MECHANICSBURG, Pa. — Racer No. 52 straddled a motorcycle in the muddy pits, waiting wide-eyed on the pack's front line with an armored glove gripping the throttle.
The 450-cc bike had no front brake. On the street, that would be a death trap, but in flat-track motorcycle racing, stopping is an afterthought.
"Fire em up!" a man with a clipboard yelled.
The racer slapped the helmet visor down, pounded a fist against the front of a custom leather racing suit equipped with air bags, and pointed to something far above the lumpy, gray clouds. If God was looking down on this distinctly American brand of racing, he threw in a twist for the finals of the single-cylinder division on this Saturday night at Williams Grove Speedway in Cumberland County. Rain spit on the half-mile clay track off and on all day, and by nightfall, various men had touched it, kicked it, knelt down, and stared at it. They called it "greasy," "slick," "not good," and a few unmentionables.
At the starting line, 18 racers leaned forward, engines revving till the "Christmas tree" lights turned green and they ripped away, dirt rooster-tailing from their rear wheels. They jostled elbow-to-elbow on 250-pound machines in those first seconds, gunning for the lead so they could just hammer the gas for 15 laps until the checkered flag.
Racer No. 52 pushed the Husqvarna motorcycle's front wheel to the leader's back end. Any contact and they'd crash into a pile of metal and bone.
"Man, she's got some balls!" crew chief Barry Bauman yelled with a beaming smile as the bike tore past him.
Shayna Texter's blond ponytail dangled from her helmet, whipping in the wind as she slid into a blur around the first turn, pushing her bike right to the ragged edge.
Texter, 27, isn't the typical woman-in-a-historically-male-sport story. The Schwenksville resident doesn't race in the women's pro division of the American Flat Track series. There isn't one. She doesn't just hold her own with the boys, either. She's the winningest single-cylinder rider of all time, with 15 victories since turning pro in 2011. She's beaten her boyfriend, Briar Bauman, and also crashed into him.
"He wasn't my boyfriend at the time," Texter said in the AFT trailer before racing began.
Last year, Texter won five races out of 18 and finished third overall. This year, with two races remaining, she sits at third again.
"For me, I grew up racing with guys and I don't know anything differently," she said. "It's almost weird for me to race against other females at times because I'm so used to racing against guys. There's another female racing today, another who retired, and some others who have come through, but I'm the first and only woman to win an AFT race."
Texter, who is completing a degree in sports management from California University of Pennsylvania, is tactical about the extra media attention.
"I want to be known as a motorcycle racer first and a female second," she said. "For me, if I'm going to use the female card, I'm going to use it to raise the sport."
Michael Lock, the AFT's British-born CEO, says Texter is a reason why the attendance and viewership are rising.
"Shayna is the most marketable, the most personable, switched-on, articulate rider we've got," he said. "She is a star in this sport, and she's fearless on the track."
Texter's been featured in ESPN and Cycle World, but also Bloomberg and the Wall Street Journal, organizations that rarely wind up at muddy racetracks in rural Pennsylvania. She's the first racer that Husqvarna, based in Sweden, has sponsored, and she reps her brands in every photo shoot. Her wardrobe is blue, yellow, and white.
"This is my life," she said of racing.
The Texter family tree is watered with high-octane racing fuel.
"My dad did it, so we really didn't have a choice," said Shayna's older brother, Cory Texter, who races larger bikes in the AFT twin-cylinder division. "We grew up at the track. I was at my first race when I was two weeks old."
Randy Lee Texter, their late father, was a road-racing champion, and grandfather Ray "Tex" Texter opened a Harley-Davidson dealership in Willow Street, Lancaster County, that's still in the family. Shayna's maternal grandfather, Glenn Fitzcharles, is in the National Sprint Car Hall of Fame, with over 300 wins.
On Saturday, Cory's 1-year-old son, Cruise Texter, was passed around the race paddocks as much as the wrenches. His destiny is all but sealed.
"Oh, if Aunt Shay has anything to say about it, he'll be on a bike," she said.
Shayna, who gave up soccer after breaking a leg racing ("I've broken my foot a few times and shoulder blade twice "), used to compete in the same division as her brother. Their poor mom.
"I should be used to it, but it's still scary," said Kim Mitch, the racers' mother. "I get very nervous watching them out there. That doesn't go away."
More than 130 riders have been killed in flat-track races over the last century, according to a memorial web site.
"When I raced, we had no brakes, dammit, and that was racing," said George Longabaugh, 75, a retired racer once sponsored by Shayna's grandfather.
Flat track dates back to the 1920s but gained popularity after WWII, with storied rivalries between America's two iconic manufacturers, Harley-Davidson and Indian, that still exist today. Both bike-makers invest heavily in the sport, and in Saturday's twin-cylinder division, nearly every motorcycle was a 750cc Harley or Indian.
The races take place on tracks of various lengths and pitches. The surfaces can be dirt and gravel to clay. T-shirts popular at the races lay out the basics: Go fast. Turn left.
Single-cylinder racers reach speeds of 115 mph on the straightaways. They ease up on the throttle and turn left into a long, controlled slide, with their left foot dragging all the way through to the next straightaway where they gas it and repeat. Riders wear a steel cover over their left boot. They sound like knights when walking in the pits.
"It's kind of like drifting cars," Texter said.
Watch a race up close and you see the motorcycles wobble, kick, and jerk violently, in a near-constant war with gravity and physics. Up close, it looks as if the racers are riding bulls. A bigger rider, like this year's single-cylinder champion, Daniel Bromley, keeps the bike planted in its path. The Warrington, Bucks County, native is 6-foot-2, 180 pounds.
Texter is 5 feet tall. She weighs 105 pounds. She shouldn't be this good.
"She don't keep looking behind her when she's going down the straightaway. She looks ahead at where she's going, and boy, does she go," Longabaugh said. "That girl is something else."
In Saturday's final, Texter was in a dogfight with leader Tanner Dean early. Bauman, her crew chief and her boyfriend's father, watched from turn one, clearly finding joy in the pint-sized thunderbolt's bravado.
"Get it, Shayna!" he yelled."Go, girl!"
About halfway through, she hit a "rut" in the track and nearly tumbled over the bars, losing about 10 bike-lengths. She finished second. When her boyfriend and his brother, Bronson Bauman, finished first and second in the twins division race, she hopped on the back of Briar's motorcycle for a victory lap.
Afterward getting her trophy on the podium, she walked back to her RV, where her crew was packing for the Sept. 29 race in Minnesota. A crowd had already lined up by a table for autographs.
Twins in pink Disney princess shirts posed beside Texter for a photo. So did grown men.
"She's so tiny," a woman remarked.
"Yeah," a fan named Gail Brittain said, "but she's such a badass."