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Life in the fast lane suits Wakefield police chief's daughter just fine

Special to the Union Leader

October 22. 2012 9:30PM
Melissa Fifield, 20, of Wakefield raced in the Valenti Modified Racing Series this season. She wrapped up the season on Saturday at Lee Speedway but didn't qualify for the featured race. Her crew chief is her dad, Wakefield Police Chief and amateur mechanic Ken Fifield. (LARISSA MULKERN PHOTO)

WAKEFIELD -- Move over Danica Patrick.

The small town of Wakefield has an aspiring female race car driver in its midst. And she is Melissa Fifield, the 20-year-old daughter of town Police Chief Kenneth Fifield, who together form the Pine Knoll Racing Team. This past Saturday, the duo and pit crew finished the 2012 Valenti Modified Racing Series at the Lee Speedway Octoberfest. Melissa, who started racing Junior Champ Carts when she was 13, did not qualify for Sunday's featured race as she came in 25th out of about 30, just one slot beyond the cutoff. But there's always next year.

In a pre-race interview at the family's home and garage on Friday, Melissa said every race is a new experience, with differences in tracks and how both car and driver adapt. Her Modified Series car, number 7, has a top straightaway speed of 140 miles per hour, has 600 horsepower and weighs 2,580 pounds with her at the wheel. Melissa drove in about 14 Valenti Modified Series Races this past season, gaining the experience and seat time that will prepare her for the 2013 season that begins in March in Waterford, Conn. Ken Fifield said they travel all over New England to compete, and that in many if not most races, Melissa is the only female driver. Since it's hard to tell the driver's gender of any racing car when drivers are wearing helmets and jumpsuits, Melissa said she wants to paint the car for next season, black with pink lettering.

Melissa, whose car dons lucky number 7 and a Christian cross, entered the Modified Racing Series this year. She said the Modified Series is one level under NASCAR Series.

'I'd love to get there, someday,' said Melissa. 'I'd love to do the Waylon NASCAR tour in a few years, but it all depends on drive and money.'

Ken adds, 'In racing you have to pay your dues.' As driving skills improve, drivers gain the attention of sports scouts and potential sponsors. The Pine Knoll Racing team has several local sponsors and a team of volunteer pit crew members including Jerry O'Connor, Doug Labrie, Andy O'Brien and Milton Police Chief Mark McGowan. One goal is to attract a larger corporate sponsorship to help cover some of the expenses related to the sport. In return, Pine Knoll Racing could offer exposure and publicity. Melissa is unique because she's among a small number of female drivers in the Modified Series.

'There's not too many females in the series. The (male) drivers don't really treat you too differently,' Melissa said. 'The drivers in the series are all actually very friendly,' she said.

Family, friends, a bit of money, and a whole lot of religious faith goes into what makes the Pine Knoll Racing Team click. She and her dad pray before every race, and she's part of a group of young Christian drivers.

From the sidelines, Ken's job number one is to make sure his daughter doesn't crash. They communicate through headphones where Ken can spot Melissa as she maneuvers around the track and tell her what to do as her visibility has some blind spots.

'My main focus is to keep her out of accidents,' he said, 'and to help her look ahead where she can't see. I tell her where the cars are and when a car goes by, tell her when she's clear.'

She may not have qualified this weekend, but ends the season wiser, and with a to-do list for the winter.

'She got some experience,' he said, adding the qualifying race pointed to many challenges with gear and equipment. He said they only had one 10-lap practice on Saturday, when the track was wet. The only other time this season Melissa raced at Lee Speedway was in the summer when it was hot and the car handled differently.

The Pine Knoll Racing team will spend the winter, 'taking the car apart,' said Ken. 'We'll repaint the chassis, send the rear end out for an overhaul, put in an new transmission and rebuild the engine,' he said.

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