This article originally appeared in the September 14, 2018 edition of the Tooele Transcript Bulletin
By Clint Thomsen
The 525-horsepower custom truck is her pride and joy. She knows it bumper-to-bumper, maintains it meticulously and services it thoroughly after every run. In fact, she routinely takes it all apart and puts it back together — because when it comes to the world of professional off-road racing, attention to detail counts.
“It’s amazingly chaotic,” Sarah Burgess said of her sport as she navigated the bay of her workshop at Utah Motorsports Campus in Grantsville last week. Sparks flew from her truck as her husband, Adam, used an angle grinder to prep the chassis for a weld. “But it’s an amazing lifestyle here in Tooele. It’s like being on permanent vacation,” she said.
Burgess’s company, BMI Racing, operates full-time out of UMC, and is entirely a family affair. Sarah is the owner and driver, while Adam serves as crew chief and engineer. Their 16-year-old daughter, Bridget, joined the team driving her own truck last year.
“It’s a lot of family time together,” Burgess said.
Burgess was the only Utahn to compete in the Lucas Oil Off Road Racing Series at UMC last month, placing fifth in the event. She races in the Pro Lite class, which features mid-size V-8 trucks that resemble pickup trucks, only leaner and meaner, and with more extreme angles. The Burgesses are currently preparing for their next event in San Bernardino, CA. The series runs through October.
Burgess was born and raised in Brisbane, Australia, where she got into extreme sports at a young age, starting with BMX bike racing.
“I always liked to get my hands dirty,” she said. “I always followed my brother through what he was doing. We did speed skating on roller blades, then speed skating on ice.”
She says the fact that racing is a male-dominated sport doesn’t faze her. Nor does she get any grief from the guys she races against.
“At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter if you’re a guy or a girl,” Burgess said. “When you get in that truck and put your helmet on, it’s all about horsepower. It’s about bravery and making good decisions.”
Burgess fell in love with the automotive industry in 2000, when she accompanied Adam on a business trip to the U.S. and attended a National Hot Rod Association drag race.
“That was my first motorsports event,” she recalled. “I saw a car pass at 320 miles per hour and I was blown away by the sound, the feeling, the visual of this dragster zipping down the track.”
The Burgesses moved from Australia to the Los Angeles area in 2008. Burgess estimates that the family has driven more than 300,000 miles across the country over the last decade. When racing events brought them to Tooele Valley, the Burgesses knew they were finally home. They relocated to Tooele City in June.
“We eat, sleep and breathe this stuff and wanted to be closer to the track,” Burgess said, noting that it was the small-town atmosphere and sense of community that drew them specifically to Tooele Valley. “Every time we came up here, there was this feeling.”
Burgess says she was especially touched by local Independence Day celebrations.
“We were driving on up Main Street on the 3rd of July and everyone already had their chairs set up for the parade, and that’s amazing,” she said.
When they’re not on the road, the Burgesses spend most days in their workshop near the off-road track at UMC. Bridget is home-schooled, which allows her the flexibility to work ahead in order to spend time at the track. Burgess noted with a smile that while Bridget has been racing in her own truck for two years, she only recently got her driver’s license.
“What we do is super stressful, especially on the business side of things,” she said. “It’s the lifestyle, peace and quiet of Tooele that we love.”
As owner of BMI Racing, Burgess wears many hats. She personally manages marketing and writes all proposals. Fabrication, engineering and technology are also handled in-house. But although she’s learned to enjoy the business aspects of her operation, it’s the dirt track behind the workshop that speaks to her soul.
“We hit the front straightaway full-throttle,” she explained, her enthusiasm obvious in her inflection as she described the track from the top row of the spectator bleachers. “And we have a ‘rhythm section’ after Turn 4, which is a ton of fun. The trucks bounce through it really good. If you get it wrong, you just hold on for dear life.”
Burgess says that while the skills of driving a track can be learned over time, qualities like bravery, discipline and decisiveness are critical to off-road racing.
“Because it’s dirt, the surface of the track changes every lap,” she said. “You’ll come into a corner and you’ll see this divot, and your natural instinct is to let off the gas. But you actually need to put your foot down and power through it. Otherwise you’ll catch the rut and it’ll flip you.”
Burgess speaks from experience; she’s rolled her truck 12 times. On one occasion, it rolled four times before coming to a stop.
“The fear is something you have to overcome,” she said, noting that close calls often facilitate wisdom. “When we fly off a jump, we hope that everything’s fine on the other side, because there’s nothing you can do flying through the air.”
And while she delights in the uncertainty of it all, she speaks about maneuvering the track as if it were a science — a mere matter of analysis and iteration.
“If I were to hit the brakes mid-air, I would nosedive and crash,” Burgess explained. “But if I’m flying and I’m rotated too far up, I can touch the brakes to bring the nose down for a better landing.”
Burgess believes the lessons she has learned on the track are applicable to everyday driving, and she takes every opportunity to pass them along. Last year, she partnered with a sponsor to provide a series of women’s car-care clinics that educated women about the various issues that can arise with their vehicles.
“We talked about what certain dashboard lights mean, when to panic and when not to panic,” she laughed.
Burgess plans to hold similar events specifically for millennials and younger drivers. She says she’d love for UMC to hold winter clinics for driving safely in bad weather.
In the meantime, she’ll race and work on her truck, tearing it down and scrubbing the chassis with oil. While she hasn’t yet given it a name, she has considered a few, including “Christine” and “Wile E. Coyote,” the latter because “no matter what we do to this truck, it keeps on going.”
The Burgesses received their Green Cards last year and are working toward U.S. citizenship, something Burgess considers an incredible privilege.
“I’ve been to NASCAR and I’ve stood there for the National Anthem and watch the planes fly overhead, and I’ll tear up,” she said. “I’m so lucky to be here.”
Burgess says people often assume that since she’s a professional racer, she must have come from money.
“We moved here with six suitcases,” she said. “My dad was a bricklayer and my mom still works in a grocery store. Everything we have is the result of sheer determination. If your heart is really in it, then it’s something you will accomplish.”
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