September 30, 2023

Meet the college freshman who races a souped-up Chevy Blazer and studies psych

Colorado State University freshman Danika Fickler has drag racing in her blood—and her name. Her middle name, Carrera, is Spanish for “race,” and it was given to her by her drag-racing champion parents. Fickler’s father, Kyle, notched his most recent National Hot Rod Association (NHRA) win in 2019 at Heartland Motorsports Park in Topeka, Kansas and her mother, Debra, won her class at the same track from 2005 to 2007. In many ways, that track is their home. Kyle and Debra even honeymooned there, and now Danika Fickler is making a name for herself in the family business.

If you’re a drag racing fan, you’re familiar with a variety of vehicles on the strip in 75 classes from street roadsters, to souped-up sedans, coupes, trucks, and more. All of it is governed by the NHRA, which sets the rules for drag racing at facilities across North America. That includes Fickler’s home track, Heartland. 

Here’s a look at Fickler’s career so far as well as the Blazer’s history—and the tech that makes it go. 

400 horsepower (or more)

Piloting a 1986 Chevrolet S-10 Blazer, Fickler, who is 19 years old, spent part of her senior year of high school racing. Heartland Motorsports Park started a new High School Points class two years ago, and she signed up, eager to continue her trajectory as a racer. She and the Blazer found their way to an NHRA championship event in September of last year as she finished out her season and got ready to start college, so it’s been a great vehicle for her. But what really makes it special is that Fickler bought it from her godmother Beth Hyatt, a fixture in the drag racing scene herself.

Hyatt’s husband Tim, who died in 2015, had built out the Blazer with all the muscle it needed to be a hot rod. While the body, brakes, and fuel tank are original, just about everything else is built with aftermarket parts, including its powerful small-block 355-cubic-inch Chevy V8 racing engine.

The 1986 Chevy S-10 Blazer wasn’t born to be a track monster. It was originally built with a 2.8-liter overhead-valve V6 making 125 horsepower and 150 pound-feet of torque, which is a far cry from what Fickler’s drag racer gets with its 400-hp replacement engine. That horsepower figure is an educated guess, Fickler tells PopSci, because the engine has never been measured on a dynamometer. (A dynamometer, or “dyno” for short, measures torque, which allows for the calculation of horsepower with a standard formula: torque times revolutions per minute divided by 5,252.) 

It’s sturdy, too, and Fickler has learned to trust the vehicle and herself. 

“The only time [we almost] crashed the Blazer was when my dad and I first took it out to the track,” she says. “Other than that, I’ve felt the car break on me once and it had to sit for two months. It was scary to get back in the car because I didn’t want something to make the car break again. It’s a thing where you get in the car and pray, ‘Please shift, please shift.”

Even more important, Fickler learned how to take the laws on regular roads that exist for safety very seriously. When she was racing quarter midgets (a one-quarter-scale version of a midget race car, which is in itself a tiny car) and then junior dragsters as a kid, she practiced controlling the car in various situations to avoid potential mishaps. 

“You see so much bad stuff happening to other people [on the roads],” she said. “Speeding at ridiculous high speeds is dangerous, and there is ten times more danger doing that on regular roads.” 

The psychology of drag racing

Not everyone can be born into a racing family, and Danika encourages anyone with an interest to try it. She’s seen people show up at test and tune events (those are basically open call opportunities for anyone to try drag racing for fun) at Heartland and they get hooked. 

“It may seem complicated, at first,” she said. “If you’re not born into it, you might think it’s hard,  but the drag racing community is so helpful. If you indicate you need assistance, someone will help you.” 

For Fickler’s races, the vehicles line up at the staging area each with a “dialed” time that predicts the amount of time it will take for that car to complete a straight-line quarter mile. The cars don’t have to have the same dialed time; if one car is predicted to be slower, it starts first and the other jumps off the line after the difference has elapsed. 

“You’re either chasing or being chased,” Fickler told the Wall Street Journal last year. “If you go quicker than your dialed time, you are disqualified. So you want to beat the other person by the smallest margin possible. In order to do that, you are working both the gas and the brakes.”

After 10 years of motorsports, Fickler isn’t planning to stop any time soon. Now that she has her diploma and finished out the season that she started during her senior year of high school, she can no longer compete in the High School class. She is planning to get her Super Gas license, which means she’ll be able to race what the NHRA describes as “primarily full-bodied cars and street roadsters,” using electronic timers and throttle stops to “run as close to the class standard without going under.”

That means her 55,000-mile Blazer will be retired soon, but it’s staying in the family. Currently, the market for mid-80s Blazers is hot, but it’s special to the Fickler clan—so it’s not going anywhere. Meanwhile, Fickler is pursuing a degree in psychology, which might sound like an odd choice for a racing enthusiast until she notes that both of her parents were lawyers and drag racers at the same time. The college student is planning to come home to Topeka to race at Heartland to hone her skills and stay competitive while exploring new tracks across the country. 

“I was racing the three same guys over and over again,” Danika said. “The class will be much bigger for me, with more rounds. One of the biggest things I learned is that you don’t plan to win a race, you plan to win a round.”

In September, Fickler won an NHRA championship event and finished second in points for the season. 

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