INDIANAPOLIS- Ind. -- At just 15 years old, Makala Marks isn’t yet old enough to have an Indiana driver’s license. However, she’s been going head to head with boys on race tracks for nearly 7 years.
In that time, Marks has made a name for herself as a rising star: taking home countless trophies, championships, and rookie of the year honors along the way. She’s even gracing the cover of this month’s Avon Community Magazine.
But her story could have been very different after an accident nearly changed everything.
“Some days you just have this weird gut feeling in your stomach like something’s going to go wrong. And it usually does,” said Makala’s mom, Nikki.
That day came when Makala was only 4 years old, after falling out a second story window left her in a hospital on life support, diagnosed with a traumatic brain injury.
“She was in really bad shape when they got her to the hospital,” Nikki said. “They didn’t really know for sure if there was a chance of survival at that point I don’t think… We had probably 3 days of just not knowing. Just laying there praying.”
Then, Makala woke up.
“They thought everything was getting better but then I started having seizures,” said Makala.
With a new battle on the horizon, Makala was eventually transitioned from the intensive care unit to inpatient rehab. But the amount of time she would have to spend there until she could finally return home was still unclear.
“They told us we could be there anywhere from weeks to months. It all depended on Makala. It depended on how fast she progressed and how bad she wanted to go home basically,” Nikki explained.
Just two and a half weeks later, doctors told Makala that she could go home.
Following months of continued rehab, healing, and finally getting those seizures under control, things started getting back to normal.
But normal--in this family--means Makala got the itch to go racing.
The decision wasn’t really surprising to those around her, since Makala has grown up around one of IndyCar’s most legendary families. Her dad, Scott, is Alexander Rossi’s crew chief and has worked for Andretti Autosport for over 13 years.
“It just feels normal to me. I’m just used to it. Every time I’m around Mario [Andretti], I just don’t feel that way like other people do,” said Makala.
“They are just your normal person you pass at the grocery store to her. She is not star struck by any means by anyone,” said Nikki. “It actually drives my husband crazy. He’s like ‘She doesn’t even know how lucky she is!'”
When it was Makala’s turn in the cockpit, her parents were supportive and her doctor gave her the all-clear.
But not everyone understood the decision to race.
“We had friends and family who thought we were absolutely insane. Like ‘Your child had a traumatic brain injury and you’re going to let her go race something?” But you know…You can’t hold your kid in a bubble—you can’t,” said Nikki.
Right off the bat, being a girl in a male-dominated sport wasn’t easy.
“They would try to wreck me and stuff and then I wreck them back because that’s not okay for you to do… I’m a girl. I can race, too,” said Makala.
But they quickly found out--like it or not--Makala was there to stay.
“When I started beating them, the parents didn’t like it and the boys would usually cry,” she said.
Another challenge she faced from the beginning of her career was the assumption that her dad’s occupation gave Makala an unfair advantage.
“I think they still think that. And they also think we’re rich so that’s majorly mistaken. They’re like ‘Oh, he works for an IndyCar team, they’ve got tons of money,'” said Nikki. “No! We’re barely making it over here.”
Racing is an expensive sport. Over half a century ago, passion and talent were hailed as the most important traits for a budding race car driver. Nowadays, drivers need both passion and talent, plus enough financial backing to gain the opportunity to scale up the ranks.
“If you don’t have unlimited funds, it’s almost impossible to do it. I mean, some of the kids that we’re competing with… some of them have hundred-thousand-dollar budgets per year to race. And that’s just not an option for us,” said Nikki.
Sometimes, though, the struggle is worth it. Especially if that means overcoming those hurdles can ultimately inspire other little girls.
“Hopefully she’s that one girl that they are like ‘Look at this girl, she came from a normal family that made a normal income, that lived in a normal neighborhood and she made it,'” said Nikki. “That’s what we hope one day we can say.”
Luckily for Makala, she’s had a lot of help from friends along the way. Friends like 2016 Indy 500 champion, Alexander Rossi, who gifted her with race tires. Or James Hinchcliffe, a driver she considers one of her biggest role models.
“When I went to the racing school, he gave me some of his old gear to wear because I didn’t have any,” said Makala. “He helps me do my racing lines. He helps me with a lot.”
Marks has another role model in former IndyCar driver and team owner, Sarah Fisher, who maybe sees a bit of herself in Makala.
“She works on racing every day, looking at ‘How do I improve myself today and tomorrow and the next day,” said Fisher. “And that’s what racing is all about.”
Although Makala’s eyes are ultimately on the Borg-Warner trophy, she knows the road to get there won't always be smooth. After a few tough seasons, it would be easy for some people to just give up.
But not Makala Marks.
“I’ll ask her over and over 'Do you want to quit? If you’re done, we’ll be done,” Nikki said. “And she says ‘No, I don’t want to quit. I just want to get better.'”
When it comes to the future, Makala will continue honing her craft as a driver currently competing in the Formula Vee Challenge Cup series, as well as working to find sponsors and, of course, continuing to make boys cry on the race track.
But for now, she’s just looking forward to getting her Indiana driver’s permit in August.
For more information on Makala Marks and her journey as a race car driver, check out her official website by clicking here.