarship Fund provides each recipient $1,500 a piece to assist with travel to Tire Rack National Solo events and the Tire Rack Solo Nationals Championship in Lincoln, Nebraska. Additionally, the SCCA waives entry fees for scholarship winners to all Tire Rack National Solo events attended during the year. Indeed, the award will help Karen attend various National events, driving a MINI Cooper in the Street Modified FWD and Street Modified FWD Ladies classes. And the experience she gains at these events is something she fully intends to share with other female competitors to help build their confidence and interest in the sport.
“I have always strongly encouraged my female friends and family to join me at events,” Karen states. “I joined Driving Forward Together and SCCA Women on Track, and have supported their mission from the beginning. I also shared their message with so many other females who just didn't know where they fit in. Knowing that there is a place for everyone in this sport, whether male or female, is something that I take pride in when I tell people that I autocross with the SCCA.”
Certainly, Karen will be sharing that message with her daughter, Scarlett, who is now 6 years old.
“She is a huge fan of racing and watching mommy and daddy going fast. She loves the atmosphere and enjoys meeting all of our friends,” Karen said of Scarlett. “She is a future woman racer and deserves the opportunity to come with us and see what the amazing sport of autocross is all about. When we tell her it’s a race weekend, she lights up and cannot wait to get there."
So, keep an eye on Karen during National Solo events around the country this year. And be sure to keep an eye out for Scarlett in the years that come.
Photo by Rupert Berrington