Special to the Western News
One year ago, Sarah Cornett-Ching had a dream to race professionally. She scraped, saved and sacrificed daily in order to have enough money simply to race a single event at Daytona.
Fast forward a full year and the Summerland native has overcome obstacles, broken down barriers and carried herself to the precipice of history. Following the event at Kansas this weekend, Cornett-Ching is in position to become the highest finishing female rookie in the history of the ARCA Racing Series presented by Menards.
But her successes weren’t without struggles.
In the initial ARCA pre-season tests at Daytona, Cornett-Ching was in the top-15 in speed with the legacy SB2 engine package, but the new ARCA Ilmor 396 technology advanced prior to raceday in February. Despite the engine disadvantage and other bad luck, Cornett-Ching turned enough heads to find funding for the rest of the year through her media and charity work.
During her second career ARCA start, she was swept up in a first-lap crash at Mobile. But she persevered to a top-15 finish. At Nashville, the team fought handling problems after a lapped car knocked the front end out of alignment and yet she still nearly cracked the top-10 at the end.
“It was a bit overwhelming the first few races we ran this season,” said Cornett-Ching in a team statement. “We had crazy things happen and a bunch of bad luck, but I believe that helped me to gel that much quicker with the team and to get comfortable faster than maybe I would have otherwise.”
As the season wore on, the No. 2 team made a habit of fighting adversity and overcoming it. The rookie driver gradually worked her way up in the standings, sitting as high as sixth, just a few markers out of the top-five.
The adversity trend continued at the second Pocono race when a defective engine relegated her to the garage before the checkered flag. At Springfield, she drove one of the five fastest cars on track through the field until temperature issues within her ARCA Ilmor powerplant sent her to pit road for several laps.
However, it wasn’t all bad news throughout the season. She set the record for highest finishing female in an ARCA road course in New Jersey. She captured a bundle of top-10 finishes at some of the tour’s most difficult tracks and drove through the field at Chicago to finish eighth after missing the drivers meeting.
“When we really started hitting our stride, things went very well mid-season,” she said. “I had never been on a road course in my life and set an ARCA record. Then, to knock off top-tens at Winchester and Chicago was something special, and I really began to feel at home in these big, heavy cars.”
Entering the final three races, Cornett-Ching and her team knew what obstacles they had overcome, and nothing scared them off of their year-end prize pursuit. Someone forgot to relay the message to Lady Luck, however, who had a few more surprises for the first-year driver.
At Salem, the team’s brand new ARCA Ilmor 396 engine grenaded on just the second lap of practice. It forced the crew to bring out a backup car and Cornett-Ching started at the end of the field. Quickly, she sliced her way forward and appeared to be on her way to yet another top-10 finish. Caution flags and tire strategy, however, suppressed her effort to a 14th place finish.
“We literally had 35 miles of testing on that engine and it went up in smoke. That was disheartening, for sure,” Cornett-Ching admitted. “But my team showed me why, once again, they’re some of the hardest working people in ARCA. They got the backup car ready and we set that place ablaze until our tire strategy backfired. But it was still a race we were very proud of.”
Three days later, the team made gains in Kentucky during an open test, but a crash late in the afternoon once again forced the team to a backup car — the same car that was predetermined to be a showcar for a Tim Horton Children’s Foundation appearance the next day. After bringing joy to the kids of Tim Horton Camp Kentahten, Cornett-Ching’s crew went to work Thursday morning in the camp maintenance shop to get the car prepared for Kentucky’s 1.5-mile layout.
“We were sort of stuck in a box after Salem with the travel logistics and our other commitments, but we ended up getting a solid piece ready for Kentucky, even if it was originally a short track car,” Cornett-Ching said.
After working to get the feel she needed for Kentucky, the crew made crucial changes between practice and qualifying. Cornett-Ching rocketed from the back third of the field in practice to third-quickest in her time trial run. After the rest of the competition made their runs, she was poised to start from 13th spot in a race that ultimately was run on Saturday afternoon due to weather. Unfortunately, she was once again swept-up in a first-lap accident when a competitor drove across her nose entering turn three, taking them both out of contention after the crash.
“I’m still baffled as to what a guy with that much experience was doing on lap one of the race,” she said. “We had the best car I’ve ever had on a speedway this season, and he ruined both of our days by driving over his head, three-wide, before we even completed one lap. There was just no need for it, but it’s over now and all we can do is focus on Kansas.”
Entering Kansas, Cornett-Ching sits 60 points out of sixth in the standings, the equivalent of only twelve on-track positions. If she is able to ascend back to sixth, she will tie the overall year-end finishing mark for any female in ARCA competition set by former NASCAR Sprint Cup driver Shawna Robinson in 2000.
“I got to meet Shawna a few months ago and it’s truly amazing the things she did and the hurdles she had to overcome,” said Cornett-Ching. “Sure, we’ve had some bad luck this year, but it pales in comparison to some of the obstacles Shawna had to overcome as one of the trailblazers for other women in the sport at this level, including me. She’s a fantastic role model, a great mentor, and someone I’m honoured to have in my corner as I pursue my career in the sport. But I still hope we can match her record.”
No matter how Kansas plays out, Cornett-Ching is truly living her dream. One year ago, the experiences she has been part of this season were only dreams in her head and countless people quietly had their doubts if they would ever materialize. As 2015 comes to a close, those doubters will continue to talk, but Cornett-Ching plans on exceeding her own expectations and working towards goals and records that many said were once unattainable.