"OK, saddle up!"
The race car driver slips behind the steering wheel and slides the seat as far forward as it will go. Even belted in, she fits loosely, a canary in a catcher's mitt, and has to flex to tiptoes to reach the clutch.
The car is a 2005 Corvette Le Mans Blue Coupe, with 400 horsepower and six speeds, weighing 3,179 pounds. The driver is 17-year-old Carlie Noring, a soft-spoken senior at Hanover High School who's 5 feet 2 and 115 pounds.
Carlie hits the ignition and the Corvette roars awake with a growl that peaks and settles to a deep, velvet rumble. If a Death Star could purr, this is what it would sound like.
When people ask, and they invariably do, Carlie tells them that driving a race car is like piloting your own roller coaster.
Being a teenager - on the cusp of high school graduation, college and all the blind turns beyond - can sometimes feel like that, too.
"Car 8L, staged and ready"
Corvette runs deep in the Noring clan.
Carlie's grandparents own The Corvette Center of Colorado Springs, and her family has been involved in autocross racing since the 1970s.
Carlie's father, Rik, started racing Corvettes in 2003, when Carlie was 8, but the young girl didn't take to the sport until she was ready to get her license.
"She'd been working around Corvettes and detailing them and cleaning them since she was 10, but she didn't get interested in being behind the wheel until it was her turn," says Rik, who manages the center and serves as governor of the Corvette Club's Colorado Springs chapter.
Carlie took driver's education courses and practiced her racing moves south of Fountain on the open roads around Cactus Creek Ranch, the working horse farm where the family lives and the center is. Rik coached from the passenger seat.
Once she had her license, Carlie rode shotgun with Rik during races before taking the wheel competitively.
"She's certainly one of the younger members of our club, but she really seems to have a knack for it," Corvette Club president Tom Hoeppner said.
Carlie is the oldest of Rik and Florece Noring's three children, petite and pale, with long brown hair and big brown eyes. She's a solitary learner, intensely self-disciplined and reliable, a top student and an easy child to parent, Rik says. She can be hard to read, though, even for people who've known her for years. There was no mistaking her feelings the night she announced she'd hit a bad icy patch driving home in her Saturn.
"She said she'd turned into it, like you're supposed to," Rik says. "She was really proud of herself."
When she was 16, with only a few races under her belt, Rik sold the automatic transmission Corvette in which Carlie had learned to drive.
"You're going to have to learn stick," he told her. She shrugged and said OK.
On a Tuesday, Rik put the blue Corvette on a lift at his shop and let Carlie practice until she got the hang of the gears. That Thursday, they practiced on the road for a few hours. On Saturday, Carlie competed in an autocross in Casper, Wyo., outpacing far more seasoned drivers.
"She hammered it a little hard at the start, spit rocks and then she was off," Rik says. "She killed it."
For a moment, her feet poised on the pedals, the world is still ...
Not yet 9 a.m. on Sunday, April 21, and the soundtrack at the Pikes Peak International Raceway is already mild cacophony. Out of sight on the other side of the bleachers, cars on the nearby big track cycle by. In the parking lot, gearheads preen, stoking engines till they scream.
At the pre-race meeting, Walt Jenkins, competition director for the Rocky Mountain Region of the National Council of Corvette Clubs, rehashes the basics for a room full of mostly veteran drivers.
"Obviously, if the car catches on fire, get out of the car," he says.
If a cone comes down, that's bad.
Miss a cone, bad.
Four wheels off the road, bad.
Open-toed shoes, bad.
Carlie looks at her feet. Sneakers, with no laces.
"Jumpy?" asks Rik jokingly, standing at her side, knowing this silence is Carlie's nature and not her nerves. Like a race, everything in life has a beginning, middle and end. Carlie likes to save emotions for the end.
The event at PPIR is a low-speed autocross, with a three-quarter-mile track defined by orange safety cones on a vast asphalt lot. Cars won't go more than 80 mph and each driver runs individually, striving for the lowest finishing times in a series of heats. Drivers open up as much as they can on the short straightaways, but if they push too hard they might not be able to regain control of their muscular rides before the next slalom. A toppled cone means a DNF, or Did Not Finish, no matter how amazing the time.
Carlie hopes for a smooth ride on this, one of the longer courses on which she's raced.
"We'll get our times and hassle each other about it," says Carlie, then quickly adds that she doesn't have the heart for true ribbing, because "they already feel bad enough."
The only challenge that matters is the personal one, the need to keep shaving off seconds with each heat.
"I've got my eye on 90," she says.
The green flag snaps down, the tires grab, and the acceleration is so sudden it's hard to breath ...
Hanover High School juts from the dusty flatness 17 miles east of the Corvette center like a cluster of Monopoly buildings on an otherwise empty game board. This is truck country, where the pavement gives way to open range, to cattle and prairie dogs and plastic bags snagged on barbed wire, snapping in the wind.
Speed is a commodity here, travel a pastime and traffic - aside from school buses - rare. You point your headlights and go and go and go.
"It can be a bit of a culture shock for students when they leave here," guidance counselor Rebecca Biel says.
In a district with only 250 students, the senior class of 14 is one of Hanover's smallest. Carlie is the class president. Last year, she was student body president. She's also cheer squad leader, a member of the National Honor Society and a recent recipient of the Good Citizens Award from the local chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution.
In a sparse and tight-knit setting such as Hanover's, the quiet children don't disappear. They learn to be heard.
"As student council president, you have to give a speech to the whole student body. Carlie had to do that and she did it well even though she was scared to death," says Biel, who with Carlie helped re-establish student government at the school three years ago. "She is shy, but she has passion. She wants people involved and engaged."
With her regular attendance at early-morning seminary, an important part of Mormon youth culture and education, and a full roster of after-school activities, Carlie's daily obligations easily can take her from dawn to well past dusk.
"She just keeps plugging away and never complains about being tired," Biel says. "She has a really high moral compass, is really involved in her church and she's definitely been someone I count on to get things done and to get them done well."
Carlie had worked with Biel for years before the racing topic was broached. Carlie admitted she felt uncomfortable talking about it. She didn't want to make others feel bad, she explained, because racing is something that not every kid has the chance to do.
"She didn't want to come across as bragging," Biel says. "Most of the time, we have to ask her, or her dad tells us because he's definitely a proud papa. I think all of us kind of wish we could do it, too."
Out of the final slalom, she wrestles the wheel straight for the finish line, stomping on the accelerator ...
Carlie turned 18 on Friday, the day after returning home from a senior class trip to New York City ("I can't imagine driving around the city," she says. "The cab drivers - I give 'em props"). On Saturday, she graduated from high school. Today, she heads to Utah for a weeklong church program at BYU, the school she will attend in the fall, and her father's alma mater.
She hasn't decided on a major but is considering business. Who knows? She might come home someday and run the Corvette center. As for autocross, that will be put on hold. Freshmen at BYU aren't allowed to have cars.
"I feel like once I get to college, I can find out what I'm good at," she says. "I'm excited to have that opportunity to discover myself."
... and then, a single breath later, she's over the finish line.
Time: 83.965 seconds.
Behind the mask of her helmet, the race car driver breaks into a big smile.
Now, she can celebrate.
Contact Stephanie Earls: 636-0364