KNOXVILLE, Ia. — The rumbling thunder of starting engines mingles with the booming roar of announcers exhorting an already boisterous crowd, creating the deafening wall of sound descending on the pits of Knoxville Raceway.
Just before one of the biggest races of the night, chaos reigns as crews make last-minute tuneups and racers prepare for their dirt-track battle. But McKenna Haase is focused and calm.
She’s been in the cockpit of her pink and green sprint car for the last 20 minutes, reading the “racer’s prayer” posted next to her wheel and turning a small piece of plastic sheeting over and over in her hand.
This is her domain.
It's where she found herself when she was a young girl searching for her identity. And it is where she’s retreated often this summer as she recovers from the emotional roller-coaster of the past two years.
Starting in late 2016, Haase, 21, was pummeled with bad news.
She didn’t get a full-time spot in NASCAR’s Drive for Diversity program. And the 2017 summer season was the worst of her young professional career, costing her many of the sponsors she’d fought hard to secure.
Through it all, she pushed forward, excelling in the testosterone-laden, mud-soaked world of Sprint Car racing. But her success came with a price: Haase has been inappropriately touched, grabbed and called names at the track.
Off the track, she maintained a full course load as a finance major at Drake University, ran a training program for youth drivers, held a part-time job and was getting beaten up at her regular Krav Maga training sessions.
Eventually, her body started to shut down from exhaustion. After spending most of her life reaching for more speed, she has had to learn to slow down.
She moved back in with her parents, who live in southeast Des Moines, switched to part-time schooling and rededicated her life to racing, God and getting healthy.
This year, Haase, an elite-level racer who is the first woman to win a Sprint Car feature race at the Knoxville Raceway, has had her best racing season yet, visiting the storied track's victory lane twice.
This month, she’ll have the opportunity to race in Indianapolis for an important team, marking one of the biggest tryouts of her nascent career.
But right now, she has this race.
As the pedal feels the weight of her foot, she feels the weight of expectations. Each time she gets in the cockpit, she feels pressure to win for her fans and her family, but there’s even more heat this time because she won the feature race last week.
"The worst thing about race car drivers is that they judge themselves as humans depending on their last finish on the track,” said Kendra Jacobs, Knoxville’s marketing director and the daughter of a driver.
“Great, awful, worthy or not, it’s all determined by where they finished the weekend before, and that’s not a healthy way to judge yourself.”
On the track, as in life, even though bolts are tightened and tires properly inflated, Haase can’t predict what will happen after she takes off.
But, like the back of her beloved car says, all she needs to win is “faith, trust and a little pixie dust.”
A few hours before the starting flag drops, the pits are an entirely different world.
As crews unload cars, drivers wander and chat collegially, catching up on what’s happened since they last were together.
Haase's father, Kevin Haase, and her crew chief are way ahead of schedule. Even though they are still fiddling, the car is race ready.
She leans back in the well of one of her car’s wheels as she replies to fans on Twitter and Facebook. The night hasn’t even begun, but she’s a bit worn out.
Last night, the youth drivers she coaches had a race that kept her up until the wee hours. This morning, she went to Cedar Rapids for a part. And tonight, she still has two homework assignments to finish for her summer classes.
“I used to be like a puppy running around all over this place to talk with people,” she said. “Now, I stay inside the trailer more just to focus.”
Kelly Haase, McKenna’s mother, runs the merchandise table on the concourse. A former emergency room radiology technician, she supports her daughter but isn't comfortable with racing.
Sipping an iced tea, Kelly admits that she should have expected Haase, “her daredevil child,” to end up in some sort of dangerous field.
“From the time she toppled out of her crib as a 10-month-old, she was like, 'Game on.'"
At her older sister Makaila’s softball tournaments, Haase would lead a brigade of younger siblings to climb trees or scale rocks or, as she did once, play precariously close to the edge of a distant cliff.
The Haases were mindful of their youngest girl’s safety, but they couldn’t keep her tied to the ground.
They also couldn’t keep her still: She played volleyball, basketball, soccer and softball; was in Girl Scouts and 4-H; and trained her dog to compete in agility races.
“She was constantly pushing things to the next level,” Kelly said. “Like, we took her to go horseback riding. And she didn’t want a pony, she wanted a horse, and she didn’t want to just ride, she wanted to jump and then she wanted to barrel race.
"It could never just be."
Race cars weren't part of the Haases’ life until a chance meeting with NASCAR driver Kasey Kahne at a mall sent third-grade McKenna into an obsession with all things racing, including getting in the cockpit herself.
"For a while, it was like World War III in our house,” Makaila said. “McKenna and I would joke, ‘Don’t say the R word,’ which was racing, of course.
