Those old enough to remember the classic opening of the “Mary Tyler Moore Show,” and watching confident, radiant career woman Mary Richards triumphantly tossing her hat into the air might be having flashbacks when they see Krista Baldwin.
Born into a Top Fuel pedigree on both sides of her family, the Northern Arizona University graduate left her Southern California roots and moved to the Midwest, to the motorsports mecca that is Indianapolis, determined to make her already-jam-packed days in drag racing (as the TV show’s theme song goes) “suddenly all seem worthwhile.”
Baldwin, 28, is not simply a Top Fuel “wannabe.” She is co-owner of the McLeod Racing/Lucas Oil dragster with grandfather Chris “The Golden Greek” Karamesines. That’s in addition to being the general manager for Paul Lee’s Funny Car team, pulling double duty when they both compete in their respective classes, and working daily as the creative director for McLeod Clutches and the other aftermarket companies under Lee’s Wharton Automotive umbrella.
“I do put my money into it. He put his money into it. We have great partners – like Lucas Oil, McLeod, Strange Engineering – that help us out. It’s becoming real in the next few months. He’s like, ‘This is going to all be yours one day,” Baldwin said of her Top Fuel operation. She said Karamesines is “still the one that makes all the decisions. But eventually we’re going to do the handoff. We’re going to do the trading of ownership here, but he really wanted to give me a chance my first year. He really wanted me to learn how to run a Top Fuel car, how to run a Top Fuel team, how to get down the road, trials and tribulations of getting the racecar just to the racetrack. Which, believe me, it’s tough.
It’s a lot of work for three seconds. But those three seconds will change your life.
“What opened my eyes was actually being the GM on Paul’s team,” she said. “I’m the one that gets the crew to where they need to go. I’m the one that feeds them, clothes them, gets them to the racetrack, get the truck and trailer to the racetrack, do the DOT, do the paperwork and see how much money we are spending here. Doing that part for the last couple of years, I feel, has set me up in a good spot to realize how much money it really takes.”
Baldwin said she definitely takes “that mentality into the racecar. Literally my right foot is connected to my wallet. So whenever I feel something go wrong with the car on a run, in three seconds I have to make that decision” ‘OK, do I battle it? Do I leg it out? What do I do?’ So I usually try to not throw caution to the wind and I make a good decision in the racecar, just because it is me and him. It’s me and him putting all our money into this. So I can’t afford to blow up anything right now.
“Running the car is one thing. It’s everything else that’s super expensive, the wear and tear on things,” Baldwin continues. “How am I going to determine, ‘Do I run this piece one more time? Or do I risk it breaking in the run? Or do I just throw it away and start new?’ It’s just things like that. My grandpa’s combination is a lot different from Paul Lee’s combination, but my grandpa has groomed me, in a sense of ‘You can run this one more time. You can run that one more time. Don’t just throw that away.’ That’s a huge lesson that I had to undertake while learning to drive the car, as well.”
And Grandpa is cautious, knowing his only grandchild is in the seat of his 11,000-horspower beast.
“He definitely is. Unlike previous years, he’s definitely a little bit more cautious just because I am still new,” Baldwin said. “I still only have maybe 20 runs in a Top Fuel car. Not a lot at all. It’s a fine line, and it’s better to err on the good side rather than the bad side. But it’s a decision that you have to make.”
Her relationship with her grandfather has deepened since she expressed an interest in driving a racecar and owned her Top Alcohol Dragster team before turning pro. As she grew up in Southern California and he lived in Chicago, they visited at the drag races. Now that she lives at Pittsboro, Ind., they get together a couple of times a month, mainly when he drives down to Indianapolis to visit with his friends at Lucas Oil and the various race shops. Baldwin said, “I see him at DSR, because that’s where Paul Lee’s rigs are. He’s always exchanging parts, making our program better.”
Karamesines is rich in friends but isn’t particularly an extrovert in the pits, but Baldwin said he and she have “a pretty special bond that we’ve developed over the last couple of years – and let me tell you that I’m so thankful for it. It’s actually pretty funny, because it drives my mom and the rest of my family crazy. They’re like, ‘How does he talk to you every day?’ I’m like, ‘Because I drive the racecar.’ He talks about racecars, and he’s not able to talk about the racecar to anyone else. So it’s really nice hearing him call every week.”
