Photos courtesy of Vance & Hines/Harley-Davidson
After Angelle Sampey graduated from nursing school she took a job at a local hospital, covering the night shift. She would list her rounds on a dry erase board with a slick flourish of the marker. “Someone asked me what I was doing,” she said. “I told them, ‘practicing my autograph,’” adding that they laughed. Some of her colleagues may have known she was a drag racer, but it wasn’t widely broadcasted.
But nursing was just a means to launch her prolific racing career. She started racing young, but her father’s support primarily rested on her motocrossing brother. As Sampey tells it, as her brother’s interest waned, hers became unstoppable.
After she outgrew her childhood motorcycle and her father sold it, she secretly rode and raced her friend’s street bikes, taking them to the strip on the weekends. With her savings from nursing and the sale of her motocross bike (which she’d converted to a drag racer) she went all in to pay for drag racing school in Gainesville, Texas.
“Fortunately, I impressed the teacher, who hired me to be part of his team. And I made my professional debut in 1996,” Sampey said.
By the time of her first Michael Jordan-style retirement announcement in 2010, she was the winningest female in professional motorsports. While that is a superior accolade, she had unfinished business, both personally and professionally, although she had no idea more racing was in the cards. By 2011, she was married and had given birth to her daughter Ava.
“I thought, ‘what I have been doing with my life?’ Being a mom, now that is living,” she said. “I kind of resented my career for a while. I put off having a family and when I had Ava I was mad I waited so long. I regretted it because I should have had a family a long time ago.”
As she was reaching new heights of personal fulfillment as a mom, she got a phone call from her former team. Their racer had abruptly quit and they needed someone to fill the spot.
“I thought they were insane. I hadn’t been on a bike in six years and they wanted me to go 200 mph in six seconds,” she said. “They convinced me, and all I can say is it was like giving a recovering alcoholic a drink. That was in 2014 and I am still on a bike.”
But Sampey found getting back in the saddle difficult. For one, being a mother had completely changed her outlook and she was very conscious of what she could lose. “If there was a crosswind pushing me to the side, leaning off to fix it was something I had to force myself to do, unlike before when it was natural. When it was just me, I was gonna ride it like I stole it. But as a mom I was different,” she said.
But being a mom also gave her a new reason to race. Sure, she fretted over the idea that perhaps she was being selfish, and she hated being away from home for long periods of time. But there were positives. “Sharing all of it with her was so rewarding,” she said. “Part of being a mom is showing your baby what is possible if you believe in yourself and work hard.” Sampey was taking on the responsibility of being a role model to her daughter, her daughter’s friends and their parents, and to women everywhere.
Since 2019, Sampey’s been with team Vance & Hines Harley-Davidson, an unlikely marriage given the ferocity of the competition. As Sampey put it, “I was the enemy. [Andrew Hines and Eddie Krawiec] are still my rivals. I still want to beat them and now I get to do that by being on their team. I never thought it was a possibility to be on this team.”
Still, transitioning to the Harley wasn’t easy. “I was scared to death,” she said. “I knew how fast they were. But I had no idea how hard the bike is to ride. Unlike a Buell, which pulls at the bottom, or a Suzuki that pulls at the top, the Harley pulls all the way through… always. I let the bike control me last year, so I’ve realized this year that I have to make the motorcycle my bitch!”
When the 2020 NHRA Mello Yello Drag Racing series resumes this year, scheduled for June, go watch Sampey race because, as she puts it, “I am a little 5’1”, 115-pound women and when I get on that bike I am a fire-breathing dragon and I am not out there to make any friends.” —Kali Kotoski