High school can be a real drag, and that’s what keeps a couple dozen Hilo side young people motivated.
Consider Kamehameha’s Lei-Mesha Desalla, and Tyler Brown, a Waiakea student and football player, who share another side to their character.
It’s not unique, but it’s not typical, and probably more unusual on an island that feeds off aquatic athletics.
They are two among a growing group of high schoolers who willingly get grease on themselves under cars and once a month compete in the Harry Kerr High School Drag Racing Series at the Hilo strip.
Brown, 17, who has been racing each of the last two years in a 1968 Pontiac, grew up in a car family.
“The whole family is a car family, it always was,” he said, “my brother (Tysen Pasco Brown, 24), races a ’69 Camaro. We’re all into it.”
Desalla said “my family sort of pushed me in this direction but my dad (Jabin), was always into cars, I was just too wild to get started any earlier. There was this ’81 Camaro I wanted, but he said, “No way, you’ll kill yourself in that, you need to get a truck.”
She ended up with a Toyota truck.
And so, when the high school racing league started up, these two were ready.
“Tyler came out to our races when we started in 2018,” Kerr said, “he was very nervous and had no idea how drag racing was done. He was able to pick up quickly on how he could make his car run consistently.
“He picked up on drag racing so quickly that he made it look easy. In 2018, during our first two races, he pulled off back-to-back wins and solidified his standing among the high school participants, he took home second place for his efforts in the points championship.”
Tyler wasted no time responding to a question about what motivates him to race.
“It just comes down to that thrill of going really fast,” he said. “It’s a thrill, but then you realize you have a lot to learn. You have to get consistent with your reaction time, the part where you launch off the time tree better, and better, and then make it consistent. That’s when you get a chance to win.”
Desalla didn’t get involved the first year, but, according to Kerr, she’s a natural at this.
“Back then, she was very green, very unsure of herself,” he said, “she could barely do a burnout (keeping the car stationary while revving the engine to the point that the wheels spin and friction causes them to smoke).
“She had no experience at all, and her first race in September was pretty rough, but it was her first step, a new start on something. When she came back in November, it was like night and day. She felt more comfortable in the car and learned quickly how to be consistent.”
In high school drags, racers without a driver’s license need to have a parent or guardian in the car for safety, so maybe she got some good coaching from her dad.
“Her burnouts were spot on,” Kerr said, “she was finally starting to have fun, every time she got in the car, she had a smile from ear-to-ear, and yes, the guidance from her parents was helpful. She became a dominating racer this year, she took home three wins, back-to-back-to back, we called her the ‘Triple Crown Queen,’ and no doubt, she is one of the best up-and-coming racers we have.”
A little experience can go a long way.
“I didn’t get it at first,” she said, “I was always blaming the car instead of controlling the car. I used to jump off and let my hands go, before I got used to it.”
At this point, she said she hopes to take drag racing, “as far as it go,” but she is, at heart, an academic planning to get a four-year degree in computer science, hopefully at a top school in the field, such as Rochester Institute of Technology in New York.
But most people aren’t so narrowly defined, at one lane in life or another, as either an academic or a drag racer — you can be anything you want to be. Desalla has always been interested in computer science, and she has also been interested in cars as far back as she can recall.
“I always liked the old school cars, “ she said, “I like learning about how they work.”
She learned about water pumps when hers blew out in the middle of a race last year, and her interest led to her getting on her back, under a car with her dad, when they pulled an engine out of Chevy and replaced it with another one.
“Until then,” she said, “all I knew about cars was they had a water pump, a motor and they need gas.
“Someday, though,” she said, “I want to rebuild a car.”
Brown has similarly learned a lot. He had trouble launching at the start, and in this sport, a bad start often means you just lost. But he kept working at getting better at the timing tree, got some good reaction times, and recorded a remarkable, near-perfect .002 reaction time in a win. He has competed 10 events since 2018, made it to the finals five times, won three of them, his only losses to Desalla.
Brown also has a longterm interest in working on cars. He’s been rebuilding a ’49 Ford truck he’s been working on with his dad for a few years.
When he graduates, he plans to attend community college, like his older brother and get an associates degree in fire science, which often leads directly to official training and then a career as a fireman.
In the meantime, both of them will be involved in the drag strip’s East/West Shootout on April 19, when high school teams each send five into a round robin tournament with a point to the winner of each.
“It will show, once and for all,” said Kerr, “which team has the best high school racers on the Big Island.”
Until next year, when they do it all over again, likely with an even larger field of high school racers.
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