This story originally appeared in the Upper Iowa University’s Editorial Services publication The Bridge. All photographs are credit their respective photographers.
Seated in her Upper Iowa University classroom, EmiLee Novak is confident few of her professors, classmates and even friends know that her favorite seat is behind the steering wheel of one of the fastest-accelerating cars in the world. As a driver in the National Hot Rod Association (NHRA) racing series, not only does the UIU senior reach speeds of nearly 230 mph but she can only bring her machine safely to a stop with the assistance of a parachute.
A 2015 graduate of Cedar Rapids (Iowa) Prairie High School, EmiLee earned an associate degree in parks and natural resources at Kirkwood Community College. She chose UIU for its Conservation Management and Environmental Science programs, due to UIU staff support in making the transition from a community college and the simple process to transfer course credits.
“Drag racing isn’t exactly something that comes up in conversations when people are talking about conservation practices,” EmiLee said. “I have a feeling that few people in my classes know much about the sport, so I don’t even bring it up.”
Born into a family of dragsters, EmiLee has attended races since she was in kindergarten. Her father, Shane, originally raced street bikes before becoming widely known on the racing circuit for competing in his ’75 Camaro. EmiLee also cheered on older sister Ashley, who began racing at the age of 8.
“I watched Ashley closely to learn what worked and didn’t work in the pits and on the track,” EmiLee said. “My sister was a very good racer until stepping away from the track at 18. She definitely passed her good traits onto me.”
Following in her sister’s footsteps, EmiLee also first climbed into a dragster at the age of 8. After anxiously awaiting her opportunity for more than a couple years, she now admits to being too fearless and confident during those early races.
Until the age of 18, the aspiring racer drove half-scale versions of Top Fuel cars as a junior dragster. Although younger competitors are restricted to slower speeds, the five-horsepower, single cylinder engines at this level can still reach speeds of 85 mph.
As she grew older and gained experience, EmiLee’s speeds steadily increased from 50 to 80 mph and the time to finish the junior division’s eighth-mile track decreased from 12.9 to 7.9 seconds. These faster times also equaled racing success.
“I was just a scrawny little girl when I first started out,” EmiLee confessed. “When I won the championship as an 8-year-old, I didn’t even know what it meant. I definitely didn’t expect to win it again at 13. It wasn’t ‘I’ who won it all that year. It was definitely a team effort.”
I always watch what I’m doing, even when I feel no one is watching. I also make sure to stop and talk to the little kids in the pits or even get a small ladder for them to climb into my car. Any one of them could be the future of my sport.
Those early championships gained the attention of her favorite driver and now family friend, three-time NHRA Top Fuel champion Antron Brown.
“During one race at the age of 13, Antron walked up, wished me luck and shook my hand,” EmiLee grinned. “I was strapped in my car so I couldn’t even see him but I didn’t wash that glove for years.”
Like all young drag racers, EmiLee looked forward to advancing to the “big cars” and the quarter-mile track when she turned 18. When that time came and she raced in the Super Comp Class, she soon found herself reaching speeds upwards of 180 mph. After winning two races that year, EmiLee moved onto Top Dragsters and now rockets down the quarter-mile track in only six seconds at 228 mph.
“At each level of racing, the competition gets tougher, and the traveling and preparation time continues to grow,” the Fairfax, Iowa, native said. “I haven’t won yet in Top Dragsters, but I realize it’s super competitive at this level. It’s the fastest bracket of racing and it is scary getting used to these speeds, but I wouldn’t want to do anything else.”
EmiLee doesn’t recall any drivers treating her differently because she was a female. She feels everyone looks at her as another competitor and she can quickly name a bunch of drivers who provide continuous support and advice. Nevertheless, the 20-year-old driver smiles when noting that some veteran drivers get upset briefly when she beats them.
Novak Racing mainly competes in NHRA Division 5, which includes stops in Iowa, Colorado, Nebraska and Missouri. The family calls Tri-State Raceway, located just outside of Earlville, Iowa, their home track May through September.
“Although we compete across the United States on great tracks such as Las Vegas Motor Speedway and Auto Club Raceway of Pomona in California, our local track remains my favorite,” EmiLee said. “I learned everything there. The owners, Reid and Jane Kuhlman, and manager Bill Cassil are great people. They would do anything for my family and me.”
She praises teammates Matt and Zach Sackman, team sponsor Brandon Hess of Brando Speed, and most of all her father for helping her to adjust to the car and competition each race day. While EmiLee has learned to inspect the tires, parachute, fuel and electronics, Shane Novak is his daughter’s chief mechanic, best friend and mentor.
“Dad means everything to me,” EmiLee said. “Without him, I wouldn’t be where I am in racing or in life. I’m his little girl and he knows he is putting his little girl in a car that races at speeds in excess of 220 miles per hour. His trust and confidence in me is all I need to perform at the level that I do.”
EmiLee also quickly credits her mom, Wendy, for a lifetime of love and support.
“Bless her soul,” EmiLee said. “Mom loves and hates our racing at the same time. I have never had an accident, but she realizes it is likely going to happen at some point. Everyone involved in racing has to have that mind set.”
I haven’t won yet in Top Dragsters, but I realize it’s super competitive at this level. It’s the fastest bracket of racing and it is scary getting used to these speeds, but I wouldn’t want to do anything else.
When she walks along the track or in the pits today, EmiLee is aware that she is now one of the torchbearers for the sport of drag racing and possibly even a hero to young race fans.
“I always watch what I’m doing, even when I feel no one is watching,” EmiLee said. “I also make sure to stop and talk to the little kids in the pits or even get a small ladder for them to climb into my car. Any one of them could be the future of my sport.”
EmiLee looks forward to spending the entire summer with her family. She and her dad will both race on the Lucas Oil Drag Racing Series schedule until the first weekend of UIU classes this fall. Emilee anticipates learning more from Shane as he competes in his ’69 Camaro in the Top Sportsman class during the upcoming season.
“Even at 20 years old, I enjoy hanging out and bonding with my parents, and racing is something that we enjoy sharing together,” EmiLee said. “Right now I plan on racing until I can’t. I want to have children someday and introduce them to the sport.”
EmiLee is on pace to graduate next year with a double major in environmental science and conservation management. Due to the positive influences provided by UIU faculty members, such as Scott Figdore, Kata McCarville and Paul Skrade, she plans to attend graduate school and pursue a career as a college professor.
“Since I like learning and sharing knowledge with others, I feel this would be a career I would enjoy,” she said as another large smile crossed her face. “Besides, there are very few occupations that would potentially provide me most of the summer to do what I truly love – racing.”