Back in the swinging ’70s, Sports Illustrated writer Sam Moses was invited to take part in the famed Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach Pro-Celebrity Race. In his participation, Moses caught ‘the bug’ hard. The tales of searching for that next ride, that next fix of speed and adrenaline, culminated in the book Fast Guys, Rich Guys and Idiots: A Racing Odyssey on the Border of Obsession. Still a great read even today, as so many would-be racing superstars can relate to clawing towards that “next big opportunity.”
For Sarah Montgomery, 24, that same ‘bug’ and struggle has driven her since the age of 11. Like many of the racer types funded by their keen wit — as opposed to “lucky-lineage” money — Montgomery has struggled to get to the grid — not once competing in every race of a competitive series’ season. However, once on the grid, she has proven to be a force of reckoning in the MX-5 Cup Series and the Pirelli World Challenge.
Sarah, like so many before and after, caught the bug at age 10 while attending an IndyCar Series race at Texas Motor Speedway with her parents, “around the corner” from her home in Lafayette, Louisiana. Hooked as she was, she presented her piggy bank to her mother and father and persisted for nearly two years, begging for the chance to try her hand at racing. After much persistence, Sarah’s parents bought her a dirt oval go-kart and so began the “Sarah Montgomery Racing Odyssey.”
I’m an adrenaline junkie. All my best friends out there at the same place at the same time. Everyone has the same passion. — Sarah Montgomery
As Montgomery cut her chops in karting over the next few years, she began winning races — then track championships. Starting on the dirt ovals was quite an education in opposite lock cornering — the old “turn right to go left.” She learned many things including the omnipotent car set up. She would then move up to the Mazda Spec Miata Teen Challenge Championship when a chance meeting opened the door of opportunity.
Sarah was invited to participate in a Skip Barber shootout that featured shifter karts. However, this came with a caveat: she had never driven a manual transmission before. Her father, Robert, who is an Interstate Battery dealer in Lafayette, set up a course in an empty parking lot, with pylons, so Sarah could learn to drive the shifter kart.
As Sarah got familiar with the kart and began lapping faster and faster, a passerby saw the kart in action and observed for a while. The on-looker, MX-5 Cup racer Jeff Mosing, commented to Robert: “Your son’s going pretty fast out there!” Robert smiled with pride and countered: “That’s my daughter.”
Mosing, along with former racer Roy Johnson, immediately began a relationship with Robert and Sarah as a mentor and backer of her career, recommending Sarah try her hand at Spec Miata, then onto Skip Barber MX-5, then the crowded and highly competitive Pro Mazda MX-5 Cup series.
Her successes as she grew in the ladder series were many. She had several Top 5 finishes in very large fields full of talent that produced a number of modern-day motor racing stars including Kenton Koch, Tom Long, and J.R. Hildebrand. Sarah, along with Ashton Harrison and Aurora Elana, made up three “girls on the grid” in 2015 and 2016 as part of the Mazda “Road to 24” development program.
What can’t you learn from the [MX-5] series? Forty identical cars all within three to four seconds of each other… you can not make a mistake or you will find yourself fifteenth, on back. — Sarah Montgomery
Driving with a top multi-car team that regularly battled for steps on the podium, proved to be a great education for Montgomery. “What can’t you learn from the [MX-5] series?” Sarah states in the form of a question. “Forty identical cars all within three to four seconds of each other… you can not make a mistake or you will find yourself fifteenth, on back.”
In the process, the charming Cajun earned a Bachelor’s Degree in Marketing from the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. Smartly, like anyone chasing dreams, she has a backup: she works in sales and marketing for Fresh Air Systems Technology (FAST), manufacturer of race-driver cooling systems. Her boss at FAST is also the founder of Lemons of Love, a charity dedicated to comforting those suffering with cancer.
