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Henderson woman aims to shatter auto racing’s glass ceiling

They are regarded as the “Olympics of Amateur Road Racing,” so to earn the bronze medal at the Sports Car Club of America National Championship Runoffs is no small accomplishment.

Michele Abbate of Henderson finished third in the GT1 class at historic Sonoma Raceway in California’s wine country during the annual national championships in October, which attracted the best amateur road racers from the SCCA’s 116 regions.

She is believed to be the youngest of the three female drivers who have posted a podium finish in her class. The third-place finish exceeded the Bishop Gorman and UNLV graduate’s modest expectations.

“It was my first Runoffs, so my goal was just to finish the race; it’s a dream to get on the podium,” Abbate said of outracing more seasoned male drivers in her No. 30 Chevrolet Monte Carlo SS and receiving an award for making the most passes. “I’m still on cloud nine.”

She said it was a thrill just to be shifting gears and clipping corners on the undulating 12-turn, 2.52-mile circuit that hosts NASCAR and IndyCar races and has been a proving ground for sports car racers since 1967, when it was known as Sears Point.

It was the first time that Sonoma Raceway hosted the SCAA Runoffs, which debuted at defunct Riverside International Raceway in 1964. Other noteworthy sites have included the iconic speedways at Indianapolis and Daytona, Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course, Road America in Wisconsin and Mazda Raceway Laguna Seca near Monterey, California.

“It is really cool to be at any racetrack where the professionals have been,” said Abbate, who caught the racing bug when her brother, Michael, was racing go-karts but didn’t start racing herself until she was 16. “Even if you’re a novice and learning, you’re still taking that same corner. It’s an amazing experience, and I just love everything about it.”

At 30, she realizes she’s probably not going to become the next Danica Patrick, who recently retired from NASCAR. “They see the car before they see me,” Abbate said of how she’s received by male rivals.

Instead of a late-blooming career in NASCAR, her sights are set on Trans Am, a series for muscle-type cars that once attracted superstar drivers such as A.J. Foyt, Parnelli Jones, Mark Donohue and Dan Gurney.

“My absolute goal would be to race professionally in Trans Am,” said Abbate, who currently races with a one-man pit crew: her husband and crew chief, Anthony Philleo. “The cars are tube chassis V8 cars, and I’ve got a little taste of that now. To go to Trans Am you need a lot money. Sponsorship is very important. Getting on television is definitely a huge part of it, and Trans Am provides that.”

Among those hoping to see her make the considerable jump into professional auto racing are big brother Michael, who now drives a fast car of a different ilk as a state trooper for the Nevada Highway Patrol.

“I wish me and my brother could have raced each other … but he hasn’t caught me yet,” little sister said with a devilish grin.

Contact Ron Kantowski at rkantowski@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0352. Follow @ronkantowski on Twitter.

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