“But I understand where my parents were coming from. It was expensive, and it was dangerous, and we didn’t have a lot of time anyway, and it was something my family knew nothing about.”
But the strong-willed little girl wouldn’t let anything get in the way of her dreams. She’d watch races on YouTube for hours and memorize car parts, drivers and the prices of go-karts in the classified ads.
When 11-year-old Haase learned there was a men’s league at the local go-kart place, she joined, showing up every week in her homemade firesuit — a black long-sleeve shirt, black leggings and black wrestling shoes.
"I didn't weigh enough, so my cart would bounce," Haase said. “I could get second, but I could never win, so I’d be bawling after league saying, ‘I want to beat the boys,’ and it was month and month of that.”
Her parents cut her a deal: At 16, when she knew how to drive legally, she could race. In the meantime, she’d save up the money to buy a kart, which could cost around $2,800.
After two years of league, her father relented and took 12-year-old Haase to just look at one of the go-karts she’d found in the classifieds.
By the end of the evening, Haase had her first car.
With race-day adrenaline now coursing through her, Haase hops from lane to lane, visiting with racers before heading to the drivers meeting.
There, more than 50 people listen raptly about what to expect and the order of the evening before everyone prays for a safe night.
In this sea of people, Haase is one of five women. And tonight, she’s the only woman who will get behind the wheel of a sprint car.
Haase outwardly embraces her femininity with her car’s bright colors and Tinker Bell theme and the pink bow she ties to the end of her braid, a trademark of sorts.
But her gender also leads to “scrutiny,” said Jacobs, the marketing director, and people “dissecting her every move.”
A driver once told Haase that there was “nothing worse than seeing that Tinker Bell waving at you” as she came flying by. She heard that another driver’s colleagues left a pink bow on his desk the Monday after she beat him.
When she first started racing at Knoxville at age 17, everyone was welcoming and “grace-giving,” Makaila said. But, "unfortunately, envy and jealousy are very real things in the racing world."
"The more McKenna started to win, the more competitive the guys have become," she said.
After her success earlier this year, Haase was attacked on social media, threatened at the track and had her car “teched” multiple times, meaning special tests were run to ensure it was legal.
“The second time they teched her car, I was furious,” Jacobs said. “I went back and talked to her, and she had this line of fans still waiting for her there and she said, 'There are times when it gets too hard to deal with this stuff, but these fans keep me doing it.'"
Other drivers “make it very clear to her sometimes that they don’t want her around, and she has never stooped to that level,” Jacobs added.
The gender difference rears its head in other big and small ways, too.
"Think about hair ties," Haase said. "If you don’t have a hair tie, who are you going to ask? Not to mention a tampon."
As she’s grown from girl to woman, she experienced unwanted sexual advances, including having men call her names, forcibly touch and grab her or even shove hands down her pants. Each time, she felt small and unworthy.
She hesitates to bring this up. She wants to give the guys the benefit of the doubt, she said; maybe they didn’t know that they made her feel this way.
“It just hurts, because once you don’t give them what they want, they are gone,” she said. “In some cases, they didn’t even know my name, so it’s like you don’t have an identity."
To be clear: Haase knew what she was getting into. Many of her interests — ninja training, taekwondo, finance — defy traditional gender norms. She understands locker-room talk can come with the territory.
She doesn’t want to be treated differently, she just wants to be respected.
“I feel like I hear that all the time, ‘She’s in a man’s world, so she better start acting like it,’” Haase said. “But treating somebody like a man comes down to respect, too.”
McKenna’s parents’ basement, which doubles as her team’s office, is covered in memorabilia and fan gifts.
Papers, bills and homework assignments are strewn across her desk, and inspirational quotes and handwritten business models act as her wall decor.
As she sits for an interview, she reflexively straightens and realigns the stacks of postcards on her desk.
Sorry, she explains, she’s meticulous, and she has been for as long as she can remember.
Even in second grade, she’d ask for harder spelling words and stress over a project being as good as it could possibly be, said her teacher, Katie Black.
At Carlisle High School, she was one of the last students to leave at the end of the day, putting in extra hours on assignments.
As a child, she stumbled onto the life story of Warren Buffett and became preoccupied with investing. She started playing the stock market with a fake million-dollar account in middle school.
As a sophomore, she opened a real portfolio.
“My original goal was to match Buffett’s worth at every age in his life, which I was doing for a while, if you factor in inflation and all that. That ship sailed once I got more into the racing stuff.”
But the racing brought her a goal to work toward: She had calculated that she would need about $30,000 to get a 305 Sprint Car team off the ground.
