Elaine Larsen sits in her fireproof cocoon atop Goodyear slicks, custom-built for land speed record racing. She’s strapped to a 27-foot-long, 1,200-pound, 5,000-horsepower surface-to-surface missile propelled by a General Electric engine designed for T-38 Talon and Cessna A-37 Dragonfly jet trainers and F-5 Tiger II air-to-air combat simulators.
A “burner pop” sends an unholy blast of fire out the back of the vehicle that’s enough to incinerate a small town. Its noisy and eerie whistle rises in crescendo like an approaching tornado. Then, deliberately, she slams her foot down on the throttle. And from a standing-still start with what feels like a freight-train-like shove from behind, this featherweight former day care center operator hurtles down the quarter-mile dragstrip in about 5.3 seconds, at just a little more than 290 mph and yanks to a stop at seven Gs.
So Elaine Larsen knows all about high-adrenaline situations. She has treated them with as much fuss as she would a common cold ever since she debuted a jet dragster with the “Miss Ta Fire” entry in January 2004.
Yes, she has crashed — calls herself the “proud owner of two titanium plates, and more screws than I want to tell, in my head.” She was in a coma for a while and later had to learn to walk and talk properly again and regain her balance. And she’s back for more as the headliner for the two-car Larsen Motorsports team that entertains thousands almost every weekend each year, teaming with Marisha Falk, in the Miller Welding and Embry-Riddle Jet Dragsters.
With Chris Larsen, her high-school sweetheart and husband of 26 years, she balances parenting 16 year-old son Andrew with operating the two-car racing program and working in cooperation with the prestigious Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University. The Larsens mentor interns from various academic disciplines at the Daytona Beach, Fla., campus at their Larsen Motorsports High-Performance Vehicles Research & Development Center.
That might be more than plenty for most women to have on their plates, but Elaine Larsen was hungry for more. She had a churning in her gut about wanting to inspire others, as if she hadn’t already. She has come up with a way to do that: a comic book series starring her alter ego, “Blaze.”
So when she is part of the show at next month’s NHRA Dollar General Four-Wide Nationals at Charlotte’s zMAX Dragway, Larsen will have an even bigger audience to hear about “The Adventures of Blaze.”
After a worldwide contest for a script writer that offered more than $8,000 in prize money, Larsen announced March 17 at the MegaCon comic book/sci-fi/gaming convention at Orlando that Mark Enkerud, of St. Petersburg, Fla., was the $5,000 winner.
“I like to think I’m funny and witty, but that doesn’t mean it’s so,” Larsen said with her trademark giggle. So Enkerud will bring “The Adventures of Blaze” to life in storyboard form, along with a commissioned artist. “I can’t draw two stick figures!” Larsen said. “I may not know it all, but I know a lot of people who know a lot. I stop before I get myself in trouble I can’t back out of. It’s that Phone-A-Friend.”
The graphic prototype has transformed what might look like nerve endings for Elaine Larsen into bolts of electricity surrounding Blaze.
“When I put my helmet on and my firesuit on and the visor goes down, I become this other person. I become much better and focused. That’s how Blaze came about. She’s a little better. She’s a little more. She’s everything I want to be all the time,” Larsen said.
She described the Blaze superhero as a female engineer to whom “something happens and she becomes this super-powered girl. She has to handle her situations through critical thinking. It’s not always that she’s the fastest, the best, or anything else. She just comes out a little better at the end of every day.”
Larsen puts a special twist to Blaze’s story. “It’s not just her. It’s her team. She’s just the crash-test dummy that goes out and tries all these things. It’s the team back at the jet shop that makes it all happen. She’s only as good as her team is back at the shop,” she said.
“Batman has all his gadgets, but we don’t know anything about his gadgets. This is going to be geared toward the engineers who go out there and make Blaze better,” she said. “Blaze is just the crash-test dummy that goes out and tries it, because she’s indestructible.”
Larsen, who clearly recognizes she is not indestructible, said she wants “The Adventures of Blaze” readers to know “that in tense, high-adrenaline situations that you just need to sit back. You need to look at it in a calm, concise manner and figure out your problems. Some of them can be solved through superhero and super-strength. But some of it, you just need to use your mind and common sense.”
Hearing the comment, “Now there’s a new concept for today’s youth,” she said, “A lot of them don’t have a lot of it.”
She has an abiding love for young people. She ran a daycare center before and even after she got hooked on bracket racing and gave up her ’72 Corvette for a ’75 big-block Chevy Vega she ran in the NHRA’s Super Gas class.
“Kids have been my thing. I love to challenge kids,” she said. When her son was younger he had the “Cars” animated character “Lightning McQueen” to encourage a love for racing, but, Larsen said, “Lightning McQueen is cool and he goes out and does things, but I want especially little girls to have someone who’s kind of cool and not Barbie. I want the female engineer kind of person to be out there they can look up to, so they feel they can associate themselves with someone.”
However, “The Adventures of Blaze,” Larsen said, is aimed at both boys and girls: “We have all kinds of kids back here at my jet shop. And that’s who we’re drawing it all from. We’re drawing it all from these young kids. They’re as much a part of this as anyone. So it’s boys. It’s girls. It’s young adults. It’s all of them. I’m a sarcastically funny person. So it’s going to be dripping with sarcasm, so adults will find it entertaining, as well. But it’s going to be more kid-based. I want it to be educational. I don’t want them to know it’s really educational. I want it to be fun. At the end of every [edition], I want it to be, if not an educational lesson, a moral one.”
