When Tennille Baker is not working in the classroom, she can often be found in a garage or on the track.
Baker, 45, of Bethlehem, has been racing race cars for about 18 years and teaching for 23 years. Her husband of 21 years, Todd Baker, 49, got her started in racing.
Baker spent the last three years as an academic facilitator at Clyde Campbell Elementary School, which is part of Catawba County Schools.
“Every time I crawl into that car, it’s a learning experience for me,” Baker said. “Usually if I lose, it’s my mistake. I try to learn from that mistake and improve. It is the same way when I am in the classroom, teaching the children. I want my children to be successful. I’m going to do anything and everything I can to be the best I can be.”
Baker talked about his passion for racing. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
How did you get into racing?
When I met Todd, he was already competing. I loved running and he had been a leader all my life. My family was always connected to racing in some way. We had relatives who ran. Racing is huge here, whether it’s lap-and-lap racing, dirt track racing, or drag racing.
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When I started dating Todd, I started going to the racetrack with him regularly. I was fascinated by the fact that you have to predict what your car is going to do. Track temperatures affect how your car works. All the weather factors, air density, vapor pressure, water in the air, all affect the way cars will perform.
I started going through the numbers for him, really trying to find a pattern and routine with the consistency of his car. I got to where when we dialed his car, we could guarantee that he was going to look up the number that I would say. Marking is predicting the time the race would finish.
The more I got into this, the more I saw that these other women and other girls were starting to run, because drag racing is a family-oriented sport. Todd said, “I really want you to run too.” He said, “Would that be something you would be interested in?” And I said, “Well, sure.” We got married in April and in May of that year I had my first dragster.
I had no idea what was going on in my first race. The gear stick hung up and didn’t move. I went down the track in first gear the whole way. Todd said it was a miracle the car didn’t explode. The motor was fine and then I got my bearings in order. I went to Maryland and won my first national event. It was the Torco President’s Cup Nationals at Maryland International Speedway in the early 2000s.
How do you feel when you’re in the car and a race is about to start?
Well, first of all, I’m just trying to run my race. I don’t care who my opponent is or what’s in the lane next to me. I run my race, so I’m fully focused. I want to be smart and outwit my opponent. When I’m there, I try to isolate everything.
When I’m approaching the start line, I’m completely focused on my reaction time, because reaction time can win you a race and it can lose you a race. I practice a lot with my reaction times, because I want to be consistent. When I’m sitting in the car, I always take a deep breath.
I also make sure that my safety equipment is adequate. It always crosses my mind, if my throttle sticks, what am I going to do? Sometimes I sit in my car and close my eyes and make sure I can do it with my eyes closed. I can push it in neutral. I can turn off the switch. I can pull the parachute. I know where everything is in my car before I hit the track, because that’s how comfortable I need to be.
It’s exciting. It’s an adrenaline rush. When you take off, you move at such a fast speed that your decisions have to be made in fractions of a second.
Have you ever had accidents or close calls?
Yes, I have had some scary events. I once had the gas cap on my car come off. Anytime you get water, oil, or any kind of substance under your tires while you’re on the track, it’s like you’re on ice. The entire rear of your car will come out from under you. That’s basically what happened to me.
Some people try to stay that way, I’m not going to do that. If I get sideways or get really out of shape, that’s what they call it, I’ll relax. I’m not doing anything stupid. When people don’t give up, that’s really what makes them go broke.
I think if I ever got shipwrecked I would probably never compete again. Just to be honest with you, because it would scare the hell out of me.