The distant revving of engines comes first, then roaring and popping as the cars zoom down the paved track on a recent Sunday at Pacific Raceways, buzzing like a drone of angry bees. In the midst of this horde is No. 48, a 1982 bright blue Mazda RX-7 driven by Bambi Jilek of Renton.
“I get so excited about racing,” says Jilek, 45. “It’s just so fun. I don’t think it’s something that people realize is available. If you like cars at all, it’s just a really neat world out there!”
Jilek has always liked cars. She grew up going to car shows and driving the Renton Loop. Her mom and aunt used
to race home from church with kids in back. Both drove a muscle car.
“Cars have always been part of my family,” Jilek says.
A Formula 1 fan, Jilek won’t be watching the Indy 500 race this weekend. But she’s rooting for woman racer Danica Patrick.
An old boyfriend turned Jilek on to autocross (like a car obstacle course). But she wanted to race. She got her start in 2003 with driving classes, training and a racing license.
“And I’ve been poor ever since,” Jilek laughs.
Racing is an expensive hobby. Each race costs a couple hundred bucks, plus club fees, gas and maintenance costs. Jilek’s RX-7, which she calls a “pretty bulletproof” stock car, is one of the cheaper cars to maintain. Still, there’s gas, and new tires every couple weekends. It costs $6 to $7 a minute to drive her car, she says, or $1,000 a day.
But the costs aren’t enough to slow Jilek. She broke her transmission during the recent Sunday race, but got a new one straight away. She ruined her motor another time, but had it replaced before the next race.
“You’re so addicted, you’re so addicted,” her friend told her.
Jilek acknowledges her addiction. She often skimps on buying shoes or plants in favor of car parts.
“I wish I liked gardening!” she says. “I do, but it doesn’t make me smile from ear to ear.”
Jilek races as a member of International Race Drivers Club (IRDC). Six other Renton drivers belong to this Western Washington club, which is a member of the International Conference of Sports Car Clubs (ICSCC, or conference), made up of clubs in British Columbia, Washington and Oregon.
There’s about 13 weekend conference races a year, held at Pacific Raceways, or other tracks in places like Portland, Canada or Spokane. Jilek, a Realtor, competes in most races, unless she has a real-estate showing. She tries not to schedule home showings on race weekends
“I can’t let my job get in the way of my hobby,” she jokes.
What does Jilek like about racing? She throws up her hands. “I like everything,” she says. “I like loading up my car; I love everybody out there at the racetrack; I like competition; I like going fast. When you win it’s a lot more fun. I didn’t realize how competitive I am.”
The black-and-white checkered flags, trophy and plaques in her home office show Jilek’s success. She was nominated novice of the year in 2003, placed fifth in conference in 2004 and second in 2006 and has won three races. Conference wins are based on points earned throughout the season. She and her driving partner also won their class in a four-hour Enduro race in March. The first race after that was April 26 and the last is Sept. 27-28.
Jilek’s first race of the season — the recent Sunday race — didn’t go well. That’s when she broke her transmission, about halfway through the 30-minute race.
Each lap at Pacific Raceways is 2.25 miles. Most racers can drive it in about 1 minute, 43 seconds. The winner is whoever can log the most laps in the 30 minutes. The winner of Jilek’s racing group that Sunday was a man driving an open-topped, low-to-the ground red Alfa Romeo. But Jilek wasn’t competing against that speedster. She was competing against cars that can go about as fast as hers.
“I’m just so bummed; I’m so disappointed,” Jilek said after Sunday’s race. “Now I’ve got to hook up my trailer, load up my car and put my tail between my legs.”
She had plenty of fellow racers to help. That’s the good thing about IRDC, says past president Dave Bennitt.
“IRDC is just like a big family,” Bennitt says. “Everybody here is friends with everybody else.”
As one of only four women among IRDC’s 204 members, Jilek had to earn her friendships.
“My name was the worst thing,” she says. “They’d say, ‘Bambi? You’ve got to be kidding.’ There’s a lot of ego with men. But I earned their respect. They know I deserve to be out there with them.”
It took time.
“I had one say, ‘I thought you were just going be a rolling chicane (a driver who gets in the way), but you actually have skill.”
“She’s a good gal, a good racer,” he says. “She holds her own with the guys; and when she gets a chance, she’ll outdo them.”
Hal Hilton, who races a Porsche, also admires Jilek’s racing.
“She won’t give an inch,” he says. “She’s careful, but she races very hard. I consider her on par with any racer out here.”
Her good friend (and mechanic) Jeff Clark also calls Jilek a good racer.
“She has what I like to call ‘killer instinct,’” he says.
He wishes more women would get into racing. His daughter had the opportunity but wasn’t interested.
Racing is either in your blood or not, Jilek says.
“My sister-in-law, she just looks at me like ‘Why?’ She has no desire,” Jilek says. “I just scratch my head. Why wouldn’t someone want to race? Being in a race car is so much fun.”
Except when people get hurt. A wrecked car is the worst that’s happened to Jilek. But a friend had to be pulled out of his smashed car by the Jaws of Life. He survived, after catching on fire, with a couple broken ribs and a chipped tooth. Another friend landed in intensive care after his car flipped last year.
“It’s pretty safe. We have all sorts of safety gear — a fireproof suit and helmet and gloves and boots — but accidents do happen,” Jilek says.
Especially when cars are racing at more than 100 mph.
“I’ve seen people roll in front of me,” Jilek says. “It’s so intense, but you just do it.”
Driving on the street is more dangerous than driving on the track, Clark says. Racing is nothing like street driving, he says.
“My analogy is skiing,” he says. “There’s a lot of downhill skiers, but to be a downhill ski racer takes a lot of work.”
Jilek doesn’t race on roads, but she’s always practicing: setting up her mirrors, changing lanes, shifting. She likes to play on exit ramps. She drives fast, and sometimes scares other drivers, but doesn’t get speeding tickets. Her everyday car is an Acura TL 6-speed.
The next conference race is June 6-7 in Portland. Jilek won’t be racing. She’ll be in Montreal watching a Formula 1 race. But she’ll be back.
“It’s an addiction,” she says on that recent Sunday, pointing to a trailer for a fellow racer’s car. The trailer is tagged with a bumper sticker that reads: “In this trailer lies “THE DISEASE” … for which there is no cure.”
“It’s an addiction,” Jilek repeats.
Emily Garland can be reached at email@example.com or (425) 255-3484, ext. 5052.