Story: Alex Bernstein
Photography: Michael Blackwell
There’s no denying it: Professional drag racing is a sport composed predominantly of white males. Nicole Lyons is neither, but octane runs through her veins, and the memories of her younger years are saturated with stories of speed. Don’t believe me? When you were 15, you probably didn’t have a car; when Nicole was 15, she was driving a ’67 Firebird with 900hp.
“My dad was a famed street racer out of Los Angeles. He used to race for, like, $25,000 on the street…per race,” she remembers. Being exposed to something so dangerous, it’s no surprise Nicole tossed gender roles to the wind and chose horsepower over Barbie and Ken. Some might say bad parenting, others wish they had a dad that brash. But more than anything, in this particular case, Nicole’s life is a lesson in natural progression. After her first race, she was hooked.
“There was a guy with a ’74 Vega who had around the same horsepower that we did. Basically, my dad kind of conned him into racing me,” she laughs. “Initially, he was gonna race [my father], and then my dad said, ‘For more money, I’ll let my daughter drive,’ and he tried to play it off as a joke to see if the guy would bite—and he did. You know, we beat him pretty bad.” On that smoggy Los Angeles night, Nicole’s future seemed set in stone. She wanted to be the first African-American female in Pro Stock racing.
It was the NHRA season opener in 2005, Nicole’s first pro race. Her father had just passed away one week prior, and yet she was still there, more focused than ever. She blew past the previous season’s third-place winner. “It was like a verification from my dad, like, ‘You’re gonna be okay, you’re gonna make it, you need to continue what you’re doing.’”
Now, six years later, Nicole Lyons races in two different NHRA classes, hitting speeds of 240 mph at the finish line. She’s been on the Speed Channel’s Car Warriors as an engine builder—yes, she’s better with tools than you are—and now she’s got plans for NASCAR.
Of course, there are issues that arise with racism, or the stigma that girls just can’t play with the big boys, but this girl has no problem silencing the naysayers. In fact, she doesn’t see anything in her way. “One thing I’ll say: Me being diverse in the sport? It just gives me flavor. I’m a sore thumb that sticks out in the crowd, and all eyes are drawn to me for that. It’s an advantage.”