Rising Stars Discovered at Ken Block's Gymkhana Grid Series Competition

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Ken Block and Jessica Dunford

By Adrienne Gruben

Recent friends Michele Abbate and Jessica Dunford represent the newest, youngest wave of aspiring lady racers and grease monkeys, and while it’s super tempting to focus on their manners and cute-ness — which might not immediately spring to mind writing about fella drivers — what does make them like any other aspiring racer is their passion for all things torque.

A Junior majoring in Marketing and Communications at UNLV, Las Vegas native, Michele Abbate competed in her first Autocross at age 16 in a 1999 Pontiac Grand Am GT in North Las Vegas where she applied her childhood experiences with indoor and outdoor karting. In 2006, her first year of competition, she placed first in her class, and 2nd overall in Ladies PAX points, just 1 point away from first place. Entering her first track day in April of 2009 at Spring Motorsports Ranch in Pahrump, NV, by the end of that year, Michele had placed within the top 5 of the Redline Events.

Jessica Dunford grew up in Washington State, where she competed in regional and national artistic rollerskating championships. A fan of monster trucks growing up, when she was asked what she wanted to be when she grew up, while other little girls said “princess,” Jessica said, “The Gravedigger.” An avid break-dancer, Jessica joined MazdasNW, where she fell in love with the mechanics side of things, started test driving cars, and also, car modeling. She moved to California in 2009 to pursue a career in dance, but opted out, and instead, joined Mazda Owners Club of California, and has consistently done events with them since. Jessica drives a 1992 Corolla, and would like to further her love of turning wrenches by going to mechanics’ school.

Michele Abbate

Adrienne Gruben: Ok Michele, you first, how did you get started with all of this business?

Michele Abbate: My brother and dad had raced since I was 8. I was surrounded by it my whole life, but it’s not like it was considered something girls should do. But, when I got my first competitive car at 16, a 1999 Pontiac Grand Am GT, I entered an autocross in North Los Vegas. Dad did go to that event, one of the few he went to. I think he assumed I would do a few and be done.

Gruben: So how many autocrosses have you done?

Abbate: About 78 — the majority in Las Vegas, but some in Arizona, California.

Gruben: Ok, so why Gymkhana?

Michele AbbateAbbate: It gave me a chance to experience a totally different aspect of racing. It’s something I’ve never done before. It incorporated drifting, but it’s more relaxed than autocross. I really favored the idea of it incorporating a number of driving skills: time attack, drifting, autocross/grip, and even drag racing.

Gruben: How’d you do?

Abbate: Well, I went 5 or 6 times, and I think my best time was 1:04:07

Gruben: What’s next for you, short term and long term?

Abbate: I want to get my NASA (National Auto Sport Association) racing license. I’m currently in NASA’s HPDE 4, this is the highest level where you get to do Time Attack, and work towards advancing to Time Trial group (which requires the NASA racing license).  In addition, I compete as often as financially possibly in the Redline Time Attack series.  I have also been extending my experience of driving and seat time by racing Legends Cars with 600 Racing. I want this to be my career so I work towards doing any events possible that will allow me more seat time. This includes, track days, autocross, and karting events.

Gruben: Do you have sponsorship?

Abbate: I am fortunate to have a few sponsors. Tunerzedge is my newest sponsor, and made it possible for me to compete at Gymkhana. H1 Performance (h1racing.com), helps me tremendously with all of my engine and suspension work. Race Photo Labs maintains my website and takes active photos at most of my events. Protege Garage supports me with parts for my rare car, and Falco Tire Distributors keeps my tires adequate for the track.

Adrienne ready for a hot lap Gymkhana Grid-Series Competition

Gruben: Have you ever been offered a ride in which to compete?

Abbate: For Subiefest in September of 2009, I was offered a 2008 Subaru WRX STI to compete in by Crawford Performance. It was at Willow Springs and I placed really well considering I had never driven an all-wheel-drive car, nor on that specific track. If I hadn’t gotten a fully sponsored ride from Crawford Performance, who built Ken Block’s first two Gymkhana cars, I never would have been able to compete because it is limited to Subaru models only.

Gruben: Ok, so speaking of, in the Gymkhana event, you drove a 2003.5 Mazdaspeed Protege. Is this your daily driver?

Jessica DunfordAbbate: Yes, I have only one car and I do everything with it. I use it to get to work and school, for autocross, for track events, and it even has a hitch to tow my tires for out of state events… Or my Sea-Doo on the summer weekends!

Gruben: I know you said H1 Performance does your engine and suspension, but what about other maintenance?

Abbate: I work on the car everyday. Just last night I was doing the alignment. I do all the work, but I make sure to get help when I’m not sure what I’m doing. My Dad and brother help me occasionally; I learned most my knowledge from watching and listening to them for years.

Gruben: Ok, so what about the “girl” factor?

Abbate: I don’t really ever see or acknowledge the “girl” factor. For example, I used to play basketball. I’ve always been into male sports. It does turn heads, it gets you attention, but I want to ultimately be seen as a racer, not a female racer. I will say this. When I’m kart racing, and I can by physically seen, I will hide my hair in my helmet so other racers don’t notice as easily. In general, I don’t see enough women in the racing scene, I’d love to see more, and also, a pet peeve of mine is Ladies Division/Classes. I don’t think there is a need to have a Ladies Classes vs Open Classes. Since I’ve started I’ve made it a point to run in Open Classing; you won’t see me in the Ladies Classes if there is ever an option for it.

Gruben: Ok, Jessica, your turn.

Jessica Dunford: Well, first off, I agree with Michele. I don’t agree with Ladies Classes, I mean, I think everyone should be in Open Classes. I like to drive with the boys, and I like to drive like them. The lady thing, it does get you attention, but it is a double-edged sword.

Jessica Dunford

Gruben: What brought you to all of this?

Dunford: A while ago, my friend Drew got me into a club called MazdasNW. From the both, I learned the mechanic’s side of it, and I got to experience my first track day at 19. It was at a little airstrip, where I got to learn threshold braking, slalom, how to turn on apexes correctly, and how to drive autocross. Actually, when I really started to get noticed was when I did some modeling for Hot Import Nights as a joke. I guess I get underneath cars, and sit on top of them as well!! (laughs) but getting underneath cars, I love it, I love rolling fenders, I love turning wrenches. It gets my gears going. I’m obsessed.

Gruben: Ok, you’re awesome. Where do you see yourself heading with all of this?

Dunford: Well, I would love to build a car from scratch. An import car with my own specs, with my own technology. It would be in the $40k range, so it is a long, long way out. Maybe when I’m rich! Also, I want to drive like Michele. She is one of my idols.

Abbate: Ah, really? That’s so nice!!!

Photo credits: Michele Abbate, Jessica Dunford, Adrienne Gruben, JR Reyes (juniormonkey.com), Dave Lach

Michele shows off her skilz driving her track car/dailydriver, a Mazda Protege. Proof positive that pure talent can always find a way to do more with less.

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