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Crocker, who will make Busch debut, marked by determination

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RICHMOND, Va. - If ever there was an excuse to let things slide, Erin Crocker had one. She was 17 and nearing the end of her junior year of high school when cancer claimed her father's life. Nobody would have blamed this honors student, this vice president of her class, for expecting a little slack.

Nobody except herself.

"She missed a week of school when he was in the hospital and then a week for the funeral," said Sue Crocker, Erin's mother. "So she had two weeks of work to make up by the end of the year. I told her, `Erin, who cares? I don't care whether you do it.' But she cared, and she did it because she wanted to remain in the honor society.

"That really showed her character. She's a very determined person when she makes up her mind to do something. She's very focused."

Which, at least in part, explains where she is now. Her rapid climb in stock car racing will reach another milestone Friday night at Richmond International Raceway when Crocker makes her NASCAR Busch Series debut. After four top-10 finishes in five ARCA events, and under the tutelage of Ray Evernham Motorsports, it's time.

"Ray's given me an awesome opportunity and he really believes in me," Crocker said after testing last week at RIR. "It's not just like he's giving me a car and saying, `Here, go for it.' A driver wants to be surrounded by people who believe in you and want to see you succeed you can't ask for anything more. And now, it's all up to me.

"I'm going to have a good car, good people, and I think I'm ready. It's going to be a big step and a lot of tough competition, but you've got to start somewhere. I'll be as ready as I'm going to be."

Crocker, 24, has been ready for each step. A year ago, she became the first female to win a race in the World of Outlaws a tricky dirt-track series where Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart learned their trade. She moved up to ARCA, regarded as the best series below NASCAR's big three. After finishing 12th in her debut, she came in seventh, second, third and third.

Now comes the Busch Series. And pretty soon, Evernham Motorsports is expected to announce Crocker will run a full Busch schedule in 2006.

Since she can remember, this has been her passion. Growing up in Wilbraham, Mass., she followed her father and three older brothers to the track. Each time she watched her brothers race, she had the same question for her father: When will it be my turn? When she was 7, Crocker started racing quarter midgets in Connecticut. That year, she was named Most Improved Novice. She was hooked.

Her parents made her a deal: She could pursue her goal, which at the time was to race in the Indianapolis 500, only if she maintained her grades. No problem there. She even found time for tennis, soccer, lacrosse and the ski team.

"She grew up a tomboy," Sue Crocker said. "She actually played on a boys' hockey team. I remember once somebody asked her if she thought she could compete with the boys. She never thought she couldn't."

But when her father died in 1998, part of her love for racing died as well. She enrolled at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, N.Y., the fall of `99. She joined a sorority and played on the lacrosse team, but she also got back into racing with sprint cars at a nearby track. It was there she caught the eye of Mike Woodring, then a seven-time Empire Super Sprints champion.

"She was a pretty aggressive driver," he said. "She didn't have much luck, but you could see the car she was driving wasn't too good, either. It was a pretty low-budget deal."

Woodring wanted to add a second car for the 2002 season and asked Crocker to drive. Given some direction and a better ride, she won five races. Her career was just getting started.

"You could just see from the start that she wanted it," Woodring said. "It wasn't a joke just a girl racer, like most turn out to be."

Now is as good a time as any to bring up Danica Patrick. Her name and face are all over the place, including on the cover of Sports Illustrated after her fourth-place finish in the Indianapolis 500. Crocker, who earned her degree from RPI in `03, respects Patrick and wishes her all the best. But when compared to Patrick as in, being called "NASCAR's Danica" it brings a slight cringe.

That's understandable. Having come this far and worked this hard, Crocker doesn't want to be known as a female racer.

"She would be prefer to be known as a good racer," Sue Crocker said.

Yet Crocker understands the question is bound to surface.

"I know people are going to ask me that, but that's part of it," she said. "I look at the gender thing like it's got a lot advantages and disadvantages. Maybe some of the disadvantages are that people talk about it all the time and people stare at you and look at you funny. But there's a lot of advantages.

"A big reason why I have the opportunity with Ray is because right now, diversity is a big thing. I know he believes in me as a driver, but I certainly know it opened the door for me that I'm a female who had some success. So you take the good with the bad and just deal with it."

Some figured that with Danicamania in full gear, Evernham would try to capitalize and push Crocker's development. They couldn't have been more wrong. In fact, Evernham has been so cautious in bringing her along that Crocker has been known to get oh, "antsy" is her word.

"She's a fiery redhead," Evernham told "She's not patient. We always say she's the daughter I never had because she's a lot like me."


(c) 2005, Daily Press (Newport News, Va.). Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service.

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