La Jolla High sophomore finds outlet to satisfy her need for speed
By Pat Sherman
Taylor Bertrand, a 15-year-old honor roll student and ace athlete at La Jolla High School, has added one more item to her list of passions — off-road racing.
“It’s really different from everything else I do,” said Taylor, a sophomore member of La Jolla High’s top-ranking varsity water polo team.
As a starting pitcher for the girls’ varsity softball team in her freshman year, Taylor had a base batter average of more than 800. She also enjoys soccer, rock climbing and snowboarding.
But nothing compares to the thrill of strapping into her limited buggy, off-road vehicle with its 1600 cc Volkswagen engine, hitting a dirt track at speeds of up to 70 miles per hour.
“It’s really fast-paced and exhilarating — like a rush of excitement,” Taylor said. “You’re kind of nervous just waiting for (the race to start), but once you’re out on the track it’s totally fine. All you have to do is just focus on finishing and, you know, staying out of all the carnage.”
In her short time racing, Taylor has experienced her share of “carnage,” competing against male and female drivers more than twice her age. During a practice round last month, another racer drove her off the road and she broke an axle. While competing in the Lucas Oil Off Road Racing Series in Lake Elsinore April 24, her engine blew out.
But never fear, says her mother, Jennifer Bertrand, Taylor doesn’t let setbacks hold her down.
“She’s always been a super athletic, really adventurous person,” Bertrand said.
After her engine blowout, Taylor was back the next day, finishing the race 16th out of 20.
“I think three or four (drivers) couldn’t finish because they flipped or something happened that they didn’t expect,” Taylor said. “My only goal was to finish.”
To avoid obstacles and stay in the game, Taylor and other racers rely on spotters — people who sit in the stands and offer them advice about track conditions via a headset.
“You’re completely strapped in and you can’t turn your head or look at anything around you like when you normally drive,” Taylor said. “Your spotter tells you who’s coming up on your left or right, or if there’s a wreck in front of you. If somebody flipped and you get stuck in it, you’re out, too. You just have to watch for everything; you always have to be prepared for it.”
Taylor finished her debut race last fall in the middle of the pack — after learning how to drive a stick shift for the first time earlier that day.
She was exposed to the sport watching her mother’s fiancé, Randy Minnier, compete in a larger, faster vehicle. They now compete on the same day, albeit in a different class.
“She’s a little fish in a real big pond now,” Minnier said. “It’s a little intimidating, but she’s doing really well. … She’s getting better.”
One thing is certain: Taylor will never find herself helpless by the roadside with a flat tire. Her emersion in the sport has taught her about fixing cars — everything from changing spark plugs to working on engines.
“It’s a cool learning experience,” she said.
Minnier said the most important thing Taylor is learning is to be organized and patient.
“That’s really key,” he said, “otherwise you’ll forget things and something will not get done right.”
Patience and vigilance are crucial to staying in the race — whether avoiding ruts that can catch a tire and cause a vehicle to roll, or resisting the urge to get caught up in aggressively defensive moves.
“(Other drivers) have been real aggressive with her,” Minnier said. “If you’re patient and watch, people will end up taking themselves out. Wait until they make mistakes and then make a good move.”
In some divisions, off-road racers are as young as 8 years old, though they race in smaller, slower kart-type vehicles.
The average speed of drivers in Taylor’s class is about 55 miles per hour.
“Any time you’re in a race car there’s a concern for safety, but … they really take great care in how you’re protected,” Bertrand said.
When not racing or playing sports, Taylor can be found volunteering with the National Charity League, a mother/daughter organization that delivers meals to seniors, helps at animal shelters and serves meals to the homeless.
In November, Taylor and Minnier will compete in the Lucas Oil Regional Off Road Series in Las Vegas.
“I definitely want to get a scholarship in water polo and then go to college, and then hopefully go into sports medicine and physical therapy,” said Taylor of her plans for the future, which, naturally, include more racing.
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