A major league pitcher sat on one end of a couch at a downtown hotel earlier this month, turning toward an inconspicuous 20-year-old on the other side.
“I have a question,” said C.J. Wilson, the Los Angeles Angels left-hander. “How convinced were you getting into the car for the first time on the track that this was a good idea?”
Wilson — sitting over a plate of bacon and eggs during a break in his team's series with the Orioles earlier this month — looked to the driver on his professional race team.
“I was 16 or 17,” Emilee Tominovich said with a smile. “I don't think the danger of what could happen really registered.”
The Clarksville native gripped the wheel of the 2008 Mercedes-Benz E63 AMG at the New Jersey Motorsports Park in the fall of 2010 for her first trial run on the track. At the time, there was no way of knowing what would come next — a spot on Wilson's team in the Mazda MX-5 Series and a promising start to a professional racing career with two top-10 finishes during the 2012 season.
But she could feel the adrenaline coursing through her — the fuel for a new passion.
“I think I really liked the aspect of going fast,” she said.
Tominovich had played soccer for as long as she could remember leading up to her senior year at Archbishop Spalding. But a herniated disk in her back sidelined her during tryouts.
As the season started without her, Tominovich made visits to the Millville, N.J., track, where her father had bought a membership as soon as it opened in 2008.
“When she got out of the car that first time, you could see it through the helmet,” said Joey Tominovich, a fan of racing ever since he attended his first NASCAR event in 1983. “She was smiling from ear to ear.”
He remembers Emilee's instructor during the run approaching him afterward, telling him his daughter was “a natural.”
Her graduation gift was a certificate for a five-day racing course. Once that was completed, she received her racer's license. She picked up club wins in her Pontiac Solstice that summer, and even as she enrolled at Catholic University as a nursing student, she couldn't take herself away from the track.
“If you're a racer, it's in your blood,” said Wilson, who as a boy watched his father work as a pit crew member.
Though circumstances limited him, Wilson believed his destiny was in racing.
“As a kid, that's what I figured out,” he said. “We couldn't afford to race, so when I was 9, I played baseball for the first time. I wanted to race, but I decided baseball was going to be my best path in life. I was like, baseball will give me cool cars, and eventually I can race.”
Sure enough, baseball allowed him to start C.J. Wilson Racing in 2010, a team primarily funded by his earnings from brand sponsorships, he said.
After gaining a sponsorship through TrueCar, the team allowed Emilee Tominovich to stay close to the sport, too. She signed on to race for C.J. Wilson in the Playboy Mazda MX-5 Cup Series last year.
“Part of what we do, we try to work on driver development, giving the opportunity to help people improve when they run with us,” said Jason Saini, who coaches Tominovich on the team.
Saini said he's seen drivers reach the pro level and depart the sport soon afterward, overwhelmed by the leap of intensity.
“I didn't expect it to be as hard as it was,” Tominovich said. “Some people try and go up to pro racing and don't realize how much time it really takes to put in.”
She finished last in her first event, the annual 12 Hours of Sebring in Florida. Looping around Turn 1, she collided with another car. But she was never like other racers Saini had known.
“It really became apparent at that point how determined she was,” he said. “She really dug her heels in.”
She was someone who, in one year,converted herself from a goalie into a forward through hours of dribbling through the cones she set up in her backyard.
“If you want to see her get [angry], tell her she can't do something,” Joey Tominovich said.
She pored over data, the charts telling her how the car mechanically responded to the way she physically commanded it. She fired up her iRacing simulator, allowing her to virtually experience tracks she would take on.
“Last year was tough,” Tominovich said, “but I never thought about quitting.”
This year, she's improved her times on each track from her rookie season. Saini calls the two seasons “night and day.”
Currently ranked 13th in points out of the cup's 27 drivers, Tominovich is slated to race next in rounds 7 and 8 at the Canadian Tire Motorsport Park from July19 to 21 near Bowmanville, Ontario.
“Emilee's got a lot of support. She's got support from us,” said Wilson, who tracks Tominovich's progress on his phone while he travels during the season. “We're all rooting for her when she goes out there.”
Tominovich doesn't plan on leaving the sport anytime soon. Not since she first found her place behind the wheel. And not since she met Wilson.
“The racing world is a small world,” she said. “There's kind of like a racing family, and it's really nice to be a part of that.”
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