Usually when a student returns to visit their alma mater they bring a list of their achievements, or maybe an apple for their former teacher. When Cheryl Kolinek came back to the Forest Park Middle School she brought her 1,250 horsepower, 2001 Undercover 4 Link Dragster.

Kolinek, 21, has been competing in drag races for the past three and a half years and is making her mark on a male-dominated sport. In 2005, she placed 11th out of 150 cars in the Midwest Super Comp Series and won Best Appearing Car for the 2005 season.

The standings for 2006 have not yet been released, but she did make it to the semi-finals three times, a very impressive accomplishment at this point in her career.

After graduating from high school in 2003, Kolinek was given the chance to take a vacation overseas. Instead, she asked for something she had dreamed of since she was a little girl-racing lessons at Frank Hawley’s Drag Racing School in Indianapolis.

Once Kolinek completed those lessons, her father supplied her first racecar with a truck, trailer and the equipment needed to start competing. Soon though, she needed a faster car and she now races with one of the top-rated chassis in the country. It was purchased from well-known racer, Nick Folks.

Kolinek comes by racing naturally. Her father, Greg Kolinek is a former Forest Park commissioner and raced funny cars in the 1970s. The car he drove is in the Drag Racing Hall of Fame.

“That was BC-Before Children,” the elder Kolinek said.

But his daughter’s interest has dropped him back in the thick of racing as he travels from their current home in Minooka, Ill., so she can compete from April through October. The rest of the Kolinek family is also on the team.

“My other daughter helps out with the books and Cheryl’s mom cheers,” he said.

Kolinek races in the Super Comp class with the International Hot Rod Association (IHRA). Drag racing is an acceleration contest between two vehicles from a standing start over a given distance. A day at the race track involves a series of two-vehicle contests in which one driver is eliminated while the winning driver goes on to the next run. If all goes well, a driver can have up to 11 runs in a day.

The Super Comp class is made up of mostly gas-burning cars. Kolinek’s car uses a high octane gas and can burn through two gallons of gas in one 8.9 second pass. In the Super Comp division there is an 8.90-second index, meaning that no run faster than 8.90 seconds is allowed.

Kolinek has wanted to compete ever since her father took her to races as a child, and especially after attending the U.S. Nationals in Indianapolis.

“It’s fun,” Kolinek said. “I really enjoy it. But it’s not easy. It’s difficult to have perfect 8.90s all day long.”

In a sport that is traditionally dominated by men, Kolinek is one of only four or five women racing in her class.

“We all know each other and hang out,” Kolinek said. “We help each other out.”

Kolinek’s father pointed out that drag racing is one of the few sports where women compete equally with men and in fact, women may have some advantages because of their smaller size and generally quicker reflexes. He related the story of one of Kolinek’s early races when she was pitted against a well-known driver. After the race, the other driver rushed to Kolinek’s pit. Her father feared that a confrontation was brewing, but instead he wanted to congratulate Kolinek on her perfect three-light start.

Kolinek said it took her awhile to learn all the steps to racing. She now knows her routine by heart: she pulls her car into the staging lane, drives through the water box to get her tires wet so they grip the pavement better, does a burnout to heat the tires, goes to the staging phase at the staging tree (the poll with the string of lights), and rolls her car to the beams (the starting line which lights the second light). Once the lights come down the “Christmas tree,” she releases the brake, puts on the gas and the race is on.

She must check her progress to get as close to the 8.9 second time as possible, at times using a delay box to stall the car for a few seconds, and then goes full-out, hitting speeds of around 167 mph. At the end of the run she will either release parachutes or use brakes to stop, depending on the length of the track. On a longer track she can use the chutes.

During her visit with the students at the middle school last month, Kolinek emphasized how much math is involved with her sport.

“Do your math,” she advised the students. “Once I left school, I never thought I’d use math again, but I use it every day to figure in weather conditions and track conditions to make sure I hit the right ratio for the car to perform at 8.9 seconds.”

Kolinek travels with her own weather station, which gives her the data she needs to plan for each race.

Beverly Forbes, the industrial arts teacher at the Forest Park Middle School, was happy to hear Kolinek talk about using math in her racing career. Her students are involved with a project that studies the basic physics behind aerodynamics. The students are designing a Co2 dragster and their challenge is to engineer the wooden cars for minimal resistance.

“The dragster looks a lot like Cheryl’s car,” Forbes said. “It’s so much better for them to see the real thing.”

During her visit to the school, Kolinek revved the 1,250 horsepowered engine in the parking lot. Students covered their ears during the ground-shaking roar. Jack Ryan, who is in the robotics class, said he was inspired by the powerful engine.

Stephanie Cobbs talked of following in Kolinek’s path.

“I’d like to do that,” Cobbs said. “I think it would be fun to go that fast.”

Ultimately, Kolinek’s goal is to race in the Top Fuel class of the National Hot Rod Association (NHRA), but the expenses that go with the sport are enormous, she said. Kolinek relies on sponsorships to help fund her fast-paced hobby.

A gallon of the 117 octane fuel used in the drag car is $11.90. The car itself costs about $100,000 and each weekend of racing runs into the thousands of dollars between entrance fees, fuel and other expenses.

For her troubles, Kolinek typically competes for a purse of $2,500 to $5,000.

Kolinek is a student at the College of DuPage and said she wants to get more “seat time” before moving to another class of racing. She was tested once last year when her brake rod bent at the end of a run and she was unable to stop her car. Because she was not going fast enough to deploy her chutes, she went through the sand traps and 14 rows of corn in a nearby field before stopping.

She was unharmed and the car received only minimal damage to its fiberglass nose.

“We weren’t scared,” her father said. “She did exactly what she was supposed to do.”