Commentary

Llewellyn's road to history: a quarter-mile at 190 mph

Originally Published: February 8, 2008
By Tom Rinaldi | ESPN

The track looks simple: dead straight and wide open.

A quarter-mile of opportunity dressed in black, it cares not for pedigree or past. Speed and courage are the only two requirements to be invited onto its shimmering floor. Before the riot of noise and blur of shape that play out here, the strip holds a Sunday brand of silence. But when the lights count down and the gauges top out, make no mistake: The sound is most unholy.

It is a sound that sought Peggy Llewellyn out and called her forward. She had the credentials -- the craving for acceleration and the complete bravery -- to make herself at home here. And in the blinding rush past the finish line, she also had the talent to make some history.

"It feels empowering," Llewellyn says, "because you're the first to do it. That's something you'll take with you that no else has done. You're the first."

She smiles; for a moment at least, the first minority woman ever to win a National Hot Rod Association race is sitting still, not rushing forward.


African-American and Hispanic, speed is a part of Llewellyn's DNA. She grew up in a racing family, watching her father drag motorcycles down the strip at the old Alamo Dragway in San Antonio, Texas. Eugene Llewellyn took his family there for outings. And it wasn't long before he was showing his children how to race. Peggy was hooked from the start.

Peggy Llewellyn
ESPN VideoLlewellyn's father figured his son would be the racer, but he couldn't keep Peggy off a motorcycle.
"We had these little dynamo motorcycles that she used to drive in the parking lot," Eugene Llewellyn recalls. "And that's how she started. I wasn't looking for her to really do that. I was looking, more or less, for her brother. And when she decided to do it, I just couldn't say no. She said, 'Daddy, I wanna go drag bike racing.'"

That brand of racing, on a pro stock motorcycle, is a passion Llewellyn has been riding ever since. Even her description of flying down a quarter-mile strip at 190 mph on a 300-horsepower bike seethes with excitement and wonder.

"Drag racing is a carnival of the senses," she says. "It's the sound, the smoke, the smell of the fuel. You're on two wheels, no seatbelts; and it's whoever gets to the finish line first. You leave when the light turns green. You drop the clutch and that's it. It's like you have tunnel vision."

As for the rush?

"The best way to describe it is, if you're sitting on a roller coaster, and you know it's going to take off but you don't know when . . ." Llewellyn says, as she leans her 5-foot-2, 115 pound frame forward. "And then it takes off and just that g-force . . . it's not a surprise to me, so I'm able to go forward with the bike instead of hanging on for dear life."


Breaking Barriers

ESPN's series on sports pioneers called "Breaking Barriers" began on Tuesday with the chronicle of Willie O'Ree, who broke the color barrier in the National Hockey League 50 years ago, and continued Wednesday with a story about Kit DesLauriers, who skied the highest peaks on each of the globe's seven continents.

On Thursday, ESPN featured 16-year-old Aaron Fotheringham, who suffers from spina bifida but became the first wheelchair athlete to successfully land a back flip in the sport he calls "hard-core sitting." And it concluded with the Peggy Llewellyn story about the first female minority to compete in Pro-Stock motorcycle drag-racing.

Breaking Barriers: O'Ree ESPN Video | Rinaldi: Breaking the ice
Rinaldi: DesLauriers's seven summits on skis
Breaking Barriers: Fotheringham ESPN Video | Rinaldi: How he rolls
Breaking Barriers: Llewellyn ESPN Video | Rinaldi: How he rolls

Hanging on to a life in racing has been more difficult. Her skill and desire were constant, but her career in NHRA Pro Stock Motorcycle competition has moved in stops and starts. Before last year, her only season in the sport was 2001 -- consisting of just six events. In three of those, she advanced into elimination rounds, but went 0-for-3 in those races. Without a steady sponsor and the financing to continue, she left the sport to pursue a different path: earning her real estate license.

It took five years to find another sponsor and find her way back to the circuit. From a real estate office to racing bikes again, it has been far from the straightest road, and it makes for a diverse work week.

"You're in a business suit during the day; and then on the weekends, you pack up your little leather suit and racing boots and helmet and you're off," she says.

Last year, in her first full season on the circuit, Llewellyn competed in 16 events and qualified for the "Countdown to One," the season's playoffs for a championship. She earned success far beyond anyone's expectations, finishing fourth in the point standings.

The unquestioned highlight of her year came at the NHRA Fall Nationals near Dallas in her native Texas. After finishing first in the qualifying rounds, she made it through the first three elimination rounds and into a national event final for the first time in her career. Confident and calm, she brought her bike to the line.

Peggy Llewellyn
ESPN VideoThe Fall Nationals trophy in hand, Llewellyn knew she had finally arrived on the NHRA scene.
"When that light blinked, I let the clutch go and I was gone. I heard my opponent the whole way. I knew it was close . . . "

Close, but first. Across the line and into history, her emotions were racing as well.

"I'm like, 'OK, I can't cry, I can't cry,'" she says. "We had won the race in front of a home crowd, and I got into the championship round. It was simply amazing. That's the best way to describe it. I'm getting choked up just talking about it."


Llewellyn is working on a partnership with a new sponsor for the upcoming season, and plans to compete in the first event of the year, the NHRA Gatornationals at Gainesville in March.

In the meantime, she continues to work as a real estate agent.

As for the meaning of her ground-breaking victory last season, it is still sinking in. It has been, well, a blur.

"I get e-mails from fans that say, 'Now I have someone that looks like me, and is doing this,'" she says. "It feels awesome. I'd like to go into schools and talk to young kids, just tell my story. It doesn't matter what you look like; if you have a dream, any dream, it can be accomplished."

Tom Rinaldi is an ESPN correspondent based in the New York City Bureau, contributing to "SportsCenter," "Outside the Lines," "College GameDay" and "NFL Countdown."

Tom Rinaldi

SportsCenter, OTL, College GameDay and NFL Countdown correspondent
Tom Rinaldi is an ESPN correspondent based in the New York, contributing to SportsCenter, Outside the Lines, Outside the Lines Nightly, College GameDay and NFL Countdown. He also appears as a reporter, contributing features and interviews from many of ESPN's top event productions, including golf and tennis' major events.