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RECREATION : TWO-TRACK MIND : Sue Pittinato Takes On Ventura Raceway After Establishing Herself at Saugus

<i> Times Staff Writer </i>

What is a nice girl like Sue Pittinato doing dressed in grimy racing coveralls, preparing to wedge a crash helmet over her curly brown mane and climb into her pink and purple Chevelle for a few laps around the track at Saugus Speedway?

Oh, please! Enough chauvinist comments. And no more jokes about women drivers. Hasn’t she heard enough in her six-year racing career?

Pittinato, 26, is one of the few women behind the wheel at either Saugus or Ventura Raceway and the only woman to race regularly in the Street Stock division at Saugus. Between pit stops at her parents’ home in West Hills, Pittinato, along with racing partner Jon Christensen of Palmdale, is the only driver to race regularly at both tracks.

Competing in a predominantly male sport, however, has made her the target of occasional sexist barbs. As if moving up from the Hobby Stock division, in which she finished eighth last season, was not difficult enough, Pittinato has had to adjust to a new field of competitors in her rookie season on the one-fifth-mile dirt oval at Ventura.

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“She’s pretty damn good,” says Christensen, a 10-year Saugus veteran. “We always tease her, ‘You drive just as good as a guy.’ She kind of gets mad.”

For the most part, however, Pittinato, who flashes a friendly smile and laughs heartily when recalling her racing encounters, is not offended. “It has made me uncomfortable,” she says. “But they’re treating me OK now.”

Off the track Pittinato works for an insurance company, reviewing worker-compensation claims. But on the track, she insists that she is not making a feminist statement. And she is not, as you may have guessed, the product of a tomboy, grease monkey, hand-me-that-wrench childhood.

“I really don’t know anything about cars,” she says. “Not as much as I need to know. It’s not a lack of wanting to know; I want to learn. I’m not totally mechanically inclined.”

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So, if you’ll pardon the sexist cliche, exactly what is a nice girl like Sue Pittinato doing in a stock car? Quite simply, just trying to have some good, filthy fun.

“I like it,” she says. “I love it. I’ve always liked fast cars. Not that I always wanted to do it, but once I did it. . . . It’s almost like an addiction.”

As for the attention, she adds, “I think it’s neat because I want more women to get into it.”

Based on her track record, Pittinato sets a good example. She is 11th among the Ventura oval division points leaders and has won one main event and two heat races. At Saugus, Pittinato is 32nd and has yet to win a main event. But her place in the standings is deceiving because she refuses to compete in figure 8 main events, in which drivers earn roughly half their points.

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“I am frightened, in a way,” she said of figure 8 events. And despite the barbs at both tracks, Pittinato has earned the respect of fellow drivers as a qualified competitor.

“The first thing you think is that, ‘She’s a girl and I don’t want to bang on her,’ ” said Rick Crow of Canyon Country, who also moved this season from Hobby Stock to Street Stock. “But then you think, ‘That doesn’t matter because she’s just as good as anyone.’ As far as I’m concerned, she warrants any treatment that I warrant. In fact, I ran into her a couple of weeks ago.”

Pittinato has fared better at Ventura where she “loves the dirt.”

“She is better than, I’d say, 85% of the guys out here,” said Charles Utts of Camarillo, the track’s Street Stock points leader. “She doesn’t want to tear up the equipment like a lot of drivers in the lower echelon of racing. I don’t know her background, but she’s been hanging around some good people.”

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That includes Christensen, who has sacrificed his own career this season to serve as Pittinato’s mechanic, although he does get on the track weekly, using Pittinato car to drive in the figure 8 events that she sits out. Three months ago, Christensen, wrench in hand, approached Pittinato in the pits at Saugus. They have been a team since.

“A lot of the guys here will come over and start helping you,” Pittinato said. “They don’t ask, they just come over and start helping you. Some of them stick around, some of them don’t.”

Christensen, whose car has remained idle this season, says that he is committed to Pittinato’s cause. “I think that with the right equipment Sue could be just as fast as anybody,” he said. “As a matter of fact, we’re gonna start winning some races.

“She’s as good as any of the guys. I keep referring to her like the guys do and I don’t want to talk like that. She is a lady.”

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Becoming one of the, er, guys, however, hasn’t been easy, especially at Ventura where Utts describes the atmosphere as cliquish.

“I’m sure she was a little uneasy,” Utts said, “because, usually, the Ventura crowd doesn’t race at Saugus. So, she’s not only a girl, she’s stepping into a scene where all the racers have grown up together. So we’re all thinking, ‘What’s this lady going to do?’ ”

After an introductory stroll through the pits, where she said she was greeted by a few “lewd remarks,” Pittinato considered making a U-turn before lining up for qualification.

“I wanted to go home,” she said. “One guy said, ‘Oh, my God, it’s a broad!’ They were trying to intimidate me. But I got used to it. I was a new driver and sometimes they give new drivers a hard time anyway, whether you’re a girl or a guy.”

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Rather than flee the scene of the grime, Pittinato steered her car onto the track--and away from any incidents that would brand her a “woman driver.”

“I was scared to death,” Pittinato recalled. “People tried to come up to me before the race and say, ‘Hey, Sue, how’s it goin’?’ And I’m like, ‘Don’t talk to me!’

“I wasn’t real fast. I got lapped. But after we raced that night they all came over and shook my hand and they were all happy. It was just the first time and I had never been there before.”

Actually, she had been there before, figuratively speaking. The incident was reminiscent of her Saugus debut. After competing for a year in the all-women Powder Puff division at Indian Dunes, Pittinato declined to enter a similar division at Saugus in favor of the Hobby Stock class.

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Her male competition did not exactly offer her a warm reception.

“I heard mumblings and grumblings about how they were going to put me into a wall,” she said. “I’d hear them saying it, but they didn’t know I was there. Nobody ever said anything to me. The first time out the stands were full, and, I swear to God, my leg was shaking. I just hoped I wouldn’t cause problems.”

She didn’t. And neither did any of the other drivers, who welcomed her after the race with handshakes of approval. Today, that approval has seemingly been earned at Ventura.

“They’re really friendly toward her now,” said Cliff Morgan, Ventura’s track manager. “And the crowd really likes her.”

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Said Utts: “I thoroughly enjoy racing with her. She runs hard and she’s a good competitor. She has more than proved herself to me.”

Establishing herself as a good driver is all that Pittinato is striving to do. And, like it or not, she has become a reluctant role model for would-be women stock car drivers.

“Some girls have come up to me and said, ‘We watched you race and we thought, if you can do it, we can do it,’ ” she said. “It’s a hobby, but I’d like to go as far as I can. I just want to race and do good. When I don’t do good, I don’t have a good time.”


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