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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat

 

    Living life in fast forward

    A Bondurant School of High Performance Driving instructor waves the green flag during start practice while Elizondo drives by last Wednesday.
    A Bondurant School of High Performance Driving instructor waves the green flag during start practice while Elizondo drives by last Wednesday.

    CHANDLER, Ariz. – Amy Elizondo sat in Larry Pond’s motor home at the Firebird International Raceway main track three years ago trying to figure out what she wanted to do with her life. She wanted to be a professional race car driver in the top levels of NASCAR or the IndyCar Series, but what about an education? No one else in her family had gone to college.

    Pond, then 68, pulled out a tape measure. He told Elizondo to pinch the number of her age, 18, on the tape measure with one hand and pinch 25 with the other. Then he asked her when she thought she’d be done with her career. She said 80, where he pulled the end of the tape.

    “”I told her, ‘What you do from 18-25 will determine how successful you are from 25-80,'”” Pond said.

    She stared at the tape and thought about it for a moment. Until now, she considered herself invincible. Despite being raised most of her life by a single parent, she excelled on the racetrack, fighting through the times when the boys checked her into the walls, breaking the front axles of her go-karts. But she hadn’t looked at her life like this before.

    “”It was like a roadmap,”” Elizondo said. “”It’s not, ‘somewhere around here I want to do this.’ You have to have a plan. And Larry helped me create a plan.””

    Flash forward three years to the Bondurant Road Course, located on the southwest end of Firebird.

    Racing legend Bob Bondurant, 75, made his way out to the 1.6-mile track about 100 yards from his office last Thursday to watch students in the Bondurant School of High Performance Driving finish up the final day of the four-day course. After some instructional laps, a white open-top, one-seated Formula Ford car slowed to a stop next to the track and Elizondo got out.

    The biggest thing she had learned up to this point was heel-toe shifting – breaking, then using her heel to hit the throttle, bringing the RPMs up so there’s no lag when shifting. The next most important thing she learned, if not as important, was literally right in front of her on the track.

    “”What stands out the most?”” Bondurant asked Elizondo.

    “”The vision,”” she told him. “”I wasn’t looking far enough ahead and was just racing through everything. Once I started looking through everything, it’s almost like slow motion. You can feel it coming up.””

    Looking forward was something that Elizondo’s personal instructor, Danny Bullock, emphasized throughout the week. Driving a silver Cadillac CTS-V (0-60 in five seconds), he trailed a student in a yellow C6 Corvette (4.6 seconds) by mere feet on the track Wednesday, going at speeds upwards of 90 mph.

    “”Even though this guy is in front of me, I’m only worried about where I’m going to turn,”” he said. “”You want to keep your eyes on your reference points. Always be looking ahead.””

    Now that she’s graduated from the prestigious Bondurant School, Elizondo, 21, still finds herself looking ahead, this time at the UA in her immediate future, where a degree in optical engineering awaits.

    The early stages

    It was a winding road to get to where she is.

    When she was 5 years old, Amy, her parents and sister went to a Quarter Midgets go-kart race at the Phoenix International Raceway. Amy had heard stories of her dad, Manuel, racing Motocross and go-karts since he was 12 and she wanted to race the 1/4-sized go-karts. She begged for two years. When she turned 7, her parents finally got her a Quarter Midget. She went to her first practice on a Wednesday and won her first race on Sunday.

    By the time she was 13, Amy’s mom was no longer living with the family. But Amy, Manuel and her sister, Amanda, stayed faithful to the track. Once, the three of them were crewing for a speed truck team, but the race was cancelled. The Elizondos stayed anyway and Manuel decided to look into classes that were offered for Amy. That’s when Pond, current Managing Director of ASA Racing’s Professional AutoSports Division, came into the picture.

    “”Some very faithful people (Larry and his wife, Vicky) let a 13-year-old girl jump in her dad’s Camaro and jump on the track and get her license (in road courses),”” Elizondo said.

    From then on, Elizondo’s bond built with the Ponds. Especially Larry Pond, a man who won over 100 races in his career, going against great drivers like Bondurant and Jimmy Johnson. Pond gave Apple Inc.’s co-founder Steve Jobs $5,000 for parts to build the first personal computer and applied engineering to race cars rather than worrying specifically about the motor.

