Entrepreneurs

From Mennonite to drag racer: How this woman mastered the rocket car

Elaine Larsen wasn't raised to race cars. In fact, she was barely allowed to drive one growing up in a Mennonite farming family, observing an Amish-like limited acceptance of automobiles and technology.

"We didn't believe in going fast; we believed in taking our tractor and going real slow," she said.

But slow starts don't always result in slow finishes, which are rare when Larsen steps onto the track and straps into her jet-propelled rocket car.

Elaine Larsen, pictured in her vehicle, is the 2014 and 2015 IHRA Jet Dragster World Champion.
Source: CNBC
Elaine Larsen, pictured in her vehicle, is the 2014 and 2015 IHRA Jet Dragster World Champion.

With 5,000 pounds of thrust on a 1,500-pound frame, the jet cars Larsen is used to driving can reach speeds of around 300 miles per hour, which, as Jay Leno learned on the latest episode of CNBC's "Jay Leno's Garage," is too fast to compete with — even in a Corvette with a seven-second head start.

But besting Leno head-to-head pales in comparison to the trophies in the trophy case at Orlando, Florida-based Larsen Motorsports, which she's led with her husband, Chris Larsen, since he started tinkering in the couple's garage.

Tinkering may have spawned the team's first drag car, built from a converted 1975 Chevrolet Vega, but it would take Chris' expertise as an airplane mechanic to fuel the acceleration of the team's dragsters to jet power. Soon after, secondhand engines from modern jets like Northrop Grumman's F-5 were powering Larsen to victory.

Jet race car driver Elaine Larsen drives the Florida Tech jet dragster. She leads a team of four all-female racers.
Source: CNBC
Jet race car driver Elaine Larsen drives the Florida Tech jet dragster. She leads a team of four all-female racers.

Along with help from students at the Florida Institute of Technology, Elaine notched back-to-back International Hot Rod Association jet dragster championship titles in 2014 and 2015.

But it hasn't always been a smooth road.

In 2011, a violent crash in Columbus, Ohio, left her badly injured after her drag car sailed into the wall going 280 miles per hour.

"The front end was so light it went nose into the wall," she told CNBC. "Once the nose went in, the back part of [the car] hit the wall ... and I was just a passenger along for the ride."

She had to have titanium screws and plates surgically placed in her skull — but that hasn't slowed her down.

"I have so much to prove and so much to do," she said, adding that the rest of the Larsen Motorsports four-car team is led by female racers.

"I have the next generation that's looking up to me."

CNBC's "Jay Leno's Garage" airs Wednesdays at 10 p.m. EDT.