Tuesday, April 26, 2016

SPORTS STORY >> A lifetime going 1/8 of a mile

Leader sportswriter

North Pulaski High School senior Payton Mullen isn’t your typical homecoming queen.

Yeah, she’s a multi-sport athlete, having played volleyball for the Lady Falcons and now playing softball for the Jacksonville Lady Red Devils because of the upcoming merger between the two schools. Playing a varsity sport for a different school is unique in itself, but it’s Mullen’s favorite sport that really separates her from the crowd.

Ever since she was 11 years old, Mullen has taken part in drag racing. It’s a sport she grew up around. She grew up watching her father (Bob Mullen) race, and after spending a good chunk of her early years watching him speed down the track, she quickly became interested in doing it herself.

“My dad’s been racing since he was 18 years old,” said Mullen. “So, I grew up around racing, and I was like, ‘Dad, I want to race! I want to race!’ He loves racing. We love racing. It’s a family thing and that was really it.”

At 11 years old, Mullen first began racing junior dragsters, which are smaller versions of dragsters – the vehicles designed specifically for drag racing. Although junior dragsters are smaller than and not as fast as your typical dragster, they can still go, and Mullen’s car could really go for a junior dragster.

“Mine went about 92 miles perhour,” she said. “It was one of the fastest in the state.”

Mullen eventually moved up to the dragsters, and the races for those are an eighth of a mile in length and Mullen’s average times are in the low 5-second range.

“I’m usually in the low fives,” she said. “So that’s about 130 miles per hour, somewhere around that.”

Despite the speed and power of the vehicles, Mullen said the cars are typically easy for her to handle.

“It’s actually very easy. A dragster usually goes pretty straight unless the wind catches it or if there’s grease on the track your tires will probably spin, but they’re actually really easy to drive.”

Unfortunately, things don’t always go perfectly. In Mullen’s first time trial of this racing season, which took place on April 3 at the Centerville Dragway, the throttle on her vehicle got stuck and it led to her first-ever wreck.

“I was racing my sister (Alexis Mullen) and we were just doing our burnout,” Mullen said, “and when we started our burnout I realized my throttle was stuck and I couldn’t get my car to shut off or anything.”

Mullen’s dragster flipped several times during the wreck, and resulted in her being taken to the emergency room.

“After the first two flips or so I blacked out,” she said, “and I remember I tried to unbuckle my seatbelt after the wreck. I remember unbuckling my seatbelt and trying to hurry up and get out of the car. It was really hard to get out because the car was on its side. And so I had to squeeze my body through the open hole, because all I could think was what if it’s on fire.

“So I had to hurry up and try and get out of the car. After that I just laid there, and all I remember is I opened my eyes and there’s like six people over me. They put oxygen in my helmet and were seeing if I’m OK. They thought my leg was broken, so they cut my fire suit pants off and that’s when they called the ambulance and they hurried up and got there and rushed me to the hospital.”

Even though Mullen’s injuries weren’t severe, the wreck left her pretty banged up. It was a tough situation to deal with, but she had far greater worries on her mind that week.

“My dad has been having heart problems,” Mullen said. “After my wreck he was supposed to have surgery that next Thursday on his heart. So the wreck happened and all I could think about was if my dad was OK. So far he’s doing alright after surgery, but it’s still a really tough situation.”

As for the wreck, Mullen said it was something she never really gave thought to before it actually happened.

“It was something I didn’t think was ever going to happen,” she said. “It’s a risk getting in the car and knowing something could happen, but you never really think what if it actually really does happen, and it happened that day.”

Whatever trauma resulted from the wreck, though, hasn’t deterred Mullen from wanting to race again in the near future.

“It was definitely very heartbreaking,” Mullen said, “but I’m probably going to start back up in a few weeks or a month to try and get over my fear now.”

Because of the injuries from the wreck, Mullen was told by her doctor to take a week off from any softball activities. She was, however, in attendance at the team’s next game, which was only two days after the wreck.

“If the doctor hadn’t told her to take a week off, she probably would’ve tried to play,” said JHS softball coach Hank Hawk. “When we played Sylvan Hills she couldn’t play, but after the first game, we huddle up and look over and there she is walking out to the outfield real slow.

“The girls wanted to wait for her to get there before we said anything, and then when we called it up, they asked her to call it up to lead the cheer. So that tells you what she means to those girls and to the team. That kind of sums it up right there.”

Mullen, an All-Conference softball player for North Pulaski the previous two seasons, played tournament ball in the summer with a good portion of the JHS softball players, so the transition of going from the NPHS team to the Lady Red Devils this spring wasn’t very difficult.

“It was pretty smooth,” Mullen said of the transition. “Jacksonville, their softball team welcomed us like we’re family. We had no rough starts or anything. I played tournament ball with them, so I actually already knew all of them.”

The JHS softball team is having one of its best seasons this year. The Lady Red Devils are undefeated in conference play and are in line for an outright conference championship and No. 1 seed in the upcoming Class 5A state tournament. It’s the type of season Mullen and the team was hoping for.

“It’s everything I’ve ever wanted,” Mullen said. “I always wanted in my senior year to win conference and so far we’re doing that.”

Mullen also experienced a lot of success in volleyball. She and the Lady Falcon volleyball team will go down as the last North Pulaski High School sports team to play in a state tournament. Mullen was a pivotal player on that team, and was selected to the All-State Tournament team as a senior.

“She was nothing but an asset,” said North Pulaski volleyball coach Ben Belton, “a great kid to be around. She’s a very hard-working kid and very successful. She plays way bigger than she is, as far as height-wise. She was incredible to watch and a joy to coach and good person to have around.

“This year alone, I think she served like 91 percent from the line – which the team, as a whole, we served 89 percent from the line for the season, and Payton really came on.”

Mullen was a member of the NPHS volleyball team since she was a freshman, and was very versatile for the Lady Falcons, who made it to the state tournament in three of the last four seasons.

“Payton was brought up as a libero and ended up playing full rotation as an outside hitter,” Belton said. “So she grew athletically and was just very successful. She was very consistent in everything she did. She worked hard. She played hard – played with her heart, and that’s all you can ask of a kid. She did everything I asked her to do.”

Mullen said her experience playing for the Lady Falcons and her experience as a student at NPHS, where she was voted homecoming queen in the fall, has been one she’ll always remember fondly.

“It’s been amazing,” Mullen said. “The teachers are great. The coaches, they’ve been amazing. Volleyball stayed the same and I’m so thankful for that. Coach Belton is for sure one of the best coaches I’ve had. He cares a lot about us, and I think it was the best thing to do moving softball to Jacksonville, because our team has turned out to be amazing.”

The Lady Red Devils’ softball season has been just that so far, and Hawk has enjoyed having Mullen on the team.

“She plays with the girls during the summer,” Hawk said. “Tim (House) and her dad (Bob Mullen) coach that team, so the transition playing for us has not been bad at all. Her work ethic is top notch.

“She’s a leader in all the drills. She’s going to work as hard as she can. So you don’t have to worry about that with her. I can’t find anything negative to say about her.”

Mullen has had plenty of success in volleyball and softball, but her love for drag racing is like no other. So much so that the bulk of Mullen’s post high school plans involve travel and drag racing.

“After I graduate, we were planning on traveling,” Mullen said, “and I assume we’re going to go NHRA (National Hot Rod Association), and that’s when we’re going to travel and go to all different types of places. That’s what I plan on doing. I plan on traveling the world, drag racing and probably doing online college courses.”

Mullen doesn’t expect the travel time to be very short, either.

“I want to race until I can’t,” she said. “I want to race as long as I possibly can.”