Avon Racecar Driver Is On The Fast Track
Writer / Christy Heitger-Ewing
Photography provided by Picture This Photography & Denny Scott
While most of her 8-year-old peers were riding bikes and jumping rope, Makala Marks was test-driving her first go-kart. From the moment her hands touched the steering wheel, she felt right at home. The passion didn’t surprise her mom, Nikki, who knew from the get-go that she had a little daredevil on her hands.
“She’s always loved anything fast and dangerous,” says Nikki, recalling the time that Makala was 4 years old and tried jumping her electric scooter over a six-foot snow drift. Thankfully, she landed at the top and got stuck so no bones were broken.
The adrenaline junkie found her calling, however, with go-kart racing. By age 9, she was racing competitively, running in the Southern Indiana Racing Association (SIRA) where she won two championships — the first when she was just 10.
“I’ll never forget the smile on her face as she walked around with a trophy that was bigger than she was,” Nikki says.
Then there was the race when she started dead last and ended up winning. But there have been lows as well. During one intense street race when Makala was 9, her car flipped and the impact ripped off her helmet. As a result, her face hit the pavement. That wipeout, which totaled her kart, sent her to the hospital with a gash on her forehead and two black eyes.
“I was like, ‘Okay, maybe we should take a break from racing,’” Nikki says. But Makala had no intention of quitting. In fact, the following weekend, despite one eye being swollen shut, she headed to the track.
“I told my parents I only needed one eye to race,” says Makala, who for the past two years has practiced karting at New Castle Motorsports Park. There she practices on race simulators where she can pick the track she’s going to be racing and practice a simulation on that specific track. Though the simulations are helpful, adjusting to real-life track conditions, which are constantly shifting, is a true challenge.
“I can practice on a Saturday and have everything figured out, but Sunday if the wind shifts slightly or the temperature is two degrees different, that changes everything,” Makala says.
New Castle offers tough competition and a big group of racers (on any given weekend, 20-30 kids race in Makala’s class alone). Such stiff competition, however, sharpens skills.
“The medals she got from Kart Racers of America could fill up two shadow boxes,” Nikki says.
Though Makala loved karting, the family couldn’t afford for her to continue the sport competitively.
“With go-karts, you need new tires every weekend,” Nikki says. “And some kids refresh motors after every race.”
At 13, Makala traveled to Palm Beach, Florida, to attend the Lucas Oil School of Racing (she won a scholarship to attend the school). There she was the only girl and youngest student in her class (other participants ranged from 17 to 60). Though Makala performed beautifully, it was hard for Nikki to watch the first time her 13-year-old got strapped into a racecar.
“I was used to seeing her in a kart,” Nikki says. “Knowing what a full-blown racecar is capable of is a totally different story.”
Makala received her Sports Car Club of America (SCCA) novice license at 14. Last year she ran in the Yamaha Junior, which is for 12- to 15-year-olds. Makala turns 16 on May 10 so she’ll now move to the senior class. In addition, this year she’ll participate in Formula Vee with Wasserman Racing in the Challenge Cup Series, a series that involves six races — the first of which will take place this month in Canada. She’s also been invited to participate in the Brazilian Formula Vee.
Often when Makala races, she’s the only female on the track. Her dominating spirit has more than once crushed the male ego.
“Actually, the fathers usually have a bigger problem with it than their sons,” adds Nikki, though she’s quick to admit that she feels better about her daughter being out on a racetrack with skilled drivers than being on the interstate with distracted ones.
Makala, for one, is laser focused. She knows what she wants and isn’t afraid to go for it. It’s an attitude that has flourished since suffering a near-fatal car accident when she was just 4 years old.
It was a rainy September day when Makala and her cousin were goofing around, jumping on the bed near an open window. One bounce caused her to fly backward, hitting the window screen, which popped out. In an instant, Makala fell out the second-story window, smacking hard on the deck below. Knocked unconscious, blood trickled from her mouth from having bitten her tongue. She suffered no broken bones, but that was only because her head had sustained the brunt of her fall. As a result, she suffered swelling on the brain and a fractured skull.
Placed on life support, doctors were not optimistic about her chance of survival. After three days, the neurosurgeon delivered devastating news. He explained that due to intense swelling, they needed to drill a hole in Makala’s skull to release the pressure, then insert a device to check for brain activity. But then something miraculous occurred. Makala opened her eyes and uttered the words, “I want a Reese’s Cup.”
“Ever since then, I eat a Reese’s Cup before every race,” Makala says. “It’s my good luck tradition.”
Though Makala suffered several serious setbacks following her fall —including seizures and migraines — she made a remarkable recovery and ever since has approached life full-throttle.
“Racing is in my blood. It has come naturally to me from day one,” says Makala, whose dad, Scott, is a crew chief at Andretti Autosport. As a result, Makala has already attended the Indianapolis 500 many times. She’s also been fortunate enough to receive coaching tips from several pros, including Pippa Mann, Marco Andretti, Leah Pritchett, James Hinchcliffe, and Alexander Rossi (who won the Indy 500 in 2016 as a rookie).
Should her dream of becoming an Indycar champion not work out, she has a backup plan.
“I want to work with newborns,” Makala says.
It comes as no surprise to her mom, who says her daughter has been obsessed with babies ever since she was practically one herself.
“When she was little, she would wander off in search of babies,” Nikki says.
As unique as Makala is, she shares one universal feeling with teens everywhere: she’s itching to get her driver’s license so she no longer has to ride the bus.
“I get my permit in August,” Makala says. “I’m so excited.”