There are certain sports where a female participant is going to draw attention, by virtue of being the minority. Car racing is one of them.
But KMPH FOX 26 News reporter Nick King introduces us to a Selma woman who is much more than simply a female race car driver.
Go Kart to Sprint Car, dirt to pavement, career winner of some 300 races, but during the week, Mrs. Thornburg is a 5th grade teacher at Jefferson Elementary in Dinuba. "Teaching is really like racing. Every day is different. It's challenging. Some days you win, and some days are big losses," said Audra Sasselli-Thornburg.
In eight years in the classroom and 30 in a race car, Sasselli has seen plenty more good days than bad. But the rough times, like a serious accident off the track at age 30, or an occasional competitor paying more attention to her gender than her talent, have hardened already thick skin.
Audra’s dad, Myrel Sasselli said, "Always the underdog, no matter what. Kids would say, 'oh you need to be home playing dolls.' She's always been competitive, she likes to race. She'll race when she has a migraine headaches and everything else, she's not a quitter."
"I've raced all these years and won lots of races, and you'll still hear people say, 'oh, you got beat by a girl.' As if it's, you know, super degrading. So that kind of negativity will always work against whoever it is with me," said Audra.
It especially hasn't worked since Sasselli had a baby daughter, Gianna. "Obviously a lot of my competitors will never understand, but once you have a baby... I felt there was nothing I could not do," said Sasselli.
In her last race at Madera Speedway, where her family had season tickets when she was a little girl, Sasselli went from starting on the pole, to knocked out and in last place, all the way back to first, in 30 laps. Her 3rd victory in just four Northern California Modified Association Sprint Series races this year.
Myrel Sasselli said "Here we always used to sit in the stands and watch. And now we're down in the victory circle. So that's a cool deal."
An even cooler deal is the celebratory tradition she began three years ago. "Growing up, you see these pictures of race car drivers with their children. I always remember just thinking, how neat. It's like an epic shot. It's like, her life has really been chronicled through pictures out on the podium," said Audra.
Audra’s husband, Chris Thornburg said, "You know, just to inspire her later with whatever she does, she can have that proof of what her mom was able to do."
Little Gianna, who may well follow in her path, won't be the only kid who sees this tough teacher as a role model. "I don't think that my racing story's as important as my story to tell the girls. With bullying and things going on – I have those talks with them, and really teaching them some life skills. How to not take... stuff... from anyone. Like, the bigger picture is ‘What can I teach other people from the lessons I've picked up?’, said Sasselli"
Sasselli actually inspired her husband, Chris, to go back to school and become a 5th grade teacher, as well. And she says she plans to race for as long as she continues to finish on the podium.