By Kenny Dejohn Newsday
WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) Women continue to make inroads in auto racing. There are three female drivers in Riverhead's NASCAR events and several others are competing in the track's truck and Enduro car races, which are not affiliated with NASCAR.
Alyssa Paprocky still is learning what it takes to succeed behind the wheel of a race car, but people at Riverhead Raceway are already talking about the 22-year-old driver from Coram.
Paprocky is the only female driving full-time in NASCAR events at Riverhead Raceway. She drives a stock car -- an ordinary car that has been modified for racing -- in the Blunderbust Division.
Though she hasn't won the checkered flag in her 16 career races, she is ranked 11th out of 21 drivers entering the Sept. 2 card at Riverhead.
"When I got into racing, I wanted to be appreciated and respected not as a girl, but as a racer," said Paprocky.
"When I get in the car and put the helmet on, the car doesn't know if it's a girl or a guy behind the wheel."
Women continue to make inroads in auto racing. There are two other female drivers in Riverhead's NASCAR events and several others are competing in the track's truck and Enduro car races, which are not affiliated with NASCAR.
NASCAR, which is the highest level of professional stock car racing, has had 16 female drivers in the top-tier NASCAR Cup Series, according to ESPN. Danica Patrick is the most notable, with 178 starts since her 2012 debut.
Though a female driver has never won a Cup Series race, Patrick is the only to win a pole position, which she did it at the 2013 Daytona 500.
Her driving force Paprocky's love of racing comes from her father, Joe, 59, who has been around the sport since the early 1970s and has owned, sponsored and raced cars.
"I was always a motor head between drag racing and racing at the track," he said. "When she was born, she was kind of on my heels. I didn't have a boy, but I had the little girl, and she was always there."
Two years ago, Joe bought Alyssa her first race car -- a 1983 Chevrolet Caprice. Alyssa chose to honor her dad with a yellow No. 5, Joe's favorite number.
"I can't thank him enough for not only getting me involved in it, even though I don't think he did it on purpose," Alyssa said. "But then when he finally got me a car, I just can't thank him enough."
Tommy Walkowiak, 45 of Ridge, is the all-time leader in Blunderbust victories and races against Paprocky on Saturday nights. He said that she has improved since her first run on the track.
"When she first started, the first five laps I think that she ran on the track, she put me in the wall," Walkowiak said. "She came over and apologized, and that's kind of how we met. But it seems like she's got it figured out at this point. She's a good driver."
"It takes a lot of time to gain the respect of the other drivers and kind of learn what to do, what not to do," Paprocky said.
Making difference Off the track, Paprocky takes online classes at Farmingdale State University in pursuit of a Bachelor's degree in business. She is employed at a commercial truck shop, working with customers.
Natalie Fitterman, 55 of Coram, is a family friend and an English teacher at Centereach High School. She said she wants Paprocky to come speak to her classes.
"As a teacher, I am always on the lookout for role models," Fitterman said via email. "Alyssa is one. In these days where people our kids can look up to is rare, we need someone like her. I think young girls would and should see her."
Paprocky, who happily signs autographs and takes pictures with young fans after races, still is adjusting to being in the spotlight.
"It's very humbling because people are actually looking up to you as a role model," she said. "I never thought that at 22 I'd be a role model to really anyone."
Yet thanks to her drive to be the best, she already is.