Melanie Salemi has often found herself in what could be perceived as a lonely spot. She’s largely been the only female representing one of Pro Mod’s toughest categories, PDRA Pro Boost. The gender disparity seems to have no negative effects on the Canadian, however. With over 20 years of racing under her belt, little ruffles her feathers, which will continue to serve her and her robust team well as they take on their next venture.
They’ve had much success since joining the outlaw Pro Mod ranks in 2015. After getting her feet wet the first year, Salemi finished third in PDRA Pro Boost points in 2016 and 2017, winning last year’s Spring Nationals. She remains the only female to win in Pro Boost.
This past fall, the New York-based team made their NHRA debut at the Midwest Nationals in St. Louis. It was their proverbial flag in the sand.
Now, Salemi, husband and tuner Jon Salemi, car chief Jim Salemi and engine builder Mike Stawicki are making plans to join the E3 Spark Plugs Pro Mod Drag Racing Series. Females have been vastly underrepresented in NHRA Pro Mod, although names like Melanie Troxel and Leah Pritchett left an undeniable mark on their tenure in the class. Salemi was the first female to compete in NHRA Pro Mod since Leah Pritchett left the class after the 2012 season.
Salemi is not shy about the fact that bringing back a feminine presence to NHRA Pro Mod is a motivating factor and a strategic move to benefit the team’s marketing partners.
“Strange Engineering, Al-Lee Installations, Big Sky Motorsports, Quick Drive, and Liberty’s Gears all play a huge role in what we do,” Salemi says. “If we have the opportunity to put their names on a bigger stage, that’s what we want to do. We’re excited about expanded social media and TV exposure and opportunities for our sponsors. I feel like our team is good enough to perform well over there. We’ve been working on our engine combination, a lot of R&D over the off season and time on the dyno. I really think that we need to make this next step.”
I can’t even pinpoint where [this passion] comes from. My family has been in drag racing and I married into a family that’s been in drag racing forever, so it’s just what I do.
“Pro Boost is one of the toughest classes. I would definitely put it up there with the NHRA Pro Mod class with how tough it is to do well. I really think that if you can do well over there you can probably do well anywhere. I love the PDRA. It’s been home for me. All of the people involved are really awesome. I’ll definitely be at all of the races, whether I have my car there or not.”
Although Salemi will be a provisional entry in the NHRA, the team hopes to compete on the entire 12 race schedule.
“Another reason we decided to go race NHRA is for our business,” Salemi added, referring to Resolution Racing Services. “It’s hard to have our car at the race track and be working on other customer cars at the same race. At this moment, we don’t have a lot of tuning customers running NHRA. We’ll be able to go over there and focus solely on our car.”
Away from the track, Jon devotes his time to Resolution Racing Services, tuning, consulting and parts sales, while Melanie handles the business aspects of the team and spends the majority of her time working the office at Jim’s company, G-Force Race Cars.
“Mike Stawicki is the brains behind our engine program,” Salemi credited their engine builder, MSR Performance. “He works probably the hardest out of any of us in between races. If something is broken, we get back from the track on Sunday and sometimes he’s got to have it back to us by Tuesday night or Wednesday. He plays a huge role in us showing up at the race track ready. Jon makes all the tuning calls. Jim is the Car Chief, overseeing everything on the car, while also tuning other customer cars at the track.”
Each person on the team has their area of expertise, which allows them to be laser-focused in that one area, instead of one person covering all the bases.
“I take good direction. If the guys tell me to do something differently in the car, I do it. I don’t let things fluster me in the car. I think that’s a huge asset because it makes our team that much better since the driver is able to focus on just driving. Everybody on our team has their jobs and that’s my job. That’s what I do and if the guys are hungry at the race track, I feed them,” Salemi laughed.
Pro Boost is one of the toughest classes. I would definitely put it up there with the NHRA Pro Mod class with how tough it is to do well.
“Things get taken care of. Everybody has their role and their job. It’s not that the other people can’t do those jobs, it’s that the person who’s been assigned those jobs is the best at it.”
Although Salemi is still in the early stages of her Pro Mod career, this will be her 22nd season behind the wheel. Her competitive background began in Junior Dragsters, and then transitioned to sportsman racing around her childhood home north of Toronto, winning two Quick 32 Top Dragster events (‘12, ‘13). Now she’ll be the next lady of NHRA Pro Mod, racing on one of the biggest stages drag racing has to offer. Salemi has already had a lengthy career, outlasting many women drivers in the sport. Although female participation has increased greatly over the last 20 years, it’s still uncommon for women to have a decades-long career behind the wheel.
“I can understand why females transition out of the seat,” Salemi admitted. “The way we race it consumes our entire life. As ladies get older they want to have children, settle down. If you want to do that, it’s super hard to continue to race the way we do. It’s not something that everybody likes. It’s a lot of work. If you want to do it professionally, if you want to do it the right way, it’s crazy.
“It’s such a natural thing [for me], though. I can’t even pinpoint where [this passion] comes from. My family has been in drag racing and I married into a family that’s been in drag racing forever, so it’s just what I do.”
Salemi’s step children Evan, 15, and Akyra, 12, are also involved in the family’s way of life and serve as another motivator for Salemi.
“As Jon’s kids are getting older, it’s becoming a little bit easier because they can stay home while we’re on the road or get more involved in the team. Evan has regular jobs around the shop and goes to almost every race.
“I raced sportsman and watched all of these females. You aspired to be some of them and some of them you just sat back and wondered what was going on. Akyra needs someone to look up to in the sport. She needs to understand that females can do things with grace, professionalism and success, even in male dominated arenas. It’s super important to me to be a good role model in our sport because that’s what drove me to be able to do what I’m doing.”
It’s with that mentality that Salemi will begin her NHRA Pro Mod journey, excited to be the one to bring a female presence back to NHRA Pro Mod.
The NHRA stage is so much bigger than anything else. I’m really looking forward to being able to compete with some of the best names in Pro Modified.
“I have yet to race another female in Pro Mod, other than during a match race. We are few and far between right now so when I win a round, beating the boys has become just normal. I haven’t encountered any negativity from any of the male competitors yet. I think they see how serious I am about my racing, and they look at me as just another driver.”
Although Salemi is the first to officially throw her hat in the NHRA Pro Mod ring for 2018, Erica Enders-Stevens and Lizzy Musi have both expressed interest in competing on at least a part-time schedule. Meeting her first female competitor in Pro Mod may not be that far off for Salemi. Regardless of who’s in the other lane or what series she’s running Salemi has one focus.
“I try not to worry about who I’m racing. I just focus on my own racing and let the results show for themselves. The NHRA stage is so much bigger than anything else. I’m really looking forward to being able to compete with some of the best names in Pro Modified.”