To say that Harli White is a determined race car driver is like saying that the sun is hot or water is wet. Of course she is, because that is simply the core of who she is; determined.
How else would you describe a young woman who in her very first sprint car race at the age of 12 was involved in a horrible accident that left her with third and fourth degree burns covering the back half of her body; and one year later was back behind the wheel again?
Now 20, White is a competitive mainstay in the American Sprint Car Series, driving her number 17 360 sprint car. Both her father Charlie White and her grandfather raced before her.
“It’s been in the blood,” White said during an interview in the team hauler during the 2016 Knoxville Nationals. “It’s been in the family for years and years. It’s been something we’ve done as a family since day one. If we didn’t do this every weekend it would feel weird.”
White says that she has fond memories of riding with her father in his race car during the pre-race ‘pack the track’ session, where track vehicles drive multiple laps around a dirt track to pack the soil down as much as possible prior to the dropping of the green flag.
White and her family had no idea what was to happen when she donned a racing helmet for the first time in competition at the age of 12 in a mini sprint car.
“It was April 5, 2008 at I-44 Speedway in Oklahoma City,” White said. “I remember hitting the wall just a little bit coming off the straightaway and the car just kind of plopping over on the motor side.”
White said she became trapped in the car, which then burst into flames.
“It exploded with me inside,” White said. “It was a methanol-fed fire. The engine had carburetors so it could have been caused by them leaking or fuel leaking from the tail tank, we just don’t know.”
White said that the intensity of the heat kept would-be rescuers from being able to get her out, that is until a 20-year-old fellow racer named Donnie Ray Crawford saw what was happening, jumped from his car and sprinted down the track towards Harli’s burning car.
“He was waiting for the race that started after ours,” White said. “Once he realized what was happening he ran to my car and pulled me out of the car.”
Crawford was wearing his fire suit and helmet and so was able to go into the flames to save Harli’s life.
“He was my God-sent angel,” White said. “If it hadn’t been for him there is no way I would have gotten out of there.”
In a tragic turn of events, Crawford was shot to death by a relative in January 2012.
White continues to honor the memory of the man who saved her life by carrying the logo of the Donnie Ray Crawford Legacy Foundation on her sprint car.
“Our families are like one family now,” White said of her family’s bonding with the Crawfords. “In fact, I’m going to be in his sister’s wedding coming up.”
White said that throughout her year-long recovery she never doubted that she would be back behind the wheel of a race car again at the first opportunity.
“At first my parents said no, but that was my goal,” White said. “My accident was in April 2008 and in April 2009 I was back in the car at the same race track.”
White said that she always had the goal of being a race car driver, a goal which did not change due to her injuries.
“Whenever you go through something tragic it either brings you down or makes you ten times better,” White said. “In my case it made me stronger and made me realize what kind of life I actually have and how blessed I am. To be able to do something like this is an honor. I’m very appreciative to still be here and to still be physically able to race a car again.”
White drove her number 17 360 sprint car into a top five finish in the C Main race on the final night of the 2016 Knoxville Nationals, which transferred her to the B Main, where she also ran well.
If I ever get down in the future and dare to sink into self-pity, I will remember Harli White’s story and pick myself up and give whatever I do everything I have.
Harli expects nothing less from herself and we could all learn a thing or two about living a fulfilling life from this amazing young woman.