Guts and Determination Motivate Jess Richards’ Need for Speed

There was a decades-old saying that went something like “Speed costs money, son, how fast do you want to go?” Apparently, only men raced back then. Over time, the makeup of drag racers has changed dramatically as the pits and staging lanes at tracks across America. Now more than ever, female competitors are racing down the quarter-mile. It’s also the fact that among the many motorsport organizations, the NHRA and NMCA are the most diverse when it comes to their participants. But for Navy Veteran Jess Richards, she’s always had the need for speed, which prompted her to purchase something fun and fast. After being deployed overseas in Japan, Germany, Kuwait, Qatar, Afghanistan and unspecified locations up and down the Atlantic Ocean on an aircraft carrier, she was ready to pull the trigger and get a fast car.

“My adventure began around 2017 and 2018, when I first started getting into the Dodge vehicles platform and looking for a performance car. I originally considered getting a Hellcat Challenger until the announcement of the Redeye was made, which set my mind to getting one of those. It was also around the same time I found out I was being deployed to the Middle East while in the Navy. I spent months going over configurations online on how I wanted my car built and was set on getting a B5 Blue Redeye, that was until I saw a Destroyer Grey Challenger in person and fell in love!” noted Jess. “While on deployment, Thanksgiving Day, 2018 to be exact, I placed my order for my custom-built 2019 Destroyer Grey Dodge Challenger SRT® Hellcat Redeye. A short five months later, I returned home from deployment and got the call that my car had arrived, and I ended up taking delivery on April Fool’s Day 2019. Later that year, June 8th to be exact, my dad had the idea to take the car to Summit Motorsports Park for one of their test and tune events and that’s where I fell in love with drag racing! I had no idea the sport existed at the level I participate in at the time of buying the car and it was never built with the intention of racing (hence the sunroof), but after getting a little taste of racing that day, I set out on a mission to see what more the car could do, and I haven’t looked back since!”

With her dad’s influence and her determination, Jess became a regular at the NMCA Dodge//Mopar® HEMI® Shootouts and her Destroyer Grey Challenger SRT Hellcat Redeye was a fixture in the staging lanes. Each season, she gained more experience and her car got faster with the help of fellow Mopar racers. “I first time I took my Challenger to track was in 2019, but it was the following year that I got serious with it. An incident during a semi-final round at the NMCA Indy event in which the car got sideways and had me looking at the wall! I wondered if I should stay in it or lift and that’s when a lot clicked for me. I realized the car needed some major performance upgrades as it was still 100% stock and running on the 20-inch Pirelli summer tires. I decided to get serious, bought a trailer, and began to make modifications on my Challenger,” said Jess. “Since I joined the sport late, the only advantage I had was good advice given me from other racers that already ‘trialed-and-errored’ and knew what works for this platform and what doesn’t. I didn’t need to waste time testing out ideas but rather just looking at what others were doing. The flip side is I’m still currently playing catch-up to the rest of the pack. It took me a while to find the right people who have my best interest in mind, but with the help of ZH Tunes and others, I feel like I have done that. Now every race I’ve been to, my Challenger goes faster, and that has given me a great sense of achievement. I set out a goal in 2020 to get my car into the nine-second range and I did that. My current goal is to keep chipping away at it to get into the eight-second zone.” 

With her Challenger running solidly in the nine-second zone, Jess was now running with the big dogs and in the NMCA HEMI Quick 8 Class. These racers and their finely tuned Challengers and Chargers are running deep into the low nine-second zone and they’re all tough customers. “As my car went faster, I began competing in the HHP HEMI Quick 8 Class. I made it to the finals at the Rockingham and St. Louis races last year, only to be taken out by legendary racers who have been at this longer than I’ve been alive. I also won the Nine-Second Index at many NMCA races in 2022 and 2023. I even won my first-ever event title at Mopar Madness at Dragway 42 in the Hellcat, Redeye and Demon bracket class,” smiled Jess. But pushing your car to the limit can come at a cost. Late last year in November, Jess was racing at Cecil County Raceway in Maryland. Both the track and weather conditions were ripe for Jess to break into the eight-second zone. As Jess reflected on that fateful day: “I got the car down to 9.14 seconds and was over the moon to be that close to running eights. After more rounds of eliminations, the DA (density altitude) was dropping. I was very optimistic I’d get that eight-second run. On my last pass, the car felt great, but it was when I turned off the return road it didn’t feel or sound right. As I rolled up to the ET Shack to get my time slip, the car shut off and I had to get towed back to the pits by the HHP Team. We checked out the car and knew the motor was hurt and that was the end of the 2023 racing season and my engine!”

When others would’ve thrown the towel and packed it in, Jess kept a positive attitude through all this. “This was a bittersweet failure, bitter because I had another event lined up the following weekend that I couldn’t attend but somewhat sweet. I was already bouncing around ideas of what it’ll take to go faster and make more power, and I knew a fresh motor was on that list as a potential option and this gave me the go-ahead to pull the trigger on it,” smiled Jess. Enter Kevin Smith from Clinton Township, Michigan. A drag racer, engine builder and tuner, he knows his way around the world of GEN III HEMI engines and modern Mopar vehicles. Kevin also races a 2018 Challenger SRT Demon and owns a Challenger Drag Pak. “My decision to take the car to Kevin (Smith) was not a hard one at all. I know the time and specifics Kevin puts into his work and I knew that I would be in great hands taking my car to him. Kevin has helped me out trackside in the past. Knowing he does his own work on both his Demon and Drag Pak, as well as working on cars of other friends of mine, the decision was a no-brainer for me. Kevin kept me updated step-by-step throughout the whole teardown process and presented me with all my options each step of the way. As he got deeper into the breakdown and saw the extent of what had happened, he began talking short block, then long block, and in the end, suggested I’d need a whole new motor,” noted Jess. The two discussed what was needed regarding a new engine combination to meet Jess’s performance goals and it came down to a stroker GEN III HEMI engine displacing 426 cubic inches, custom roller cam and “massaged” SRT Hellcat cylinder heads for more airflow. 

Now Jess will be ready to attack the 2024 racing season. “I’m going into this year wide open throttle,” exclaimed Jess. “I’m excited to see how my Challenger performs with the new engine. After last year’s setbacks, I’m moving forward and not looking back. I took steps to ensure that each decision I made would benefit me performance-wise and I would be putting myself in a better position to get into the eights and compete in the Dodge//Direct Connection Shootout.” It takes more than just pure horsepower to reach those goals, it’ll take guts and determination and Jess has that winning formula to get her that eight-second ET slip!