Most people who know Karen Rizzoli would say the 32-year-old San Luis Obispo native was born with adrenaline running in her veins. And they would probably be correct.
By the time Rizzoli was 8 years old, the brunette with the big smile was competing in junior drag races, where the top speed was 50 mph. She was most recently licensed to race in her brother, Kyle’s, super comp dragster, which soars to 175 mph.
Currently, Rizzoli is racing a restored 1967 Camaro, named Leslie, which can push the speedometer to 135 mph on 1/4-mile-stretches down straight tracks. She competes in bracket racing when she’s behind Leslie’s wheel, racing in the 10.9-second index, super street division.
“So we go really fast for a really short period of time,” Rizzoli explained. “It’s all about intensity.”
Asked what it feels like to drive a car at speeds well over what most vehicles’ speedometers register, Rizzoli smiled wide, her eyes sparkling as she likely imagined herself sitting behind the wheel of Leslie, speeding down the race track, or sitting high atop one of her horses in the competition ring.
“It’s a rush and goes by so quick because it’s all of nine or 10 seconds,” Rizzoli said about drag racing, “but it’s just the power that is behind these cars. It’s almost surreal to think about when you are outside of it. When you are in it, it’s just the adrenaline.”
Rizzoli also has a love for all things horses and has balanced her passion for equines with her love for drag racing since she was a teen, taking time off after graduating from Cal Poly, where she earned an agriculture business degree, to focus on showing and competing in the horse ring.
“It’s a rush to know that you are in control of that much power,” she added. “It’s kind of like that with the horses for me, too, to control something that is so big and so powerful.”
Rizzoli re-entered the drag racing world in 2011 when she moved back to San Luis Obispo after a more than decade-long hiatus from racing and absolutely loves being back on the race track again, something that is a family affair and started when she and her brother raced as children. She stopped racing when she was 17.
“Obviously I am an adrenaline junkie,” Rizzoli said from her San Luis Obispo home. “Riding horses and doing the drag racing, it’s just something that is different. [It] pushes me out of my comfort zone. You think I have been doing this my whole life, but getting into the Camaro, it’s different than going 50, 60 mph.”
Leslie, which is painted white with black stripes, has been in the Rizzoli family for many years, although it has only been recently that the Camaro was entirely rebuilt, something Kyle undertook himself, according to his sister, who said naming the car was a family effort. And the name just fits the shiny piece of American steel that was purchased specifically for racing, Rizzoli said.
“What’s great about her is she is an easy car,” Rizzoli said of Leslie. “We can go and just have fun. That’s what we were trying to refocus on. The family has been really intense on the racing for a really long time. We were ready to get back to where we started in the first place.”
Since getting behind the wheel again, Rizzoli has raced Leslie in Bakersfield, Fontana and Sonoma, and although she has yet to win a race in the Camaro — she has only been racing for a year — the SLO native is having the time of her life racing cars again and connecting with her family.
Both Rizzoli and her brother learned about drag racing from their dad, who raced cars before his children were born and for about six to eight years after. He still kept his hand in the racing world after getting out of the driver’s seat and when Leslie was ready for the track, he also raced her, according to Rizzoli.
“Dad taught us everything (about racing and cars) when we were younger, especially with junior drag racing,” Rizzoli said, noting she and her brother were never pushed into racing. “We wanted to do it. He couldn’t keep us out of those cars.”
As a family, the Rizzoli’s would spend every summer driving a motorhome to Indianapolis, where Rizzoli and her brother would compete in the Junior Dragster Nationals and then any other races in the region throughout the summer.
“It was very family based back in the day,” Rizzoli said. “We were in the motorhome for weeks on end. We’d go to the racetrack and all our friends would be there. It was just fun at the end of the day.”
More recently, Rizzoli said her older brother has helped guide her back into the racing world, helping her to relearn how to race and go through the process with a new car — Leslie. Like any sport, winning is the ultimate goal; it’s what an athlete sets out to do when lacing up their shoes, throwing a ball, hitting a puck or firing up the ignition. However, Rizzoli’s favorite part of racing cars is the people, which are more like a community.
“It’s not about the racing. It’s about the environment,” she said. “Yes, of course, we like the fast cars and the excitement of it all, but at the end of the day, we are a family and all the racers that we spend a good majority of time with, they are like family to us. They are just very generous, very kind-hearted.”
Rizzoli also has a love for horses and spent much of her life balancing getting behind the wheels of extremely fast and powerful cars and working with extremely fast and powerful equines. She doesn’t see that changing and would like to one day have property where she can have all her animals together.
“The cars are definitely a part of who I am,” Rizzoli said. “Between the business being automotive and then the drag racing, it’s been definitely a big part of my life, so, yes, I do like the cars. My childhood was basically the racing, and I had, and I still do, horses.”
During the last decade, Rizzoli and her brother have worked at transitioning the ownership of the family-owned business — Rizzoli’s Automotive — from their parents to themselves. The business, at 2854 Victoria Avenue, San Luis Obispo, was started by their grandparents, Mario and Mary, in December 1976. A second location was opened by their parents in Santa Maria the late 1980s. The siblings never envisioned taking over the family automotive shop, where they spent endless childhood hours helping their parents, but the 2004 San Luis Obispo High School graduate said she wouldn’t change it now, even if she didn’t think so not too long ago.
“It’s been the best thing I have ever done, but if you would have asked me that five years ago, I would have told you ‘you were crazy’,” Rizzoli said with a big laugh. “It’s just funny how life experiences change … and you change as a person.”
Rizzoli knows she’s fortunate the business her grandparents founded was still viable and she had a place to return after a stint in Arizona, where she moved following college to focus on her equine work. Her mom was also looking to transition out of the business at the time Rizzoli moved back, she said.
“It’s a staple in the community,” Rizzoli said. “I can’t ask for much more than that and in a town like SLO. It’s super fun.”