SM: You began racing in Pro Stock Motorcycle 24 years ago in 1996 on a part-time basis before moving up to a full-time schedule in ’97 at the age of 27. Can you talk about what it was like making your debut professionally during those days of NHRA and getting connected with George Bryce Star Racing Team to give you an opportunity?
AS: “It was very different back then than it is now,” Sampey said. “I was so young, I didn’t have a clue of what was about to happen to my life. I just knew I wanted to race a motorcycle. Still today, I just want to race motorcycles, I love them. But back then, I had no idea it was going to be a career or a lifelong thing. I had no idea, I was just so excited to be given the opportunity to get on a Pro Stock Motorcycle and race it.
“The competition was fierce back then as well but in a totally different way. Today, every round is like a final round; it’s so hard. Back in those days, if you were in the first round, it was a little easier to get to the second round. Still, racing in the semi-finals and finals were really tough. I got to race against some legends with John Myers and Dave Schultz. That’s an awesome thing to talk about. There’s only a couple of people that are around today, that were around back then. You know, Steve Johnson, and Hector Arana.
“Another thing that was vastly different is being able to focus. In today’s sport, there’s social media and people can express how they feel about you whereas it wasn’t like that back in those days. Life was much simpler. I went on a plane to go to the races, then came home and then my life was completely separate. No one could contact you. It (early career) was just easier.”
SM: At 27-years-old in your first season, did you feel as though it was the right time to get started professionally, or more so, “now or never”? Did you think 27 was a late start in your mind?
AS: “I always wished I could have started sooner,” she said. “It (racing) took me a while to understand what I was doing and how important it was. It’s kind of hard to describe, I wanted to be younger, but I was already so young mentally that I was kind of immature back then. I just didn’t know what I was doing. I didn’t know how to handle sponsors or how to handle anything really.
“It was a good time age-wise. I was physically and mentally young, but actually, I feel like I’m in better shape now in the last 10 years of my career compared to when I first started. Some ways I wish I was younger, but I also wish I was older as well.”
SM: Your Pro Stock Motorcycle debut came at Denver that same year in ‘96. What was it like in the weeks leading up to that event? Were you at all starting to feel anxious or nervous about getting to the track? What did you do to help prepare for your debut?
AS: “It (Denver) was actually a surprise to go to that event,” Sampey said. “We weren’t planning on it (Denver). We had planned on doing a Pro Star event, I believe, within North Carolina. (Unfortunately), there was a storm that came through on the east coast and hit right along where we were supposed to be racing and so the race was canceled. We weren’t able to do it (Pro Star race). I was going to do that event to help prepare me professionally.
“When that happened, George (Bryce, Angelle’s former Team Owner) had considered Denver because the track is somewhat of a slower race since the altitude is different and the bikes go slower. It’s easier to get down the racetrack and you have more time to think about things. We thought, why don’t we go ahead and do the race in Colorado and I found last minute, we were going. There really wasn’t much time to think about it (the race).
“When we went over there, I think I was very prepared. I had done a lot of practice and hung around the team for a whole year before then. The nervousness wasn’t there. My biggest issue was handling the people I was racing against like Dave Schultz and John Myers. I had them so high on a pedestal and I was scared to death to race against them because they were my heroes. That part I wasn’t prepared for, everything else, though, I was.”
SM: Would you say you were star-struck?
AS: “Definitely, definitely,” she said. “All the races that day were amazing. I couldn’t believe I was on the same racetrack as them (Schultz and Myers).
SM: At that same event, you were already successful right off the bat by advancing to the semi-finals of that race. Looking back, are you satisfied with how that event went and is there anything you could have done to potentially win in that debut?
AS: “Oh yes, I was definitely more satisfied then I could have been,” Sampey said. “ I never thought we would make it (semifinals) that far. I mean, just to qualify was a huge accomplishment. We got in the show. Had we lost in the first round, I still would have been extremely proud of myself. However, we won the first round, second round, third round. I was like, are you kidding me?
