PITTSBURGH – Some may associate the No. 76 with trombones, a gas station or as an interstate connecting Pittsburgh to Philadelphia. But for Jessica Knight, 76 is a family number, written on the doors and roof of her blue and silver racecar, a weekend hobby she has shared with family since she was a child.
As a tax team leader in PNC Wealth Management’s trust tax services, Jessica and her nine-person team prepare tax returns for trusts held at PNC. But on the weekends, her other team -- consisting of her parents and five brothers -- help Jessica to prepare for her Friday night races.
When Jessica was just a kid, she knew each weekend would include family plans at the racetrack.
"For as long as I can remember, I spent my weekends watching my dad and two older brothers race on local short tracks. From the time I was very young, I always knew that I wanted to get out there on the track, go fast and turn left."
Unfortunately, rising costs and lack of sponsorship caused them to cut back on their racing at about the same age that she could have started driving.
But in 2009, one of her younger brothers decided he wanted to give racing a shot, so they went in together.
For the first few years, she and her brother, Christopher, shared the car and driving, alternating Friday night races. But when they chose to race for points in formal competition, a second car was built as well as a new twist to their racing story. They could now compete against each other on the track.
Jessica’s race day gears up on Friday afternoons. After work, she leaves to meet up with her dad and brothers at his garage. They load up their trailers with her light blue and silver, compact race car, and drive 45 minutes to the local racetrack.
Arriving around 6 p.m., they are just in time for two practice sets for each racing division based on car models and engines. After 5-10 minutes of testing each car, the engines power down for a driver’s meeting followed by the national anthem.
Once the red, white and blue flag is raised, the black and white checkered one drops, signaling the start of the heat races, about 6-10 laps each. These races narrow the field down to about half in each division and set up the starting order for the feature races.
At Jessica’s local short track, there are five divisions on the same track. Her four-cylinder division runs 10-15 laps, but higher ones run up to 50 at faster speeds. Among her track’s competition, there is only one other woman in her division and a third one in a higher division.
Most local tracks are typically ¼ mile to ½ mile. While there are dirt and asphalt tracks, Jessica races on asphalt but still tries to leave her competitors in the dust.
Going 80-90 mph, Jessica has learned to control her car in all conditions, including new tires and a cold track, adjusting her racing depending on how the car is running. This includes timing passes on the right and whether other cars pass you on the inside or outside.
But no matter how experienced she is, there is always a fight to make sure the car doesn’t spin out.
“In 2014, I took a hard hit on the outside wall and banged up the car pretty good. I didn’t finish the race that night, but I got right back out, ran practice and continued racing.”
Jessica Knight (in car No. 76) takes pride in staying ahead of her brother Christopher (in car No. 78)
Although Jessica’s day job and hobby are vastly different, she draws inspiration from their intersection. Her accounting skills let her see the sport from a viewpoint other racers may not.
“Being an accountant allows me to see racing as a more analytical process,” she said. “From that perspective, I can see the bigger picture and not focus so much on one thing.”
At the top of Jessica’s racing bucket seat list is the chance to move up into a higher division, which is normally possible with sponsorship money.
Her most memorable moment captured the trophy in 2012. She scored her first win by leading all 15 laps while her brother finished right behind in second place. Their goal to run for points worked out, as she finished sixth and he finished second.
In 2013, she took her second win with a last lap pass, finishing seventh in points.
Although her father retired from racing a few years ago, Jessica has no plans to park her car in the garage any time soon. Currently she races two or three times per month. Typically practice starts in April and the official races begin in May and run through August or September.
In fact, her younger brother, now 17, is trying to convince their parents to get him a car.
At the end of the day, I’m just an accountant who happens to drive a race car on the weekends. And the best part is that I get to do so surrounded by my family.
As far as who’s the better driver, Jessica or her brother: “Christopher,” she admits with a laugh.
Jessica Knight is one of three female drivers at her racetrack
I’d say the most challenging part about racing is the competitiveness. You have to be to want to do something like we do. But if I don’t run well, I can put it into the perspective of trying to have fun as a hobby instead.
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