ATCO – Don’t let the bright pink bow in her hair or cheeky kid smile fool you, Gabbie Bucco is living life in the fast lane.
The 8-year-old from Upper Deerfield Township has a need for speed — and it’s not on a bicycle or skateboard.
Those simply aren’t fast enough.
Race car? That’s more her style.
Nine years before she can obtain her official New Jersey driver’s license, Bucco is already behind the wheel of her own dragster, speeding up to 58 m.p.h. on the quarter-mile strip at Atco Dragway.
“It’s the coolest,” the young racer said minutes before she put on her racing helmet to hit the track. “I told my teacher that I was racing and she was very impressed.”
Take away the fire-retardant racing suit and helmet and the blonde-hair Bucco appears to be a typical second-grader. She loves to dance – tap ballet and jazz - during the week and says that “eating” is her favorite thing to do.
However, on most Friday nights, she can be found in her white dragster with its 5-horsepower Briggs-Stratton motor and frame emblazoned with her name, National Hot Rod Association license number (1923) and “Family Feud” on the side.
At a recent Test N’ Tune practice run, Bucco was on the same stage with all the other hot rods and their much older drivers, as engines revved at ear-piercing decibels and the scent of burnt rubber filled the air.
Bucco gave a quick thumbs-up before she headed out to the drag strip, where other supped-up Mustangs, Corvettes and other cars were taking their turns speeding down the track.
There’s no time for white-knuckle driving either, but Bucco has learned some simple lessons of everyday motor vehicles.
“One time I ran out of gas,” she said. “I didn’t like that.”
Gabbie’s mom, Brandi, said she was nervous the first time her daughter zoomed away in an alcohol-fueled car. Now, she doesn’t even bat an eyelash — mostly because she doesn’t want to miss any of the race.
“At first I was worried that the engine would catch fire. Now, I’m more anxious that she’s going to hit her lights,” Brandi said.
Brandi played field hockey in high school while her husband, Frank, was a baseball player.
However, the family has deep roots in racing.
Brandi’s father, Michael Brown, always followed motor sports and became an avid NASCAR fan at a young age. His sons, Michael and Brian, enjoyed racing as well, and were frequent visitors at Atco Dragway, but competed in bicycle racing when the family couldn’t afford the higher-priced motor racers.
Brown, who Gabbie calls "Papaw," bought the used junior dragster online for $1,500, a and he worked on it over the winter to prepare it for the racing season.
“I saw the car and said, 'We got to go buy it,' I just didn’t expect all of this,” said Brown, looking over the family trailer and equipment for the dragster. “We got a new motor, new tires, updated the roll cage. Got all her safety stuff, made sure everything is legal with the NHRA (National Hot Rod Association) and she was ready to go.”
Pawpaw’s pitch to Gabbie was simple.
“I just asked if she wanted to try it,” he said. “She took right to it. Driving the car, she was a natural and she just fell in love with it.”
Gabbie zoomed down the driveway and worked on hitting her lights with a drag racing "Christmas tree," which signals drivers when to hit the gas pedal.
After completing the necessary training to earn her NHRA license, Bucco competed in the Sportsman Junior Dragster Division (ages 6-9), a series that ran from April to September. She finished fourth overall in points out of 13 racers, but was the fastest girl in the group. Galloway’s Joey Torchia was the top finisher in the division.
When she turned 8 on Sept. 23, NHRA rules stated that she could go even faster, bumping the speed up 10 m.p.h. to 58.
“She came back and said, ‘Oh, I like that,'” Brown said.
Gabbie says she’s only been scared once during a race, when her brakes failed. She hit the kill switch that immediately shuts down the race car.
"I guess I was pushing the brake too hard," she said. "I was scared for a little bit until the car shut off."
Gabbie says she can’t wait to race her 6-year-old cousin, Elivia Brown, who expects to hit the dragway next season. Then, there’s Gabbie’s two younger brothers, Michael (4) and Daniel (1), both of whom she says will also be racing when they are old enough.
“My best friend said we had to name the car ‘Family Feud’ because I’ve got seven grandkids and they might all be racing at some point,” Brown said.
“(Gabbie) is having fun with it though. Who knows, maybe she’ll go big time. She’s just starting out, but no boys are going to be racing her for pink slips when she’s older, I’ll tell you that.”
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Tom McGurk is a regional sports reporter for the Courier-Post and The Daily Journal, covering South Jersey sports for over 30 years. If you have a sports story that needs to be told, contact him at (856) 486-2420 or email email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at @McGurkSports. Help support local journalism with a Courier Post subscription.