Robin McCall speeds into big time

Of all the male-dominated bastions of sport, few remain as exclusive as Grand National stock car racing, the realm of good-old-boys like Richard Petty, Cale Yarborough, and David Pearson. Moreover, most stock car drivers don't reach the prestigious Grand National tour, a nine-month affair that ranges from Florida to Michigan to California, until they are well into their 20s.

Which makes it all the more remarkable that one of the new faces on this year's Grand National tour belongs to 18-year-old Robin McCall.

The San Antonio, Texas, native has been racing since she was eight, competing in ''quarter-midgets'' somewhat similar to go-carts. ''It was more a Saturday or Sunday hobby (than anything else),'' says her father, Bob, a machine and sheet metal shop operator. ''We didn't have any idea or intention of what we're doing now.''

But Robin ''seemed to have a talent'' for racing, he said. By age 14, she was competing in full-sized Pintos on quarter-mile tracks. Last year, taking on stock car driving veterans on the Late Model Sportsman circuit (which runs on shorter tracks than Grand National events), she won 10 of 16 feature races she entered.

''She's got good race savvy,'' observed Neal Bonnett, a leader on the Grand National tour who has faced McCall on short tracks. ''She knows what it's all about. . . . It's not where she just comes and rides. She drives.''

Earlier this year, McCall attempted her Grand National debut at the Charlotte (N. C.) Motor Speedway in the World 600, one of the longest and most lucrative of the 31 events on the circuit.

Several days before the race, she was running practice laps in the 155-to-158 miles-per-hour range. Then came two days of rain and anxious waiting, intensified by a barrage of publicity. When the qualifying runs were finally made, she averaged 151.984 m.p.h. on her best attempt, just missing the 42-car field by one tantalizing place with a 43rd place finish.

Disheartening as that experience was, McCall's calm handling of her first big race and the attendant pressures boded well for the future. ''She doesn't seem to be intimidated by anybody or anything,'' said an impressed Stan Barrett, her backup driver and the holder of the world land-speed record (739 m.p.h.).

And indeed, Robin qualified in her next attempt at the Michigan International Speedway, then completed 107 laps in the 400-mile race before dropping out with mechanical problems to finish in 29th place.

Just by qualifying, she became only the second woman to make a Grand National field, following in the treadmarks of Janet Guthrie a few years ago. Guthrie, of course, went on to become a female pioneer at the Indianapolis 500 as well, but McCall has not given any indication that she has such thoughts - at least for now.

Robin signed a five-year contract in February with Jim Stacy, a millionaire former stock car driver who had some financial stake in seven of the cars entered in the World 600. Some observers along pit row thought Stacy was thrusting the young woman into the big time too quickly. The sponsor thought otherwise. Much as a baseball club brings a minor league prospect to the majors for the final month of the season to gain needed experience, so Stacy intends to give his young driver a taste of what's in store for her by entering her in as many as four more races this year. If she races in any more than that she would officially achieve rookie status, something Stacy would prefer waited until 1983 , when she will drive full time.

''She's going to win the rookie-of-the-year (award) next year,'' he insisted. During the next couple of months, though, the plan is to enter the Champion Spark Plug 400 in Michigan Aug. 22 and the National 500 in Charlotte Oct. 10.

Stacy is quick to point out that he would not entrust one of his $60,000-plus Buick racing cars to McCall unless he had confidence in her driving ability and judgment. But he also admitted that it helped that she is an attractive, personable, and relatively articulate young woman, and therefore eminently marketable. McCall is already involved in helping Stacy push a new brand of vitamins.

For her part, Robin McCall doesn't pay much heed to her uniqueness in the stock car world. ''I've never really thought of myself as being a girl out there ,'' she said. ''I'm just a driver.''

Recently graduated from high school, she said she intends to make a career in stock car racing, where drivers can earn from $80,000 to $150,000 on the Grand National tour. And most observers think she'll succeed. ''I honestly and sincerely believe she wants to race because she's a racer and not because she's a woman,'' said rival driver Bonnett. ''I feel Robin, at her age, has a lot of potential.''

Added co-driver Stan Barrett, ''I think she might surprise a lot of people.''

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