Heather DesRochers
Heather DesRochers

Like a high school student waiting by the mailbox for a college acceptance letter, Heather DesRochers anticipated a similar response.

Much like a college choice, this letter could change the course of DesRochers’ life and career.

The Granby resident was one of 30 drivers selected to participate next weekend in the NASCAR “Drive for Diversity” Combine. The program – which promotes opportunities in racing for women and minorities – culminates in 10 participants being selected for NASCAR-sponsored rides, either in the Camping World Series or in a Late Model at a NASCAR-sanctioned weekly short track.

“I had prepared myself not to make it,” DesRochers said. “I thought it was such a long shot.”

DesRochers, 20, heads down to Concord, N.C., next Friday for two days of activities surrounding the Sprint Cup race at Lowe’s Motor Speedway. There, the group will take part in media training workshops and an interview process – areas right in Heather’s wheelhouse.

“I love the fans, I love talking to people,” said DesRochers, an elementary education major at Westfield State College. “It’s always been a big thing for me.”

The next phase is Oct. 19-20, when the drivers show off their on-track skills in identical cars at Motor Mile Speedway in Radford, Va. DesRochers, who races in the SK Lights class at Stafford Motor Speedway, has driven open-wheel cars since getting her first go-kart at age 10, so she is looking forward to trying a full-bodied stock car.

“It will be different for me to go from open-wheel to a full-bodied car,” DesRochers said. “Handling-wise, you can’t drive them as hard as you drive the Modified.”

This season, DesRochers has certainly gotten the hang of the SK Lights car. She finished fourth in the points in her third season in the class and closed out the season with a victory Sunday. She and new crew chief Jimmy Fuller made an instant connection, and the improvement was glaring.

DesRochers hopes the afterglow of her victory carries over to the Combine.

“Now, I get to go down there carrying the momentum from the win,” she said. “I feel a lot more comfortable going down there now.”

The whole Combine experience will be part of a reality show chronicling the Drive for Diversity process. “Changing Lanes” is slated to premiere in early 2010 on BET, and most of the first two episodes will be devoted to the combine.

Since its inception in December 2004, “D4D” has developed 31 minority or female drivers who have won 33 races. This season alone, 12 drivers have combined for six wins, 51 top-fives and 125 top-10 finishes. The program is now under the banner of Revolution Racing and The 909 Group, run by former Dale Earnhardt Inc. chief Max Siegel.

“To better assess and develop talent, we are putting the drivers under one roof and in identical cars,” Siegel said. “This new standardized structure will also create more meaningful sponsorship opportunities that will in turn provide resources necessary to compete at the highest level with the goal of getting drivers to NASCAR’s premier series.”

For DesRochers, the program also gives her a chance to dispel some myths about women in racing.

“I think it’s just an awesome program,” said DesRochers, who had to fill out a lengthy application and submit a 60-second video on why she should be selected. “I feel like, in racing, I’ve been criticized more than my male competitors because I am a girl. I think we need this chance.”

DesRochers’ future racing plans are on hold, pending the results of the Combine. If she wins one of the rides, she will likely have to move to North Carolina, where the Revolution Racing team is based. If not, her 2010 plans depend on securing sponsorship to keep her on track locally.

It’s all part of a journey that began in go-karts at the now-defunct Pinnacle Raceway in Chicopee, continued at kart tracks throughout the Northeast and eventually landed her in a Mini-Sprint at Whip City Speedway in Westfield. Stafford beckoned after that, and now the chance of a lifetime awaits.

“I could have either gotten a fun-kart or one you could race,” DesRochers said. “I had no idea girls could race, so I picked that option, and it’s definitely been love from there.”

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