Given Melanie Salemi’s success on big tires, the small-tire world was put on notice when Salemi announced last fall that she would debut a new Radial vs. the World entry, with plans to take on a full schedule of RVW events in 2020.
[Editor’s Note: This story originally appeared in DI #155, the Women of Power Issue, in April of 2020.]
With her husband, Jon, and brother-in-law Jim tuning the Eddie Whalen-owned 2019 Camaro, Salemi wheeled the new Pro Mod-style Al-Lee Installations entry to victory at its debut, the World Street Nationals in November. She defeated RVW world beater Stevie “Fast” Jackson in a side-by-side 3.58-second final round, starting a rivalry that’s continued this season.
“It wasn’t without a lot of hard work from Jon and Jim and even Eddie and Evan [Salemi],” Salemi says of the early success, adding credit to partners like Liberty’s Gears, Quick Drive, Ross Pistons, NGK, and VP Racing Fuels. “A lot of thought went into everything before we even decided to bring the car out, from what class are we going to run with it to what power adder are we going to use. They spent countless hours figuring things out and making sure everything would be perfect when we brought it out.”
Salemi’s “Sidepiece” Camaro has continued to perform nearly flawlessly in the first two races of 2020. She was locked in the 3.50s at the U.S. Street Nationals in Bradenton before Jackson defeated her 3.574 with a 3.548.
The Buffalo, New York-based driver qualified No. 3 at Lights Out 11 at South Georgia Motorsports Park in February, a performance level that carried over into eliminations. She set low E.T. of the event, 3.546, in the first round, but a very minor mechanical issue stopped Salemi in the semifinals.
“It’s extremely rewarding, but I just drive the car,” Salemi continues, crediting Jon and Jim for the late-round finishes and low elapsed times. “I have the easy job. The guys usually give me a pretty good car. There are some times when I have to wheel it, but there’s a lot of times that I have a perfect race car.”
Still, Salemi admits her job in the new car isn’t always easy. There are some differences that set it apart from “Purple Reign,” the ’68 Firebird she races in Pro Modified and PDRA Pro Boost events. For one, the Firebird has a roots-style supercharger, while “Sidepiece” is screw-blown. The biggest difference, though, is the tire size.
“Going from the big-tire car to the small-tire car, I feel like I have to drive it a little bit differently,” Salemi says. “There’s no forgiving when that tire lets loose. With the big-tire car, you can kind of manhandle it – or womanhandle it – but with the small-tire car, you have to be on your game 150 percent because there is no forgiveness. You have to pay attention to how far the front end is coming up, if you feel it’s coming up a little too far, you have to be ready in all those instances to lift.”
It’s a difference, not necessarily better or worse. Salemi insists she doesn’t have a preference between the two cars, though nearly six months out of “Purple Reign” has her ready for the PDRA season opener.
“We’ve had a lot of fun at the last three races with the radial car, but I’m really looking forward to getting back in the Pro Mod car,” she says. “That car has a special place in my heart. I know the guys always tell me, ‘It’s just a race car and you can’t get emotionally attached to it!’ But trust me, I’ve seen both of them go into the room where we keep it and talk to it. So it’s not just me.”
Because of the COVID-19 pandemic and the related shutdowns, Salemi isn’t sure when she’ll be back in a race car, be it “Side Piece” or “Purple Reign.” The PDRA season opener at GALOT Motorsports Park in early April was postponed. Salemi expects to test before the next PDRA race in early May. Like everyone else in the racing community, she’s eager to get back to racing after the quarantine-induced hiatus.
“One thing that does kind of bother me is being out of the seat for long periods of time,” Salemi says. “You almost think you’re going to forget how to drive, but honestly, you get back in and as soon as the car starts, all that goes away. It’s like riding a bike: you don’t really forget how to do it. It’s muscle memory.”