Dawn Perdue has been following racing for as long as she can remember.
When she was 9, Perdue watched a drag race with her father. Immediately after seeing a jet dragster go down the track, she turned to her father and told him her dream was to race in one.
Perdue moved closer to that dream on her 16th birthday, when her parents bought her her first racecar, a Ford Pinto. Although she grew up in Pennsylvania near the Maryland border, Perdue's racing career blossomed in Cecil County and at Maryland International Raceway at Budds Creek Motocross Park in Mechanicsville.
Perdue, 27, will return to her home track at Budds Creek tonight to compete in the International Hot Rod Association's Nitro Jam racing series President's Cup Nationals. This is the first time in three years the President's Cup — which includes races in 12 car classes over two days — will be at Budds Creek.
“I'm happy to come to my home track, and to see my family and friends and see the great owners [of the track],” Perdue said. “Maryland is a great group of nice people. Everyone in the area comes over to Budds Creek.”
Perdue, who competes for the all-female Larsen Motorsports, still races in the same format that she started out in — bracket racing, a form of drag racing that changes starting times based on the performance of each participant's car. But she is most known for her jet drag racing.
On racing weekends, Perdue flies to the location of the race Wednesday night to meet up with her racing team. Larsen Motorsports is based in Florida, and Perdue has to stay in the Pennsylvania area for her full-time job as a resident assistant nurse.
“It's hard to get off, and it's hard to do racing and have a full-time career in the health field,” Perdue said. “It's kind of up and down, and it's working against me, so I'm on the line of trying to do my career or do my racing. I use all my vacation time. I'm trying to make it at both ends — it's stressful.”
Perdue is looking for a sponsor for her jet drag car. If she is able to find one, she said she'll consider giving up her career as a nurse.
Despite these struggles, Perdue said, participating in the Nitro Jam circuit is fulfilling a dream she's had since she began racing. After getting her first car, her family would take trips down to Budds Creek or Cecil County Dragway every weekend.
She no longer races with her father and brother on a regular basis, but Perdue says she has found a new family in the Larsen Motorsports team. It is the only team participating in the jet drag series on the Nitro Jam circuit, making the races more for show than for competition, though there are standings for each of the categories of dragsters in Nitro Jam.
She often misses the competitiveness of the traditional bracket racing at her home tracks.
“I'm a very competitive person from the starting line to the finish line,” she said. “[Jet drag] takes away that competitive out of you.”
Perdue got her start in jet drag racing under Bob Vansciver but was picked up by Larsen in September.
Elaine Larsen, the owner of Larsen Motorsports, described Perdue as a “natural” racer.
“As a racer, Dawn has a good handle on the jet dragster and what it takes to get down the quarter-mile,” Larsen said. “In the pits and with the fans, Dawn is a natural, and the fans love her.”
Perdue said she feels an extra responsibility to the fans by being on an all-female team. Coming up in the racing circuit, Perdue said she was originally disrespected by some of the male racers she'd compete against.
Now, she always looks forward to meeting younger female fans after races.
“I'd go up to [the guys] and shake their hand and wish them good luck, and the boy would just be like, ‘Ha, we don't need that,' and I'd go crying back to my dad. But over time, I gained their respect,” she said.
When she suits up and gets ready for the green light this weekend, Perdue said, it will “bring me back to when I was little.”
IHRA Intro Jam President's Cup Nationals
Maryland International Raceway, Budds Creek
Friday (qualifying) – 7:30 p.m.
Saturday (elimination races) – 7 p.m.
Purchase tickets at nitrojam.com/schedules