Racing is in her DNA
02/28/2016 09:24PM ● Published by Nancy Babin
Gallery: Jessi Donaldson [4 Images] Click any image to expand.
The intoxicating smell of race fuel permeates the air. The roar of engines and the squeal of tires skidding on red dirt are almost deafening. The crowd is restless and the announcers chatter as a man with headphones on a stand waves a large green flag.
“Come on, Jessi!” shouts a family adorned in pink and white t-shirts with “Donaldson” and “#64” printed brightly across the front.
A modest gray purestock racecar with a large pink “64” on the doors and “64 Donaldson” across the would-be windshield races around the track, holding on to its place. The driver, Jessica “Jessi” Donaldson, calmly stays the course. Her family watches intently, barely breathing as cars crash into each other and Donaldson swerves around the wreck to cross the finish line at Southern Raceway in Milton, FL.
Jessi, a petite young woman with long strawberry-blond hair pulled back into a casual ponytail, climbs out of the car. Her bright blue eyes gleam as she smiles at the slight gray-haired man in a dirty t-shirt and hat who immediately starts rinsing the car, giving constructive criticism and praises about her racing. This man, Bobby Donaldson, is her father, mentor, and idol.
Jessi, 22, of Fort Walton Beach, has raced since she was 17 years old, and Bobby finished building her car just two years later. She has raced for four seasons, improving each year. In 2015, she took several first-place trophies home for both heat and feature races. “When I started racing, I just got out of the way,” she says. “I love to just drive. I’m happy to just sit in the seat.”
Before racing cars, Jessi rode and competed with horses in local shows. Her passion and dedication have transferred to racing. “It’s been a learning curve for her,” Bobby says. “But she figured it out. I just remind her to think, use your brain, and have fun.”
Bobby works as an automotive glass technician during the day, and, when not on the track, Jessi is happily serving at Kinfolk’s Barbecue on Racetrack Road in Fort Walton Beach where she’s worked since high school. But after work, and after the busy race weekends, it becomes repair time for the car. In a large workshop at her grandmother’s house, Jessi helps her father by tending to tools and working on the car as needed. They even giggle when he talks about adding “ogre juice,” which is rear-end oil for the car. She helps put rivets in the body parts of the car. Around them, the workshop walls are adorned with vintage photos of different racecars, most of which are embellished with “64” on them.
“That was my number when I raced,” Bobby explains as he swaps out batteries in a power tool. “I built this car for Jessi and she wanted to continue to use my number.”
Racing has been in the Donaldson family for a long time. Bobby met Jessi’s mother, Tammy, at Southern Raceway, and their first date was at Northwest Florida Speedway in Baker, FL. “Bobby was an awesome driver,” Tammy says. “I love that Jessi’s racing now. Bobby built this car so it’s extra safe.”
Looking like an oversized child seat, the car’s self-containment seat helps protect racecar drivers in case of impact. The car is built with a strong steel cage, and protective bars prevent debris from coming through the glass-less windshield.
During the 2015 race season at Southern Raceway, Jessi was a leader in points, earning more than her cousin, Levi Donaldson, who also races – and wins. “It was nerve-wracking when she first started racing,” says Levi, 21, of Fort Walton Beach. “I like racing, but it’s been more fun watching her race.”
Levi and Jessi are cousins, but they feel more like brother and sister. They both attended Choctawhatchee High School and went to the races with family every weekend. “We would spend the night at our grandma’s and watch VHS tapes of old races,” Levi says. “Racing is in our blood.”
Jessi’s impact has not gone unnoticed by racing officials either.
“I’ve watched her from the beginning,” says Mitch Kucera, the race director of Southern Raceway. “I’ve seen all of the Donaldsons race. She started at the back of the pack and earned second place in points this (past) season.”
Kucera recalled a night when Jessi flipped her uncle’s racecar during a race at the track and how she got right back behind the wheel. “She’s got the smarts and talent,” he adds. “She learned her car and the track. She’s consistent. She’s also a great role model and I’m enjoying following her great potential.”
To the surprise of many race fans, Jessi took the racing circuit by storm, and a large fan base developed. At a Meet the Drivers night at Southern Raceway, fans lined up to greet her and get their pictures taken with the up-and-coming female driver. “We always root for her,” says Joyce Telle, 53, of Milton. “She has lots of guts. She’s awesome.”
Fellow racecar driver Doug Lee has been impressed by Jessi as well. “No matter how hard it gets or upset she gets, she puts the nose to the grindstone,” Lee says. “She has good work ethics. She also loves working the people. I love the expressions on little girls who see her race and meet her.”
When it’s not racing season, Jessi can be found donned in camouflage, hunting deer with her family and dogs. Having hunted since childhood, Jessi learned to maneuver trucks and all-terrain vehicles through dirt, mud, and rough terrain, which has helped her on the dirt race track.
After hunting season drew to a close in late January, Jessie has been directing her attention to returning to the red dirt track for another successful and fun-filled season. With a new racing season beginning in late February, she is hoping to find sponsors to help offset the cost of racing. Her car will also debut with a new body and paint.
Justin Hamilton, 29, is also a racecar driver and just happens to be Jessi’s boyfriend. In jest, during a racing conversation, Jessi quipped, “Your car will be a winning car - if I’m driving.”