By Joey D. Richards
Abilene Reporter-News, Texas.
Juggling a career, motherhood and college is pretty tough. April Phillips has done all that while becoming one of the nation’s top drivers on the dirt track.
Phillips, 28, is ranked No. 1 in the International Motor Contest Association’s Hobby Stock class. She also is No. 1 in the state and region points standings, as well as the national female standings — the latter regardless of class.
Phillips, who started racing 2 1/2 years ago, has accomplished that working as an office manager at Aramark, while also raising three children — Lesley, 8, Lacy, 5, and Landon, 1.
She also graduated from Cisco in May, after going to school part-time for four years to get her associate degree.
Then there’s her weekend gig as a race car driver — something that started after she watched her husband, Tommy, race for several years.
“One day, I just told him I wanted to try it,” April said.
Tommy, 29, didn’t have a problem with his wife racing.
“I thought it would be pretty cool,” he said. “I wasn’t quite sure how long it would last.”
Or how well it would go. And it didn’t start well for April, who admitted she originally got into it just to give it a try.
She started driving in the middle of the 2012 season, but later found out she was pregnant with Landon and stopped racing. Landon was born Jan. 28, 2013, and April was back on the track a month later.
It wasn’t until about halfway through the 2013 season she decided she was tired of getting lapped and wanted to get serious about driving. She finished the year well enough to win a set of heads as the IMCA’s most improved driver.
This year, she began racing every weekend in an effort to move up the points standings. She originally just hoped to do well among female drivers nationally, but she’s been among the nation’s best drivers — man or woman — in the Hobby Stock class this season.
As of June 12, April leads the class nationally with 1,060 points — 72 points better than Iowa’s Eric Stanton, who is second. Another Iowa driver, Brandon Nielsen, is third with 970 points. However, she doesn’t expect her national points lead to last much longer.
“The Iowa guys will probably be catching me pretty fast,” she said. “They get to race in Iowa Thursday, Friday, Saturday and sometimes Sunday. Here in Texas, I only get to race Friday and Saturdays. They’ll gain points on me, but I’ve been leading it since the beginning.”
She’s also No. 1 in both the South Region and Texas points races. She led New Mexico’s Jerrad Steele by 246 points in South Region as of June 7, and she had a 286-point lead over Jeremy Oliver in the state standings as of June 7.
April has a 309-point lead over Iowa’s Jenae Gustin among all female drivers in the IMCA, which is based out of Iowa.
April still hopes to win the region, state and national female points titles, though there’s still hope of winning the overall national title when the six-month racing season ends in late September.
“Nationally, I’d like to, but with as quickly as the Iowa guys will catch me, I don’t know if I can,” she said. “But I’ve been leading it this far. So who knows?”
Tommy, who has been racing since age 14, didn’t think his wife would be this good.
“Never as good as she is,” he said. “She’s pretty good.”
Tommy, Abilene Speedway’s track champion in the Hobby Stock class in 2009 and 2010, continues to race his No. 41 car, but not as often as his wife, who uses her father’s old racing number — No. 42.
“If he has a problem with (the car), we’ll park it for a couple of weekends, and we’ll race it when we get it fixed,” she said.
“But we race mine every weekend. He’s more focused on me.”
In fact, April usually goes to Lubbock or Boyd to race on Fridays, while her husband stays home — sometimes because of work as a truck driver with Dunigan Transport and sometimes because somebody’s got to watch the kids. Tommy doesn’t mind.
“If I have to stay home with the kids, it’s fine with me,” he said.
That can sometimes lead to some interesting situations. If April is having trouble with her car, she’ll call Tommy for advice. He might also have a few questions regarding the kids.
“We’ve probably had a couple of those conversations,” she said.
April also races at Abilene Speedway each Saturday during the season. So racing twice a week while working, being a mom and, until recently, going to college has been quite a load.
“It’s been a challenging couple of years for me,” she said.
Tommy, though, said it’s been rewarding.
“I’ve raced my whole life, and now that I’ve got her racing, I have more fun watching and helping her than I do when I race,” he said. “The kids love it, and she loves it. I love it. It makes it easier to plan everything, because everyone loves racing.”
While Tommy has learned to change diapers, something April said he does quite well, April has learned how to tear down an engine and put it back together.
“My husband makes me work on my car,” she said. “Anything I can do, he makes me do. What I cannot do, he helps me or shows me. I have to put just as much time and money into it as he does. He doesn’t work on it unless I’m right there with him.”
Auto racing is still primarily a guy thing. If fact, April is the only regular female driver at Abilene Speedway this season. She said there are usually two other female drivers at the Lubbock track.
It’s no surprise some guys take losing to a woman hard. Some don’t even like having a woman on the track.
“A majority of them have been very nice to me,” April said. “I guess you have a couple that probably doesn’t like that a female is racing against them and the fact that a female might be able to outrun them.”
And outrun them without running them over.
“As a woman, I want to beat all the males clean,” she said. “They’ll come and knock people out of the way, which is fine. That’s male racing. But for me, I want to pass you without touching you, so I can say you got beat by a girl and you can’t say she knocked you out of the way. She didn’t touch you. She didn’t hit you. She just flat-out passed you. I don’t want to play rough.”
Some guys, though, have gotten physical with April on the track.
“There have been a couple of guys who have knocked me out of the way,” she said. “It just is what it is. Because of the points race I’m in, I don’t want to retaliate. If I retaliated, there’s a chance I would lose some of my points.
“I had one guy knock me out in New Mexico, but now this year we’re good friends. We talk. We hang out. I’ll talk to anyone. Any Hobby Stock driver that races against me, I’ll try to introduce myself and talk to them.”
Tommy Simons, 55, has been around the sport since he was 7. The former Abilene Speedway owner is thrilled to see April shine on the track.
“I think it’s pretty neat she’s a woman, and she’s very competitive,” he said. “Just to be in the (national points) lead and to be from Abilene is pretty awesome. She’s doing an awesome job.”
Simons is impressed with her ability to work on the car and learn from other drivers.
“She gets out and works on her car and personally works on it,” he said. “She pays attention to what people who win do. I think that gives her the edge. Guys tease her and stuff, but she knows which ones to pay attention to.”
Simons said the guys’ attitudes about a woman driver have gotten better.
“It’s not like it used to be,” Simons said. “I remember when women couldn’t go in the pits. Now they can. They’re more accepted. Some people get on the track and think she’s in the way.
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I think they tend to drive more aggressively, because they don’t want to get beat by a woman.”
Tommy Phillips, April’s husband, said he’s sure there are guys who don’t like losing to a woman.
“I’m sure it eats them up,” he said.
And does he feel the same way?
“Not when me and her race together,” he said. “I’m happy for her. It’s hard when we race together, because I’m always trying watch what she is doing.”
But another woman?
“Oh yeah, it would be rough,” he said.
So do the two ever quibble over who’s the better driver? Well, they try to stay away from that conversation. However, April does not take losing — even to her husband — well.
“He beat me in Boyd, and I was very upset about it,” she said. “But then here in Abilene, I might have knocked him out of the way to get to the front. So I guess all is fair.”
When Phillips goes to tracks outside Abilene, she usually hears certain names as the drivers to beat. Now, the word is she’s the one to beat in the Hobby Stock class in Abilene. While she doesn’t really see it that way, she’s still happy to get some respect on the track.
“I feel proud,” she said. “I feel like I’ve accomplished something. All I wanted to do was get in the car and drive it, and now I feel like I’m getting somewhere.”