Editor’s note: Katarina Moller, 24, died Nov. 15, 2018 in a racing accident at Sebring International Raceway.
She’s a self-described “low-key, happy, normal kind of girl.’’
But when Katarina “Kat” Moller steps into her dragster — a sleek 5,500-horsepower machine with a jet turbine engine that carries her up to 300 mph — anyone’s version of normal hits overdrive.
Since joining the Larsen Motorsports jet-racing team following her freshman year at USF, Moller has consistently been the world’s fastest female racer for her age.
“What can I say? I love to go fast,’’ says the 23-year-old, who graduated in 2016 with a bachelor’s in mechanical engineering.
Team owner Elaine Larsen sometimes uses an in-car video camera to help gauge her drivers’ state of mind. Are they terrified? Nervous? Businesslike?
“Kat always has the biggest smile on her face as she goes down the track,’’ Larsen says. “That’s what pure joy, pure happiness, looks like. I have never seen anyone like her.
“She’s like the All-American girl. She could be your daughter, your sister, your cousin. She wants to win, of course, but she is just thrilled to be in the game. She belongs out there.’’
She has since age 11, when she first slid behind the wheel of a junior dragster. She refined her craft while an International Baccalaureate student at Sarasota Riverview High School. Then she burst onto the national scene while studying at USF’s Tampa campus. Of 306 drivers vying for a spot on the Palm Bay, Fla.-based Larsen Motorsports team, only Moller was chosen. She was 19.
During the week, she was a full-time USF student. But on weekends, she was a burgeoning phenomenon. After graduation, Sarasota’s Radiant Power Corporation hired her as a manufacturing engineer. The company makes aerospace products.
Larsen hopes Moller’s academic accomplishments will take her racing career to an unprecedented level.
“Not a lot of drivers have degrees like that,’’ she says. “I would love to see her work with the technicians who are designing and building the cars. She can talk their language.
“But at the end of the day, I know that Kat bleeds race fuel. Being at the track makes her happy. When she’s not at the track, she’s wishing she was at the track. She’s not some novelty. People can smell a fake from a mile away. She’s a race-car driver.’’
In retrospect, that career path may have been predictable.
Moller’s father, Tommy, has a lifetime of motorsports experience, from boats to road cars or top fuel dragsters. He kept a crib for his daughter at his Sarasota-based body-shop business, Corvettes West. As she grew older, she spent almost every day after school in the garage with her father.
She was a dedicated pre-teen figure skater when Tommy, looking to give her a fun new activity, enrolled her in the junior dragster program at Bradenton Motorsports Park and stepped back to watch. His jaw dropped.
“She was just a natural,’’ he says. “I saw it on her first pass down the track. I was floored.’’
Moller’s been racing ever since. And nearly every time people see the petite young woman (she’s 5-foot-3) standing by her jet car, someone wonders aloud what she’s doing there.
“People look at me and laugh and say, ‘Wow, it almost looks like you’re the driver or something,’ ’’ she says. “When I say, ‘I am the driver,’ they think I’m joking. Then they realize the truth and they’re like, ‘Wow, that’s so cool.’ I’m used to the questions. It doesn’t bother me.’’
That easygoing personality is part of what fools folks, her dad says.
“People seem amazed, I guess, because of her demeanor and how humble she is,’’ he says. “She goes to an event and she signs a thousand autographs. It’s amazing. They love her. But you know, she just wants to race. Once that gets in your blood, it doesn’t go away.’’
Moller’s father says he has been criticized for putting his baby girl in a dragster.
“They say, ‘How could you let your daughter do this and face such danger?’ ’’ the father says. “They don’t realize this is an A-student, a great person and it’s her passion. And every precaution has been taken. She knows what to do. She respects that machine.’’
At the race’s start, Moller withstands a G-force of 5 — more than the launch of a space shuttle. At the end, she must stabilize the car’s often violent slowdown after the parachute opens.
“I have a blast doing it or else I wouldn’t do it,’’ she says. “We definitely make sure the car is safe, but of course you think about the risk you are taking. You can’t let yourself forget about that. It’s a dangerous sport, no question.
“But I love it. I always have. It’s like being on a super exciting roller coaster. The faster I go, the happier I am.’’
As much as Moller enjoys racing, she has an equal passion for her career and gratitude for her USF experience.
“It’s a great school and it prepared me well,’’ she says. “Even when I was racing, I still loved having the typical college experience.
“Sometimes, it was tough being on the road during the weekend, then getting back for class. But it was all worth it. I love my career. I love to race. USF has played an important role in all of that.’’
No wonder Moller is always smiling.
This article was originally published by the USF Alumni Association.