So she was constantly on the lookout for ways to make money. At her sister’s traveling softball games, she would sit outside the port-a-potties and sell hand sanitizer squirts for a quarter.
She was so successful — making $75 her first weekend — that she hired kids to work other port-a-potties before park management shut her down.
She walked dogs, picked up leaves and sold batteries door to door. She always kept her pitch presentation with her in case sponsorship opportunity arose.
“I would be driving down the road and see a business and Google the owner in the parking lot and go in and ask for the owner,” she said.
When she moved up to a higher Sprint Car class during the 2017 season, she needed to raise substantially more than she ever had. Engines for 360 Sprint Cars can sell for more than twice that of a 305 car.
That January, McKenna dedicated herself to getting the money to be able to race that summer. She went to hundreds of businesses.
Taking a full course load, including advanced corporate finance, she ran herself into the ground. She would come back to the dorm late, wearing suits from sponsorship meetings or class and pass out on the floor.
A doctor diagnosed her with clinical burnout.
"There was one night I couldn’t sit up on my own, so my roommate fed me dinner. That was when I was like, OK, I need to make a change here."
She moved in with her parents, switched to part-time classes and tried to cut back on extracurriculars to focus on racing.
Her mother worries that she’s missing out on classic markers of young adulthood. (Kelly made McKenna go to part of prom; she walked in the grand march, left to race at Knoxville and was driven back to the dance.)
As upperclassmen, McKenna’s friends are studying abroad and figuring out where their jobs are going to take them after school. A question lingers with Kelly: Is racing worth it?
“There’s a rebel in her trying to prove something,” Kelly said. “Sometimes I worry that I don’t see love anymore but just a deep competitiveness.
"I don’t know what she’s searching for, but I want her to know she can stop whenever.”
McKenna is stern in her conviction: She needs to race. The reset was warranted, she admits, but she doesn’t need people telling her to relax or take a break or, the worst, "say no."
She has rejected many things: football games, friends, bonfires, alcohol, cussing and being a typical kid.
“I said no to all this stuff, so I can be the best role model I can (and) hopefully use my platform to better the world in some way,” she said.
Standing on the edge of the track's turn two, McKenna’s dad is tense.
He moves robot-like as he watches her zoom by the track in front of him, following her the rest of the way on the big screen and turning back to see her come around the turn again.
“Most parents buckle their kids in a car seat,” he said. “Could you imagine buckling her into that and saying bye?”
A car spins out in front of McKenna and she goes into a wall. Kevin stands on the small wooden stump in front of him and cranes to see.
She’s OK, but the car is busted up. McKenna is undeterred.
She's accustomed to living at full speed as long as she can, whatever may happen. It’s part of the reason she is so open about the issues she’s faced.
“You think this is about driving a race car?" she asked me the first time we met. "No, this is about bringing light.”
A deeply religious person, she means, in part, God’s light, but she also means standing up to say it's not OK how women are sometimes treated at the track.
It is OK to fit outside the stereotype of race car drivers being strong men. And being your truest self is a freedom on par with taking turns at breakneck speed.
“It has been the greatest honor of my life to see some of these guys open up to me,” she said. “To see their personality, sides they haven’t shown anybody else, and to hear the things they’re struggling with that in our sport, you’re a wimp or you’re a baby for talking about that, but in reality, we need to be talking about.”
Even as she white-knuckles through her races, Kelly believes McKenna can help set the standard for how women should be treated in this insular world.
“Over the years, they’ve tried to break her, but she is holding her own,” she said. “So, I hope that if she is going to do this, she can be the voice of that change.”
After the races, Knoxville’s pits open for fans to meet the racers. Haase has the longest line by far, and she’ll stay until the last person.
In front is 6-year-old Grace Williams, who has been bugging her dad all race to meet McKenna. Farther down is Ruth Ann Wagner, 77, who McKenna baked cookies with once just to make her smile.
Then there’s Tori Jackson, 15, who texts and emails with Haase when she’s having a “down day.”
This is the community Haase longed to create, one where what matters is what you pay forward.
She realizes she had to go through all the valleys to get to the peak she’s at now. And she understands better than ever that the number of races she wins isn’t going to change the culture, but the impact she has on people might.
Her dream is still NASCAR, but she’s content with what she's doing now.
Recently, she’s been flashing back to all the quiet moments she spent in her bedroom reading rule books, studying drivers, crunching numbers and memorizing classified ads for go-karts.
As she calculates where she’s going, she’s holding tight to those earliest racing memories — and to what that girl believed it took to make it to victory lane.
All she really needs is faith, trust and a little pixie dust.
Courtney Crowder travels the state's 99 counties as the Register's Iowa Columnist. You can contact her at (515) 284-8360 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @courtneycare.