Sarah Montgomery has played a clarinet solo in Carnegie Hall and accomplished a bevy of things, but she said nothing compares to the smell of burning rubber and the sound of squealing tires as she continues her career as a professional race car driver in a sport long monopolized by men.
The 20-year-old University of Louisiana at Lafayette marketing major has garnered great success during her brief career. She is the only female professional racer from Louisiana in the BFGoodrich MX-5 Pro Cup Series Skip Barber League, a circuit that has racers compete in Mazda MX-5 Miatas modified slightly for the raceway. Montgomery finished last season in sixth place.
Before Montgomery began burning the asphalt as a professional, she acquired an affinity for speed at a young age, with an unlikely gift.
“Whenever I was 3 or 4 years old, Santa brought me a Barbie jeep for Christmas, and I was obsessed with it,” Montgomery said with a chuckle. “I wouldn’t let anyone drive it. I went through three sets of the tires. My dad had to change them constantly.”
Montgomery had her first experience with her true love of racing at age 10 when her parents took her to an Indy-car race in Texas. The future driver’s interest was piqued by the end of the race and she began her journey to the professional ranks.
“I was amazed at the smell of burning rubber and the fuel,” she said. “At the time, Danica Patrick was just getting started. I looked up to her and I watched racing every weekend.
“The next year that same race came around again and my parents brought me again. I went down on the track to hear all the loud sounds and I was hooked ever since that day. When I got home, I begged my parents to buy me a go-cart.”
Robert Montgomery recalled a similar story on the day his daughter completely converted to the fast lane.
“She bothered us about getting a go-cart for the longest time after that race in Texas,” he said. “She brought us her piggy bank and told us to find her a race car. She made us buy her a go-cart. I was pretty good with it, but my wife wasn’t.”
Sarah Montgomery competed in her first race, but she said it didn’t go as planned. The young driver crashed into the wall, much to the chagrin of her mother, who was not a fan of her daughter participating in the speeding activities.
That first-race blunder was a blip on the Montgomery’s radar as from age 12 until 16, she won roughly 20 go-kart races, and clinched multiple track championships.
She transitioned to amateur Mazda Miata races with the help of former racer Brent Mosing, marketing director for Frank’s International, the Lafayette-based oil and gas service company and a current sponsor of Montgomery.
“I knew she was real interested in transitioning from go-karts to cars so I put her in one of my cars and she took off from there,” Mosing said. “She was green, but she showed a lot of potential.”
Montgomery said she struggled with respect when she transferred to spec-Miata because her competitors did not believe a teenage girl had any place in the racing arena, but after setting track records, she earned their respect and her stardom surpassed that of her rivals even as she joined the MX-5 professional series.
“I’m good friends with a lot of the guys now,” she said. “It doesn’t bother me. The only time I realize I’m different from them is during the autograph sessions. All of the kids want my autograph and the other drivers have one or two people.”
With the success Montgomery earned on the track, there was a point where she thought her career was cut short before its zenith.
At an Aug. 8, 2014, race at the Road America track in Wisconsin, Montgomery was rear-ended and forced into the wall by another driver and her car was totaled. Her father was present that day, but he said his day took a turn for the worse.
“I heard on the loud speaker, Sarah Montgomery just breaks the all-time Barber MX-5 Cup lap record at Road America. I was freaking out with joy,” he said. “The white flag waived for the last lap and she comes by and then she disappears. I didn’t know what had happened to her.
“The next thing I know they had brought her to the hospital. It was a horrible day, but she was fine. They wouldn’t let her out of the hospital because she wanted to kill the person that had done that to her.”
Ironically, the driver who caused Sarah Montgomery’s accident became a close friend and a sponsor. The damages of her car cost $30,000, but someone, who Robert Montgomery said he doesn’t know, wrote a check to pay for the car’s damages.
Here’s what the crash looked like from Montgomery’s point of view.
When she is not leaving drivers in the dust on the track, Montgomery is doing the only other thing that would make sense…. playing the clarinet in the University of Louisiana at Lafayette Wind Ensemble.
As a senior at Lafayette High School and a member of the school’s band, Montgomery soloed at Carnegie Hall in New York City, a moment she said she will never forget.
“I was absolutely nervous,” she admitted. “I had a big one-to-two-minute solo that I had to stand up and play for everyone in the hall. That was nerve wracking, but I nailed it. That was the warmest fuzzy feeling I’ve ever had. That’s an experience I’ll never forget.”
Montgomery seems to be one of the busiest 20-year-olds in the area, and she holds up well with success in the classroom, on the track and in the concert hall.
“Juggling activities has become something I’m used to now,” she said. “All of my teachers are on board. The first day of school I tell them I am a professional race car driver, and I give them dates of my races. If something comes up, I tell them I’ll let them know two weeks ahead of time. The university helps out a bunch.
“If you don’t work hard now, you’ll regret it later. I don’t have the best GPA that I would like, but I still work hard. Don’t do something you’ll regret later.”
Funding is an issue at times for Montgomery. She did not compete in two races last season because of funding issues. It won’t be much of a problem heading into the new season because her team has grown, and she owns her own race car, but it still costs $100,000 per season to participate.
“It’s hard to go knocking on doors when people don’t understand,” she said. “My biggest sponsors have been those in love with the sport and want to see a young person do well. It’s hard to find people who will help, but when you do it’s the greatest thing.”
It’s only normal for a 20-year-old female student to have a Mustang GT with 500 horsepower right? Montgomery does, but she treats it the exact opposite from the Mazda cars she speeds in on weekends.
“I’m actually a grandma on the road,” Montgomery said with a laugh. “I see how quickly things can go wrong all the time, and I guess I get all of my energy and speed out on the track. I don’t trust any of the drivers on the road. My car is my baby. I just stay back and watch everyone else do their thing.”
Montgomery is revered by a plethora of people and has a laundry list of accomplishments, but it is her natural personality that her father said he is most proud of.
“Sarah is a great person and that is the top thing for me,” he said. “It has to do with who she hangs around with. As soon as you meet her, it’s hard not to like her. What you see is what you get. The fact that she is such a good person means the most to us.”
Want to know about Montgomery? Here’s a video of her telling her story in her own words.