Out of the high school classroom, Sally Gherardi races No. 77 at Beech Ridge.
Sally Gherardi, a Gorham High School physics teacher, climbed into the driver’s seat of her race car Tuesday while her crew tuned it up for action Saturday night at Beech Ridge Motor Speedway in Scarborough.
A three-man crew led by her husband, Tim Hatch, prepped the car – No. 77 – with her name blazened above the windshield. With Gherardi in the driver’s seat, the crew had scales under each wheel to weigh the car, took various measurements, tinkered with suspension adjustments, filled the tank with aviation fuel and checked tires.
“The race car is all physics,” Gherardi, 39, said.
Gherardi competes in the Sport Series at the track and will roar around the third-of-a mile oval at Beech Ridge in about 17 seconds per lap in Saturday’s 35-lap feature at 7 p.m.
In the world of auto racing, she’s known and drives under her maiden name. But at Gorham High School, she is Mrs. Hatch and teaches physics, the science of matter and energy.
As a physics teacher at the school, she succeeded another high-profile instructor – Bob Crowley, winner of the TV reality show, “Survivor.” She said Crowley had been her physics teacher.
Gherardi, a Gorham native, graduated from Gorham High School in 1995. She has a daughter, Chloe, 4, and her daughter’s name in pink script is affixed to the race car’s dashboard.
Gherardi is the daughter of George and Brenda Gherardi, owners of White Rock Outboard in Gorham, where her race car is housed. In addition to her husband, who is crew chief, her staff includes Chris Smith of Scarborough and Glenn Connell of Windham.
She said racing is her hobby.
“It’s like taking your boat to the lake,” Gherardi said.
Her car, which she described as not being any particular model, has an 8-cylinder Chevy engine with a Toyota Camry body. Alan Berry of Gorham built the car in 2009.
A win at Beech Ridge Saturday would net her $500. So, to cover expenses, she spends her own money and also has several sponsors. Prime Motor Group is her major sponsor.
This week, she and her crew repaired any damage from last week’s race and cleaned the car. They performed a “nut-and-bolt” check, she said. She vacuums the car inside and out, including the engine and tires.
George Gherardi observed Tuesday’s prep session.
“They’re all smart on this,” he said, praising his daughter’s crew. “Two pounds of air in a tire makes a difference.”
“What’s the frame height, Sal?” he asked his daughter.
There’s a specific, mandatory clearance between the frame and the ground.
“Right on,” she answered from the driver’s seat.
She’s been racing since age 18, when she began in the Day of Destruction class and the powder puff for women. For several years now she has been competing against the guys.
“She is by no means a token female in the field,” said Bruce Elder of Windham, a former track announcer. “I called her the real deal.”
She captured the Sport Series championship in 2008. In 2014, she won an open at Speedway 95 in Bangor and has previously raced at Oxford Plains Speedway.
In Beech Ridge 2016 standings in her class, she is running only a few points behind the lead.
“We won on opening day this year,” Gherardi said.
Molly Merrifield, a Gorham graduate this year, served as a teacher’s aide in her high school classroom and is a Gherardi fan.
“I think she has the ability to keep up with any man out there,” Merrifield said.
There are typically 20 cars in a race and Gherardi’s car has some black scrapes on its drivers side.
“We call her the target,” her father said.
“They don’t like getting beat by a girl,” Tim Hatch said.
Gherardi said there’s a couple of drivers that “bump me around. Everyone else is great.”
Dave Gutter of Gorham, a racing fan and a neighbor, described Gherardi as an excellent driver.
“They are all a little scared of her,” Gutter said. “She’s so fiery.”
Gherardi said when she first started driving in the Sport Series that she was intimidated, but a driver from Gorham advised her to think of every car as white with no number.
“You have to pass it,” he said.
Debbie Stirling, secretary in the Gorham High School main office, said quite a few teachers have watched Gherardi compete.
“A lot of teachers are fans,” Merrifield said.
Before teaching in Gorham, Gherardi, a graduate of Saint Joseph’s College, taught at Lakes Region Middle School, beginning in 2000 and switched to Gorham High School in 2004. Merrifield said Gherardi attends 4-H shows and athletic events to support her students.
Merrifield said Gherardi inspires students.
Auto racing is an expensive sport. Gherardi said the cost of car maintenance in a normal season runs about $10,000. Tires cost $140 each and Smith said a tire is usully good for three races.
Gherardi’s team is gearing up for this week’s race and will stock the car’s trailer with tools and spare parts so that they’re ready for emergencies.
“If you don’t, your done for the night,” Connell said.
Gherardi is particular about her car’s appearance and Smith said she prefers a black valance strip instead of a white one wrapping across the lower front of her car. Smith said she doesn’t like other drivers picking up a white strip in their mirrors, tipping off her identity.
Among drivers on NASCAR’s major circuit, she likes Dale Earnhardt Jr. Gherardi likes what she does locally but said she wouldn’t turn down an opportunity to race on the big circuit.
Tuesday evening, with her crew finishing up its pre-race setup, Gherardi polished her car.
“It’s my baby,” she said.
Gorham High School physics teacher Sally Gherardi climbs into the driver’s seat of her race car. The vehicle has no door.
Sally Gherardi in race gear.