You’ll never catch Karen Stalba at the Steel Pier in Atlantic City or Morey’s Piers in Wildwood.
“I can’t ride roller coasters,” she said with a laugh. “They really upset my stomach.”
She’s much more at home at Atco Dragway.
The married Mullica Township mother of two may not be able to handle amusement rides, but she’s very good at climbing into a top alcohol dragster and roaring down a quarter-mile straightaway at more than 270 mph.
“When you get to that starting line, I feel a big rush all the way down to my feet,” Stalba said. “My heart beats so loud, I can hear it. It’s just such an amazing feeling.”
Stalba, 43, is not the only one who feels it in her family.
Her husband, Tom, 50, and even their 10-year-old son, Paul, spend most weekends in the spring and fall zooming down drag strips up and down the East Coast as the unofficial “first family” of drag racing.
“Our daughter Emily (7) hasn’t shown an interest in racing, yet,” Tom said with a smile. “But I wouldn’t be surprised if she joins us at some point.”
Karen won the National Hot Rod Association’s Northeast Regional championship in 2011 and was ranked 13th in the country that year.
Tom has been competing for more than 25 years. The NHRA’s Rookie of the Year in 1990, he has won nine national events and more than 25 regional races while competing in the Super Comp and Super Gas divisions. Lately, he has been dominating his Super Gas rivals in a 1963 Corvette that is so cool looking, spectators routinely stop by his trailer to take pictures.
Paul, a fifth-grader at St. Joseph Regional Elementary School in Hammonton, just completed his third season by winning the Junior Dragster points title (ages 6-12) at Atco.
“When I was little, I wanted to be a professional hockey player,” said Paul, who has played competitive ice hockey since he was 6. “Then I started racing. I like to go fast.”
As much as Karen and Tom enjoy racing, they get a bigger kick out of seeing their son in action.
His cars top out at 72 mph and he races on an one-eighth mile track.
“We have a pretty big driveway, so we let him practice on that first,” Karen said. “I was a little nervous at first, but he proved he can handle the car. Now I’m excited and so proud of him because he’s had success, but he’s also learned good sportsmanship. It was very important for Tom and I to teach him how win and lose graciously.”
Drag racing actually spans three generations for the family.
Karen’s father, Tom Benkovich, is a pivotal part of her team. He serves as her crew chief, welder and confidant.
Benkovich, 73, and his boyhood friend, the late Tom Jones, started drag racing in the early 1960s. Without realizing it, he apparently passed that need for speed to his daughter.
Karen was earning her master’s degree in mechanical engineering at the University of Pennsylvania when she finally convinced her father to let her get behind the wheel.
“I had never been in a (dragster) before, but once I made that first pass right here at Atco, I know it was something I wanted to pursue. I really had no interest in NASCAR-type racing. I think the NHRA is much more welcoming to women,” Karen said.
Benkovich used to get extremely anxious before his daughter’s races. Ironically, it took a crash to calm his nerves.
In 2002, Karen was racing at Lebanon Valley Dragway in West Lebanon, New York, when her car went airborne just as her parachute was about to open. She soared into the other lane, where she collided with Ken Winward, who was 65 at the time.
Both drivers walked away with only minor scratches and bruises, and shared beers and hamburgers later that day.
“I used to be a nervous wreck until she crashed,” Benkovich said. “It was a vicious accident. She was sideways in midair and T-boned (Winward) going 240 miles an hour. But all she had was a bruise on her leg. That made me realize that all the safety precautions that are taken really do work. After that, I settled down.”
The Stalbas have been married for 15 years. Off the track, they own A.A. Auto Salvage in Williamstown.
They met at a race track in Hershey, Pennsylvania, and reunited at a race in Gainesville, Florida.
“I played hard to get for a while,” Karen said with a laugh.
All their racing is reserved for drag strips. There is no temptation to try street racing.
“Owning a salvage yard, we’ve seen too many bad things happen,” she said. “There are some cars there now that were involved in street races where people lost their lives.”
At the track, the family spends a lot of time together.
That is especially true of Karen and her father, who enjoy making memories as much as winning races.
At a race this summer at Atco, Tom relaxed on a golf cart while his wife and father-in-law prepared her car for a qualifying run a few garages away.
“I’m a very competitive person,” Tom said. “When I come to a race, I come to win. But it’s a little different with Karen and her father. They want to have success, but I think it’s more about spending time with each other.”