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Scorching Sunny 

Richmond stock car racer Sunny Hobbs may get her shot at the big time via that modern chute to success — reality TV.

"There really is no age limit," Hobbs says. "But it makes you more attractive, the younger you are. … And I really think sometimes it depends on what people are looking for. If they're looking for a really mature driver that's experienced, then great, that's me. If they're looking for a 16-year-old that they can shape, that's not me."

She's plenty capable of shaping herself, thank you. But this season Hobbs, by all accounts a talented driver, hasn't been able to find sufficient sponsorship to allow her to race — a problem she attributes to her being a female driver who's well past her teenage years. She looks about 28, though she's in her mid-30s.

Now, Hobbs may get the chance of a lifetime. She's one of 50 amateur drivers in the running for 12 spots on a new reality show, "Racin' for a Livin'."

The show pits contestants against each other through several races and other athletic challenges. The winner, decided by judges and viewers, will get to run seven Busch Series races; if he or she emerges victorious, the ultimate reward is a fully sponsored NASCAR Nextel Cup Series debut.

Hobbs is a cool competitor, certainly no histrionics-prone reality diva. "I've been struggling for years to try and get an opportunity to get in good equipment and drive for a good team and do all these things," she says. "And if I have to do it through a reality TV show, then I'm like, what the heck."

Professional racing is an unusual sport in that drivers themselves must draw sponsors to provide the cash to allow them to race. And it ain't cheap. Racing a stock car at smaller tracks such as Southside Speedway, equipped well enough to win, may cost $100,000 or more per season, she says. Racing an ARCA series, which is sort of the minor league of NASCAR, costs at least $1.5 million — $2 million if you do it right. Making the ultimate bid for the NASCAR Nextel Cup costs between $15 million and $22 million.

Jerry VanDenHul, executive producer of "Racin' for a Livin'," knows firsthand the bitterness of being denied sponsorships.

When he was 36, VanDenHul planned to race in the Busch Series. "Went to go get sponsors and I was too old," he says. All he heard, he says, was: "Thirty-six. Eh, you're a has-been."

Years later, VanDenHul decided he would give another amateur racer a chance. That's where his show comes in. The candidates range in age from 18 to 44; 11 of them are women. The top 15 to be considered for the show will be determined mostly by online voting at www.racinforalivin.com.

Competitors will undergo training to "thoroughly take the rookieness off of you," VanDenHul says. The show is scheduled to air in December and January on a "major" broadcast network or cable channel in prime time, he says, declining to elaborate. But it won't be a niche cable channel such as the Speed Channel or the Discovery Channel.

Hobbs says she's ready to "kick butt." She's raced sports cars, stock cars and trucks; she's experienced both on short circle tracks and road courses.

She first took an interest in racing after college: "I quit my job, broke up with my boyfriend, moved to Richmond and bought a race car. I'm makin' a change in direction," she says, laughing.

She cut her chops in the Charger division at Southside Speedway, driving a 1980 Chevy Malibu. She later moved up to a late-model truck series, traveling to regional races, then moved to North Carolina and began racing late-model stock cars at Caraway Speedway. In 2003 she raced in the ARCA RE/MAX series, and last year raced a nearly full season in the NASA sports car series.

This year she signed on with the Donlavey Racing Group, founded by Richmond racing legend Junie Donlavey. But Hobbs only raised three-quarters of the money she needed for the season. So she gave it all back to the sponsors and decided to wait.

Doc Watson, a retired ARCA racer who runs Donlavey, calls Hobbs one of the best racers out there who hasn't gotten a fair shot at getting to the top. Although his team is known for its diversity, including two African-American drivers and Hobbs, they're there because of their merit and for no other reason, Watson says.

"She's in better shape than some of the guys that are racing now," he says. "And that's what she's going to beat them at, is stamina."

Most drivers have difficulty finding sponsors until they attain celebrity status. Yet Hobbs says she finds it difficult to understand why giant companies haven't rushed to support female drivers. Forty percent of NASCAR fans are women, she says, and tend to be fiercely brand-loyal. "So if you can connect the women, who are the purchasers, with female drivers," she says, "you would think it would be a marketing dream."

Besides finding money, Hobbs has also had to deal with machismo from fellow competitors, including being told to "go back to the kitchen" and having drivers deliberately damage her car on the track.

So she learned to fight back. To drive defensively. To stay calm and focused. And still to go all-out — like on her favorite turn at Road Atlanta.

"Scare the hell out of yourself every time you go through turn 12," she says. "You come barreling over a hill, there's a blind turn that you have to turn before you crest the hill and you have it floored before you get there. And then you go straight down and you turn and you go to the flag stand. There's a big wall there. And it's fast. You can pass there. And it's awesome." S

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