She acknowledged that education can be fun. “That’s what we do here at the shop,” she said. “They learn everything in their classes at Embry-Riddle, but when we bring them here, they learn so much more. We make it so much more fun. I mean, working on jet cars, that’s pretty dang cool. That’s what kind of gave us the idea. What I want kids to understand is that I may be the face of Blaze, but all of the students here working, that’s the real horsepower behind this team, the kids. So that’s what I want it to be about.”
One thing she’s particularly proud to be doing is, in her words, “hiring ‘nobodies’ . . . someone who’s never had a chance to do anything, never won anything. There are so many people who have made it in this world, and they have so many chances. I’m kind of a going-for-the-underdog kind of person.” She said she wants “people to be cheering for Blaze because we’re just a bunch of little underdogs.”
Larsen has some experience with that, too. Never mind that she’s one of only a few women in the world licensed to drive a jet dragster. Her underdog days go back to her first week of kindergarten.
“When I was little, I had those leg braces like Forrest Gump [the Tom Hanks film character]. I run now, but nobody ever thought I would run,” she said. “I had my braces on and it was the first week of kindergarten. Of course, I was a little clunky, and the kids thought I was a little weird. But I didn’t give enough time to go to the bathroom and I peed my pants. And I thought, ‘Oh my goodness. Really? Now not only are you the geeky girl with braces, but now you’re the Pee-Pants Girl.’ I know — isn’t that pitiful? I was Pee-Pants Girl for a long time.
“Instead of me sitting here saying, ‘Oh, poor little Elaine,’ I don’t necessarily make a joke of it, but growing up, I never even thought I was different. They could bully me all they want. I didn’t care. I walked to the beat of my own drum. Whatever. People might have teased me, but I didn’t know it,” she said. “Nobody even told me. It’s OK. Sometimes ignorance is bliss.”
Enkerud, a creative writer and comic enthusiast since childhood, said he had never won anything before in his life. Moreover, Larsen said she liked the fact that “he is a romantic, which I loved. And I know that sounds funny. But he said, ‘I just fell in love with my character.’ How he wrapped the story around Blaze, I could see his eyes light up, and I knew he was the one. He said, ‘I just feel like I connected with her right from the beginning. I could feel what she wanted to do and how she wanted to do it.’ He got the concept — we didn’t even give him the whole concept yet. Now I can’t wait to see what he comes up with.”
He’ll start to lay the groundwork for the text of the project, which will be a whole new challenge for him. He never has coordinated his words with specific art or directed an artist to match his words with specific images. Like Blaze, Enkerud — who said, “I finally can get that break I have been looking for” — will have to use his critical-thinking skills.
“It’s a collaborative effort, just like everything in life is. It would be easy if you just called up Disney or Universal and said, ‘Give us your best.’ I don’t want that. I want people who have never gotten a chance at anything. I want to give [the chance to] the person who really, really wants it deep in their belly.”
That’s so Elaine Larsen-ish. One time she let a blind 12-year-old fan drive her jet car.
“I put his hands all over my car. And at one point he said, ‘Oh, this is the driver’s compartment — chrome moly.’ I let him feel the inlet. And he said, ‘Oh, this must be the inlet and this must be the screen so that nothing gets in.’ Then he said, ‘Oh, listen – the trucks are running.’ I’m like, ‘Are ya kidding me?’ ” she said. “Instead of me teaching him all this stuff, I’m saying to myself, ‘Well, obviously I don’t pay attention to any of my surroundings and I’m a big putz.’ This kid was so smart.
“Well, in the end, I said, ‘OK, Mr. Smarty-pants, have you driven a jet dragster?’ He said, ‘Um, I’m blind.’ ”
She said she knew that but nevertheless picked him up and sat him down in the driver’s seat and told him to turn the wheel. He asked how in the world she expected him drive her jet dragster when he had no vision. She said, “I’ll tell you where to go. If you’re going to hit something I’ll tell you to hit the brakes.” Said Larsen, “I had my team push him around the pits. Everybody was looking, like, ‘You’re really having a blind kid drive your car?’ I said, ‘Yeah, I am.’ ”
But rather than figure she had made his day, she felt exactly the opposite. “Had I not been there at that race, I wouldn’t have gotten to do that,” she said. “I probably got more out of it than the kid did. I was like ‘Ooooh – this is so cool!’ And I had a blast doing it. My team realized that stuff is important, and nobody else probably would have put a kid in the car like that. But I did, and he didn’t hurt anything. His parents just thought it was the funniest thing. It was fun.”
Did experiences such as that one inspire her to include disabled character/s in the Blaze series? “One hundred percent. Without a doubt,” she said. “People come in all different sizes and shapes and dimensions.”
So do dreams, and Elaine Larsen’s is about to take its first baby steps. But like Larsen herself, “The Adventures of Blaze” should make a bold statement with a lively tone. She hardly can wait to see it in living color.
“This is exciting — you have no idea,” she said. “This is my baby. Chris started the racing and he got me into jets. But Blaze is mine. I’m really excited about her. I talk about her like she’s some weird little thing, but a lot of little kids and a lot of people see me get out of the car and I’m goofy and I don’t take myself seriously.
“I like people to kind of find themselves in me. I want them to feel like when I’m going down the quarter-mile, they’re kind of riding along with me. That’s why I try to make a connection with people. They’re like, ‘How do you do that? How do you handle that?’ I say, ‘There’s nothing super-powered about me.’ ”
Speak for yourself, Elaine Larsen. Blaze will have her own take on that.