A black woman wheels and deals on the NASCAR track

Melanie Thomas gets in the pit

By Darrick Ignasiak

For the NNPA

MARTINSVILLE, Va. - Melanie Thomas’ early resume gave no hint of what was to come. She held several typical jobs - she had worked in a library, was employed in the day care field and was hired by a bank. But Thomas is anything but typical. So she packed everything into her car and made the 14-hour journey from Lake Geneva, Wis. to Hickory, N.C. to follow her dream.

Her dream was to work as pit-crew member for a NASCAR driver. It was a dream she had clung to since she attended her first race at the age of 13. Now, 13 years later, she is making it come true.

Recently Thomas, was a member of the pit crew of NASCAR driver, Morgan Shepard. Two days later after her brief stint with Shepard, she joined CJM Motorsports, another NASCAR team headed by driver Mike Skinner - to be the right-rear tire changer. In all, she has worked on four teams.

“To have a girl that wants to be a tire changer and works at it shows real commitment on her part,” said Robbie Loomis, a former crew chief for Jeff Gordon and executive vice president of operations for Petty Enterprises,

A committed Thomas was the first woman to ever to “go over the wall” (working on a car during a racing pit stop) in a Nextel Cup event. She was also the first female to do pit work in a Nextel Cup points event. Thomas’ growing list of “firsts” has largely gone unnoticed by the news media, which is fine with Thomas.

“I’d rather be off the radar to give me a chance to get my feet wet,” said Thomas. She is 5 feet, 7 inches and weights 160 pounds, about 25 pounds less than when she left Wisconsin.

And although she prefers being off the radar, she does not go unnoticed. As an African- American and as a female, Thomas has overcome two hurdles to compete at the professional level.

“People tend to look at you more and question what you do and if you have the ability to do it,” Thomas explained. “There are always people I know that, once they see what you do, they go out and tell everybody.”

And she gives them plenty to talk about.

The first time that Thomas went over-the wall was in a non-points event at the Nextel Open in May at Charlotte. She cleaned the grill and took tape off the windshield.

“I remember standing on the infield watching them play and watching the cars drive around the track and thinking, ‘Oh my gosh I never thought I was going to be here doing this stuff.’”

She has made quite an impression doing that stuff in the fastest growing sport in America.

“She catches on so damn quick, that it’s amazing,” said Derek Sutton, a fabricator and classmate of Thomas’ at Bobby Isaac Motorsports. “If she wants to do it she will.” In addition to changing tires, Thomas is a fabricator in the CJM Motorsports shop in Mooresville, N.C. She does welding and makes miscellaneous parts of the car.

Thomas’ decision to work in a practically all-male environment was made while she was in another field dominated by men.

After the war in Iraq had started, she volunteered for the Army. While undergoing basic training in Missouri, she had some second thoughts.

“It was really unsettling,” she said. “You never really know if you’re going to go to war and defend your country. It makes you think if you joined for the right reason.” Two years later, she received an honorable discharge after injuring her knees. She then turned her thoughts to racing.

“I waited way longer than what I should have,” she said. “I let people say that if I came down here with the way the sport is, there is no way I could make it. I really don’t think that is true.”

Thomas wants to make it as a crew chief one day, but her plan now is to improve her skills and to land a job with a bigger team. She’s has offers from other Nextel Cup teams, but knows she knows she has to pay her dues at the bottom, working on teams that are fairly new and have limited budgets.

“It has been hectic because we are lower on the totem pole at NASCAR,” said Thomas. “We have to rush because we are the last to go through everything. It’s a little bit harder for the smaller team to make it through everything.”

Many of her friends and relatives thought it would be too hard for a Black woman to make it in the auto racing world.

“It feels good, and I’m glad I proved them wrong,” she said. “I still can’t believe this is real. I work very hard. It’s not like this is a cake walk. This really makes me happy.”

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