A metric ton of steel and rubber blazed down the runway at 300 mph and then decelerated abruptly after crossing a checkered line. Not many would expect the fearless driver behind the wheel to be a petite, 19-year-old girl, whose soft speech has no hint of an engine’s roar.
Katarina Moller, a sophomore at USF majoring in mechanical engineering, drives jet dragsters for a living.
“I drive fast,” she said. “That’s what I do.”
Dragsters — long, sleek vehicles built for speed — are often recognized for their large, wide back wheels and small, skinny front wheels.
The cars race side by side down a racetrack’s straightaway. The concept is simple enough, but Moller said everything is more exciting when you’re going more than 300 mph.
“I’m kind of scatterbrained usually,” she said. “When I sit in the car though, I become focused.”
At 19 years old, she is one the youngest jet car drivers around, and the youngest on her team, Larsen Motorsports, a professional drag racing team. Most drivers are at least in their late 20s.
Racing has always been a part of her family. Her dad would often take her to the racetrack as a small child.
“I grew up on the racetrack,” she said. “I remember seeing all the dragster drivers, and I knew I wanted to be one.”
By age 11, Moller started to race in controlled environments. She said she instantly became addicted to the adrenaline.
“The first time I started the car, I got really scared when I felt the engine behind me,” she said. “After the race started, I was fine.”
In 2013, she was selected by Larsen Motorsports out of more than 370 applicants. Moller signed a multiyear contract and now does what she loves professionally.
Elaine Larsen, founder of Larsen Motorsports and veteran dragster racer, said she is proud to be Moller’s mentor and enjoys seeing the thrill on her face.
“You may think Kat is a shy, soft-spoken girl who could never power this 5000 hp dragster, but that’s where you are wrong,” she said. “As soon as she gets in the driver’s seat, you better believe Kat is in charge.”
Moller said after experiencing the adrenaline “rush,” she isn’t content going three miles an hour like the rest of us.
Her parents acknowledge the dangers involved, Moller said, but accept her high-speed hobby. She said her dad has been involved with racing “forever,” and her mother is desensitized to the lifestyle at this point.
“My mom has seen worse,” she said. “My dad has been in multiple boat racing accidents — those are bad.”
Moller said she hopes to make a career out of racing and thinks her early experience is a fortunate head start. She’s also networked within the industry, she said. Last weekend, she met the owner of Matrix System Automotive Finishes, one of Larsen Motorsports’ primary sponsors.
She said a degree in mechanical engineering from USF will give her a good backup plan. The classes taught along with the major supplement her experience with race cars as well, she said.
“Instead of just getting in the cars and driving them, I now know the engineering behind it,” she said.
Larsen said she has no doubt Moller has a future in drag racing and looks forward to guiding her through the professional side of automotive sports.
“I think Kat is going to kick down a few more barriers as a 19-year-old girl driving a jet car,” she said. “The boys had better watch out, because Kat is coming for them.”
In 2014, Moller will travel across the U.S. and Canada with the Nitro Jam Tour and said she is excited to visit Ontario on the tour.
“I really love drag racing,” she said. “It’s what I grew up around, and it’s what I will do.”