One of the benefits, she said, is that “he can tell me exactly what the car is going to do and we’re able to diagnose the run after the run. He still gives me pointers. He knows exactly what’s happening. Even though he stepped out of his seat, he still knows exactly what happens to that car. He has a major influence on how we tune the car, as well. So it’s been a lot of fun. Some critiques I’m like, ‘Grandpa really?’ I take all the advice, every critique that he gives me, and I put it in my little memory bank and just file it away and say, ‘OK, next time it goes out there and does this, Grandpa said to do this.’ It makes more sense the more runs I make. His advice is making more sense.
“When I first made a couple hits in the car, obviously it was so fast. I was definitely behind the car. I was like, ‘Oh my God – this is so fast. I don’t know what I’m doing. I can’t believe I got to half-track so fast.’ I couldn’t believe it. But now, starting to slow down a little bit, I understand what Grandpa is saying: ‘OK, I felt the clutch come in at this point. OK, I felt a whole lot at this point. OK, I get it now.’ It’s all starting to click. I do file all of it in my head. I do remember a lot of the advice he’s given me. It’s all in my head, because I love this sport so much.”
Money issues aside and a seemingly endless list of chores to do at and away from the racetrack, Baldwin never loses sight of her own dream.
“I literally imagine myself driving the car every day. I visualize myself in that racecar, hitting the gas, every single day. That’s what propels me to take on all the different hats and jobs that I have in the world,” she said. “But that’s the job I want to do. I am one of a couple hundred people in the whole world that are able to do this one thing, and I get to do it with my grandpa. It’s unheard of. It’s amazing. It’s absolutely amazing that I get to do this, and I’m very grateful. It’s a lot of hard work, but I can’t even tell you what it feels like to go that fast.
“It’s a lot of work for three seconds. But those three seconds will change your life,” Baldwin said.
That’s just a fact.
“It’s this unique situation that we put ourselves into,” she said. “But in order for me to be successful at this, with the multiple hats I wear at the racetrack, I have to have really good time management – like really, really good time management: just to make sure that my team on the Top Fuel car is good, make sure Paul’s team on the Funny Car is good, make sure the hospitality is running. I have my list of things to do every weekend. But every time you hit the gas, though, in one of these cars, it all goes away.
“It’s definitely interesting. But the way I look at it is as long as I keep my head down and I keep working, and I just keep hustling the way that I do, eventually it’s going to come out in the end, and my hard work is going to pay off in some way that will make me drive this Top Fuel car more times throughout the year,” she said.
Literally my right foot is connected to my wallet. So whenever I feel something go wrong with the car on a run, in three seconds I have to make that decision” ‘OK, do I battle it? Do I leg it out? What do I do?’
She said her late father, Top Fuel driver Bobby Baldwin, who passed away when she was just eight years old, set a strong example.
“It goes back to probably seeing my dad have his own Top Fuel car. I remember seeing him working every day up until he leaves for an event. When he gets to the racetrack, he’s just so excited to be there. He’s so excited to be with his friends and so excited to drive a Top Fuel car. That’s what I had growing up. That’s what I saw,” she said. “I take what he did and now I’m just trying to translate it into the skill set and the knowledge that I have. It’s work, and it’ll come. Driving a fuel car, it’ll happen.
“We all know what it entails on a race weekend. It is draining, especially driving the car. I’m on an adrenaline kick the whole race weekend. When I get home Sunday night or Monday morning, I’m like, ‘Oh my God, I’m exhausted’ because I’m going a million miles a minute. A thousand things are going through my head,” she said. “But I wouldn’t change it for the world, that’s for sure.”
Added to all of her responsibilities with two race teams and her McLeod/FTI/Silver Sport duties is the unofficial, non-contracted anticipation that she will help lead the NHRA into its next generation, growing the sport.
“I guess there is a little bit of expectation like that. But do I think about it? No,” Baldwin said, “because I’m doing something that I’ve always wanted to do. I’m living the dream. I’m conquering this goal that I have. And if I can bring NHRA with me into the future, even better.”
The Mary Tyler Moore sitcom went off the air in 1977, 16 years before Baldwin was born, but the aspiring Top Fuel star can claim the song tagline:
“You’re gonna make it after all.”