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Tamara Silk’s introduction to drag racing involved eight-hour family car trips up and down the country. Now she’s rated as the quickest woman in New Zealand. Alice Soper writes.
Silk is a name made for the headlines, and one that is synonymous with drag racing in New Zealand. Robin Silk was a veteran of the sport, for many years one of the wildest drivers competing in the Wild Bunch class. He later worked in one of the top hot rod shops in America as a fabricator, showcasing Kiwi ingenuity. Robin’s occasional disregard for personal safety led to stricter enforcement of competition rules, but also helped get his kids out on the track.
“I think he had to stand on the back of my car while I drove it. I said he had to come with me,” Tamara Silk, Robin’s youngest daughter, recalls. “My sister said to Dad, ‘Can you do that on the racetrack too?’”
For the Silks and many others in the drag racing community, the sport has always been a family affair. The location of the drag strips in Meremere and Masterton meant a lot of roadtripping for the Kāpiti whānau.
“It was the norm that you’d hop in the car on a Friday night to drive for eight hours to Meremere,” Tamara remembers. “Unpack a whole lot of stuff, go down the track in about eight seconds, three times. Pack it all back up again and drive all the way home.”
Robin, ever the optimist, would instigate these trips regardless of the forecast. If there was a 70% chance of rain, “Dad would always say, ‘But it might not.’”
His enthusiasm for drag racing infected his daughter and son. On the strip, “I am known as Robin’s daughter which is a great feeling”, Tamara admits, “but you want to have your own identity because you’ve earned it.”
And Tamara is making a name for herself. Now the quickest woman in New Zealand, beating Karen Hay’s 2014 record with a time of 5.853 seconds over the quarter mile. This equates to a speed of 109.59 metres per second. Hay had beaten Faye Grant’s record, which had stood for 24 years. The rate at which women are now breaking records in this sport mirrors their speed on the track.
Tamara broke the record with Robin proudly trackside. Now her participation in the sport has taken on an added importance. “One of the last things he said to us before he passed away was ‘Don’t give up drag racing.’”
Tamara is keeping her promise alongside her brother, Cory, who provides essential maintenance. Her Mum, Vicky, has also been recruited into her race-day team, helping her daughter reverse into the starting blocks, just as she did for Robin. Their father’s absence means they now must turn to each other and the drag-racing community to replace his encyclopaedic knowledge.
Cory has spent most of his career racing in Tamara’s hand-me-down cars but is considering sharing with his big sister next season. These siblings have largely avoided rivalry by driving in different classes, only officially taking each other on once, when Cory came out on top. Competing directly is unlikely to disrupt this bond, as New Zealand drag racing is a good clean fight.
“It’s very much a team sport, even with the other competitors.” Tamara explains that if you’re racing next round, they’ve broken something “and you’ve got the part, you’ll give it to them.”
Taking her place in the driver’s seat and the record books hasn’t raised any eyebrows in the sport that raised her. Outside racing, surprise reveals more about people’s gender expectations than anything else. This reserved executive secretary seems remote from the roar of the engines. Her co-workers will gather in awe if she chooses to share a video of her latest exploits. Her quiet confidence is no doubt the secret to her success in a sport with no margin for error.
“When I first started, it was just like, how do I have time to do anything? I blinked and I’m at the end of the track. But it’s in slow motion now.”
In a film about a competitor’s life, there would be a moment where everything suddenly clicked into place. But in reality her progress has crept forward by the millisecond. This is a sport that allows modifications to suit a driver’s temperament as well as their abilities, so the vehicle’s specifications grow alongside the driver’s confidence. This tinkering teamwork is what has driven her to the top of her game. Now she is known as the quickest drag racer in the current Top Alcohol class.
However, the label of quickest woman doesn’t always sit comfortably with Tamara, whose ambition is to remain the best in her class without the asterisk. Drag racing is a sport where there is no division by gender after all. Being in a minority in a sport, however, makes you your gender’s role model by default. While it may not be her style to take up this space, Tamara understands that her visibility and success has a positive effect on the growing number of girls in the sport.
You would think that prowess in motorsport would translate into a real-world advantage but Tamara laughs “I can’t, for the life of me, parallel park.” She won’t be seen hooning around Kāpiti in anything flash, her runabout a necessary compromise to fund her drag habit.
Her daughter, too, keeps her feet firmly on the ground. Lacey will be too busy playing with the other kids at a meet to be fussed about what records her Mum is breaking. She is reaching the age at which Tamara began competing so she is being gently coaxed to get behind the wheel.
But there is no rush. Drag racing will always be a part of this family.