    “”I was successful in my career because I understood the dynamics of racing,”” Pond said. “”Understanding tires and suspension is the most important part of racing – more important than knowing every little nuance about the motor.””

    Elizondo progressed in her racing career throughout junior high and high school. She graduated from high school in the top five percent of her class, despite the fact that she was ditching classes on Thursdays, Fridays and Mondays regularly to race. She was also a first-chair violinist and an avid runner. Racing took precedent over everything, though.

    But Elizondo needed the proverbial backup plan, or “”insurance policy,”” as she called it. With Pond’s guidance, she became the first one in her family to take her education past high school, recently earning her associate’s degree at Mesa Community College.

    “”I was the first one in my family to go to college,”” Pond said. “”Then all my kids went. All my grandchildren will go. Once you set a trend, it’s easier for others to follow. Amy didn’t have that trend to follow. Now, down the line, her family can follow her.””

    She’s not a girl, she’s a driver

    Once Elizondo turned 16 she was kicked out of the Quarter Midget division. She moved up to speed trucks with ASA Racing under the Ponds. With 10 wins and four track records, she won the ProAutoSports Challenge in 2005 and was named Rookie of the Year. In a decade, she had gone from a chubby-cheeked girl who dominated in Quarter Midgets to a maturing young woman who dominated in an orange truck with her name on the side.

    The next year she was the top female driver in the Indoor World Karting Championship. By this point in her life, though, Elizondo learned that on the track, it’s driver against driver, not boys vs. girls.

    “”Age is more of an issue now than going against the guys,”” she said.

    Elizondo won’t let guys be a distraction to her racing and education. She was proposed to once but said no. She allowed a couple relationships to interfere with schoolwork in the past. But not anymore. Not until she’s finished with school and has her career on the right track.

    This is coming from someone who races with purple eye shadow and pink nail polish; someone who lists Manuel, Larry and Jeff Gordon as her top role models, and never mentions IndyCar diva Danica Patrick.

    Those things just don’t ever get to Elizondo. Once she was serving as an instructor for a male driver and his friends in his Hummer H2. After some reckless driving, she told him they were going to be switching seats and she’d drive him back. “”I’m not letting a chick drive me back,”” he said.

    “”Then you can walk back,”” she replied.

    They switched and Elizondo drove back.

    “”There’s a lot of lip service toward girls in the industry,”” Pond said. “”But she handles it well.””

    Added Bondurant of the stereotype of female racers: “”There’s nothing like it. It’s how you think and how you train. If you want something bad enough, you can get it. It’s not easy; it takes a lot of work and concentration every time you go out on the track.””

    The depth of the Ponds

    About a year ago, Elizondo moved in with the Ponds in Chandler. Larry Pond has taken Elizondo to many dinners with his friends, including CEOs of major companies. Last year they went to Charlotte, N.C., where she completed Andy Hillenberg’s Fast Track Driver School at Lowe’s Motor Speedway and qualified for an ARCA license.

    Elizondo didn’t lose contact with her father – the man who gave her a love for racing and impeccable manners – but there was a mutual agreement that the Ponds could give her more.

    “”(Larry) and Vicky and some of their friends they’ve introduced me to, they’re golden,”” Elizondo said. “”(Larry) says that they’re out there everywhere, but it’s the ones that you find or that find you that truly make the difference. I’ll never forget what they’ve done for me and what they’ve helped me to do.

    “”Growing up where I did, to be where I am would have been 100 times harder than it is right now,”” she added. “”Their help and their support and their guidance has meant everything to where I am now and where I’m going to be later.””

    The next step

    Elizondo moved into a townhouse in Tucson on Sunday with her dog and turtles. She’s going to get her optical engineering degree from the UA and maybe minor in aeronautics. She and Pond have looked into an internship at Raytheon to get her set up for that insurance policy.

    After that, she’ll continue to work on that NASCAR contract that has been in the works. IndyCar racing is a possibility, too. The checkered flag won’t be waved for Elizondo for a long time in the game of life. She’s got a ways to go on that tape measure, and though she may have many possible roads to go down in the future, she won’t look back.

    “”I have so much to think about now, about going forward,”” she said. “”You learn from what you can and you keep going.””

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