MATTOON -- Leah Oathout is a quick study.
Clocked at speeds about 80 mph, the student at Lake Land College in Mattoon proceeded rapidly with her coursework at the Coles County Dragway. An automotive major dabbling in extracurricular drag racing for the last two years, the sophomore from Bethany aced her toughest test in October when she won the final race of the season, and the whole championship, in the "Powder Puff" all-female division.
"I believe I won by 1 point and something like 5-hundredths of a second," says the modest and petite Oathout, 20, who has the faintest trace of grease under her manicured nails. "But, I am going to be honest, it was a big thrill to win."
Her adjunct automotive instructor and drag racing teacher, Scotty Adams, also was pleased. He has been teaching at the college for five years and was once a student there himself, founding the drag racing program in 2003 when the college's Automotive Club bought the '93 Pontiac Firebird that Oathout piloted to victory.
All the student drivers belong to the Automotive Club, and this is the first time a club member has roared back to class clutching a 2½-foot-tall championship trophy. Oathout will get to take that home with her, along with her degree, when she graduates in the fall and heads off in pursuit of a career in automotive paint and body work.
"Most of the girls are just as good as the guys," she says about drag racing in particular and life in general. "And I'd like to get out there and race with some of the boys and see how well I can do."
The 18-member Automotive Club is hard at work now on a much hotter drag car, a '74 Dodge Challenger packing a very potent 440-cubic-inch engine. The students help offset the costs of racing and car building by staging a huge college car show every May 4 and have even attracted several club sponsors: the Coles County Dragway, Central Illinois Transmission, Advance Auto Parts in Charleston and Adam's own Scott's Shop repair business collectively help out with costs.
But the actual work of building and prepping the car is down to the Automotive Club members, who invest long hours of sweat equity in their fiery eighth-of-a-mile chariots. Working after class is also a pay-your-dues requirement if you want the chance to race, but it quickly becomes a labor of love for kids who discover college life can be way cooler -- and faster -- than they ever imagined.
Adams says such efforts also forge a vital learning tool as the frequent laying on of hands amid a vehicle's black guts does more than textbooks can to justify internal combustion's ways to man.
"You've got to have a feeling for things," says Adams, 49. "As an automotive technician, you've got to be able to go out and drive somebody's car and sort of feel how it's running; it's just part of putting everything together to understand what's going on."
As for Oathout, she has a theory about her ability to coax a championship performance out of the trusty old Firebird: "Personally, I just think this car likes me," she says. "And it likes me because I am the only one who washes it."