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'That girl can drive'
Central student driven to succeed on track, in life
Rolo Races 2 es
Mitch Chastine, a friend and race team member, and Melina Rolo look at her old quarter midget car. Rolo will run Saturday night at Atlanta Motor Speedway in the start of the Legends car winter racing series. - photo by Emily Saunders

Every time that pink and green No. 18 Ford makes a lap, the boys must be saying, "Man, that girl can drive."

Melina Rolo, perhaps Forsyth County's fastest female on four wheels, will run Saturday night at Atlanta Motor Speedway in the start of the Legends car winter racing series.

Rolo, a 17-year-old Forsyth Central High School junior, recently made the jump from racing quarter midget go-carts on Bill Thomas Raceway at the Cumming Fairgrounds to 5/8-scale Legends cars, replicas of 1930s coupes and sedans capable of reaching speeds of 125 mph.

"I've just been around racing my whole life," Rolo said the other day on her way back from pre-race practice at the racetrack in Hampton. "A lot of times, I'm looked at and people say, 'You're a girl and you race?'"

Ummm yeah. She is. And she does.

She is also an A-student, president of her class and a varsity basketball cheerleader.

But it's racing against the big boys (and a couple of other young women in the series) that really gets her motor running.

"It's very competitive," she said.

"There's a couple of kids my age, but I'm racing older men, too ... They don't really treat girls different at all. It's not really who the person is. It's the car and the driver and the track. They're still rough. Push us around -- or try to, at least."

A petite, self-described "tomboy," Rolo is every bit of a sparkplug. She bounces around with seemingly boundless energy ... and when she starts talking about racing, she goes wide open.

So does her mother, Patty Bryant.

"She is so passionate, it's cute," Bryant said. "Seeing a girl like that -- especially since she's little bitty -- she don't weigh 100 pounds soaking wet. And she gets out there and you think, 'Gosh, she can go that fast. I'd be scared to death.' But she likes it."

Rolo comes from a racing background and originally wanted to race drag bikes like her mother's brothers back in Ohio. But Rolo opted for running quarter midgets on an oval track.

It was a decision her father Sheffield Bryant, a Forsyth County electrician, says got the whole family involved in racing -- and then set him up to both fund her runs and fix her car.

"I gotta be good for her to be good too," he said. "If you don't have the car set up good, can't nobody drive it. She's doing real good now.

"She's real aggressive. She always has been. She's pretty wide open. She hates to lose at anything. I think she gets that from me. She's in it to win every race she's in."

Though wins in main events, called feature races, have eluded the Melina Rolo racing team, she has claimed wins in heat races, finished fourth in her summer Legends series and snagged a Top Dog Award for her car's Fourth of July paint scheme.

Fellow racer and family friend Mitch Chastain, an 18-year-old Forsyth County home-schooled student, once ran wheel-to-wheel in quarter midgets with Rolo at Bill Thomas Raceway.

He now joins the team on afternoons and race weekends to help work on Rolo's racecar. Though he doesn't run against Rolo in Ledgends, he still races in other series. And he holds Rolo in high esteem.

"Melina's the best one I know," he said. "She's a good friend and the whole family is nice. It's just a lot of fun."

Natalie Orgeron, a 16-year-old Forsyth Central junior, is one of Rolo's best friends and often accompanies the family on racing weekends.

"I like it that she's able to do it without thinking anything of it," Orgeron said. "Just enjoying it and having fun with it, because she loves it. I know that."

Several sponsors have begun to take notice, and with big money being the real octane that fuels modern motorsports, that will be the key to Rolo's racing future.

Today, Rolo describes the racing operation as "run what you brung." And while she alludes to that classic racing mantra, her family and supporters know it will take some serious dollars to fuel her run through the racing ranks.

"She races real clean," her father said. "She has to. I tell Melina, 'You put that thing in the wall, that's gonna be your retirement party right there.'"

It is true that Rolo would like to run on bigger tracks in bigger cars -- whether in the stock car ranks or, if everything fell into place, NASCAR.

"It's definitely a dream that's there," she said. "It's just getting the money and the opportunity to be put in a situation like that. A lot of people have plenty of money that they can afford to get there. But we race out of our own pockets. And it's getting expensive."

The family plans to expand the racing operation next summer to some other tracks including Charlotte Motor Speedway, while continuing to run at Atlanta and Lanier Raceway near Braselton.

They even have plans to put Rolo's 6-year-old sister Shelby behind the wheel of a quarter midget car when the series restarts in February at the fairgrounds.

In the meantime, Rolo has academic responsibilities, a part-time job and plans to attend nursing school at Georgia College & State University in Milledgeville after graduation.

Rolo may always be in a hurry on the racetrack, but Orgeron said, off the asphalt, her friend knows exactly what she's doing.

"I think when she has the time to focus on her schoolwork, she does. So that she has time to race on the weekends.

She can balance school and racing at the same time ... I think she's going to go pretty far."

Especially if she's going fast and turning left.