Staying close to the industry is truly important for the dedicated racer. “I’m an adrenaline junkie. All my best friends out there at the same place at the same time. Everyone has the same passion. You can’t explain it to uninvolved friends, the feeling you get, they just don’t understand,” explains Montgomery.
Sarah’s trajectory has been towards road racing and sports cars. “My cousins, Bill and Bob Riley design and build prestigious race cars. I would love to be on his team. Racing for them would be my ultimate goal.” Riley Technologies is undoubtedly one of the big names in sports car racing. The father and son team created many well-known cars — particularly the Riley Gen 3 Daytona prototype that ran the Grand American Series, including the iconic Daytona 24. They currently run the Mercedes AMG GT3 team in the IMSA Weathertech Challenge Series’ GTD class.
For 2017, Sarah had moved up a notch, joining the Pirelli World Challenge Series’ TCA-class, in a race-prepped Honda Civic, fully confident in her prospects. She joined Shea Racing, a woman owner/driver team, continuing the “girls on the grid” concept. She began the race weekend at Canadian Tire Motorsports Park (Mosport). Strapping into a new car and a new opportunity, Montgomery was ready to show the next level all her capabilities. She rolled off of pit lane and began lapping during Friday’s qualifying session.
Then it happened.
Approaching the high-speed Turn 2 — one of the most perilous high-speed corners in North American racing, something broke. “I don’t remember much. An axle broke or a tire went down as I was entering Turn 2 at Mosport (Canadian Tire Motorsports Park),” says Montgomery.
She tried to catch it and went off, striking a concrete barrier — hard! The momentum of the crash sent the Civic on a wild series of barrel rolls. The car, with a dazed driver (now just a passenger), rotated eight times. The racing seat shifted with the impact and forced Montgomery’s head out the window.
Each roll landed on the driver’s side with Sarah’s head taking much of the impact. When it finally came to rest, rescue crews were on the scene almost immediately. The unconscious Cajun had suffered a concussion and several broken ribs. She came-to quickly though. “I heard someone say, ‘We need to cut her out of the car,’ but I managed to get myself out.”
While Sarah recovered from her injuries, there was still the liability of a completely destroyed race car. That is the hell of the risks that so many would-be stars take each time they roll off of pit lane. The car won’t be available again, and now there is the bill. There is very expensive insurance available for certain types of racing and race weekends when you are essentially “renting” a ride, but it is sporadically used by few. Needless to say Sarah was left with a very tough situation — which essentially cost her the rest of her budget for 2017. “I was fortunate that my sponsors helped me out, but it put me back to zero.”
“It’s the crash that keeps on giving,” Montgomery laments. “It’s very stressful, I have had 20 sponsorship meetings and nothing has come through yet.” Sarah’s struggle is not unlike most racers without the gift of huge family money who have to pound the pavement, counting on only skill, wits, and charm to raise the dollars for that next big deal… and another taste of the adrenaline.
Montgomery managed one more race in 2017. Teaming with former fellow racers in the MX-5 Cup, Ashton Harrison and Christian Szymczak, they ran the 25 Hours of Thunderhill. They ran the Harrison Contracting Co./Tactical Flight Service/Lemons of Love/Lafayette Travel Global Mazda MX-5 Cup car prepared by Sick Sideways Racing. The team placed Fourth in the E1 class.
Sarah Montgomery keeps positive. There are other rides and opportunities. She keeps her chin up and knows that an opportunity to shine is just around the corner. “Sick Sideways [MX-5 Cup Team] has shown interest in developing an Audi TCR-class car for the IMSA Continental Tire Series. They want to make it work, but as always, we need to come with the check,” chuckles Montgomery. “I am working on one company right now, just to run one race…. so, baby-steps. If I could just get out there, other things would come.” The team would also include former fellow MX-5 Cup racer and Thunderhill teammate Ashton Harrison.
Like Sam Moses, nearly five decades before, Sarah is one of the would-be racing stars that struggles, but persists. The reward is oh so sweet.