DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. (March 21, 2007) – Peter Hernandez got the 2007 Drive for Diversity off to a strong start.

Jessica Helberg and Paul Harraka are waiting patiently to take their turns.

“People are really, really excited about watching me race,” Helberg, “which makes me even more excited.”

The trio is part of the seven-person 2007 Drive for Diversity driver development program. While four of the drivers will participate in the NASCAR Grand National Division, Hernandez, Helberg and Harraka will race in the NASCAR Whelen All-American Series, which kicked off the season Saturday night.

Among the first weekend of races was a 100-lap Late Model feature at Caraway Speedway in Asheboro, N.C. That’s where Hernandez will spend the season. He opened in promising style with a fourth-place finish.

“Testing is one thing and seeing how we are with everybody else is another,” said Hernandez, who qualified eighth on the historic .455-mile asphalt oval. “I’m really happy with the whole weekend.

“It looks like it’s going to be a really fun year.”

On a cold night, Hernandez said he was conservative on his qualifying lap. A first-lap caution put the cars in single file and pole sitter Brad Brinkley won the race. Hernandez was able to move up four spots but ran out of laps before he could challenge for third.

“We ended up passing cars and being pretty competitive,” said Hernandez, who will get the weekend off while Caraway hosts the NASCAR Southern Modified Series before his season resumes with a 75-lap race March 31.

Helberg and Harraka will have to wait just a little longer than that.

Both are competing this year for Bill McAnally Racing at All-American Speedway in Roseville, Calif.

Their All-American season begins April 7 with a 100-lap event.

“We’re ready,” said Helberg after a long winter offseason. “Personally, I’m excited. It’s been a while since I’ve been in a car. It feels like it’s been forever. … I know the equipment is going to be great. I’m really excited to see how I do.”

Just because they’re not in a car, though, doesn’t mean they’re not busy. All-American is rejoining NASCAR, and McAnally has been instrumental in many of the track’s improvements. When they’re not working on the cars — or building the trailer or pit cart from ground up — the drivers are working with McAnally and the track to reach out to the fans.

“I enjoy that part of racing,” Helberg said. “That’s another part of racing that keeps me interested.”
NASCAR’s strive for diversity at the grassroots level isn’t limited to the Drive for Diversity program.
At LaCrosse Fairgrounds Speedway in Wisc., for example, Emily Sue Steck will be making the step up to the track’s premier division, Late Models. Steck started out in the four-cylinder Hornet Division before moving up to the Sportsman Division the last couple years. She finished in the top 10 in points and had several fastest qualifiers, earning a promotion.

“She’s got talent and it’s nice to see she’s getting a good break this year,” track owner Chuck Deery said. “She’s got a good team behind her and we’ll see how she turns out.”

The LaCrosse season will open April 14.

In New England, Shelly Perry has moved up after her remarkable 2006. Perry won the SK Light division at Stafford Motor Speedway and the Mini Stock division at Thompson International Speedway last year, becoming the first woman in the distinguished history of the two Connecticut tracks to win a championship. Perry has made the jump to run each of the track’s premier divisions. Thompson begins April 14 and Stafford opens April 29.