“I’m kind of glad I didn’t win the first race. Though, I wish I wouldn’t have won the fourth race. We went to the semifinals and lost to Dave (Schultz). When we went to the second race, I can’t remember but I qualified just as well (unlike the previous race). The fourth race, we were No. 1 qualifier, set the record, and I won the race. For my career, it (winning those rounds) definitely jumped started me.
“That (winning) was instant attention. We were on talk shows and was able to grab a sponsor after that. So, that was fantastic, and I am appreciative for that happening. Unfortunately, I didn’t learn the struggle that came with it (after winning). I never realized or understood how big this was, just because it (winning) seemed so easy right off the bat. I guess I didn’t learn to appreciate it (winning) enough.
“Nowadays, I respect the process so much more. I appreciate everything so much more, and I’m proud of myself and the team. To get the win is so much sweeter after you struggle.”
SM: After the successful Denver debut, you would continue to have successful results by winning your first NHRA race at Reading against Dave Schultz in just your fourth start. What does that victory still mean to you to this day and have you had a chance to go back and watch that specific victory?
AS: “Yeah, definitely,” she said about watching the Reading victory. “Winning that race is one of the biggest memories of my career. I remember everything about (the victory). Just being in the right lane, the date and time (September 16th), Dave (Schultz), red light coming on, you know, everything about it. That day seems like it just happened last month. I was just in awe.
“I think had he not turned the red light (automatic disqualification), I wondered if I would have beaten him (Schultz). I was thinking I would never be able to beat this man. He’s way better than me. He wasn’t thinking that or else he (Schultz) wouldn’t have gotten a red light. In his mind, he knew I was a fierce competitor, but that was also a fond memory knowing he took me seriously.”
SM: Was there any conversation between you and Dave Schultz afterward?
AS: “No, Dave (Schultz) didn’t like me very much,” Sampey said. “He actually didn’t speak to me until later in his life before he left us. I don’t know if he just didn’t like the fact that I was there racing. He would not speak to me at all. Even if I would pull up aside him at the end of the racetrack. If I would roll closer to him, he would roll away from me.
“One day, we were at the Gatornationals in Gainesville, Florida. I set a new national record in qualifying and it was 721. Dave (Schultz) would go to the apparel trailer every year at the Gatornationals because it was the first bike of the year for us. He came to the trailer with the hat he had bought and it was numbered 721. When he bought it (the hat), he saw the hat was labeled 721.
“So, he thought it (the hat) was appropriate for me to have the hat because I ran the 721 at the Gatornationals. Anyway, he (Schultz) comes to my trailer, and says, ‘I want you to have this hat, I just bought it.’ I didn’t know what to say. I asked him if he could sign it (hat) for me. He said ‘if you want me to, then I can.’ I’m like, ‘please.’ (Having that) is a very special thing for me.”
SM: Kind of an additional follow up to that question. Did you think you would ever win your first race in your first season? When did that victory set in for you, where you were like ‘Wow, I actually won an NHRA race? Did the victory take a couple of days to sink in?
AS: “Never,” she said. “It was so hard to drive the bike. I thought it was going to take me a couple of years to get a win. I was definitely not expecting the win in four races.”
SM: Just jumping ahead a little bit to ‘97. You would run full-time that year after running six races the year prior in ‘96. What in your mind do you think you learned in ‘96 that helped you prepare for ‘97, or was there still a learning curve?
AS: “I think I was prepared enough when we started in ‘96,” Sampey said. “We did a lot more testing and practice than people are aware of. I was on the motorcycle a lot before that race in ‘96. My regret for ‘96 is that we started in the middle of the season, and so I wasn’t a contender for Rookie of the Year. I believe I had a good shot at it (ROTY) but I wasn’t eligible due to the part-time schedule in ‘96.
“That was a mistake we made. I should have waited to start at the beginning of ‘96 or start at ‘97.”
SM: In the ‘97 season, you would win at Topeka after finishing runner-up there in ‘96. What were the differences in the two years?
AS: “I probably could have won the previous year,” she said. “I didn’t race (that race) and that’s probably one of my biggest regrets in my career as well. I was racing John Meyers in the finals in Topeka and John was trying to win the championship against Dave Schultz. We weren’t supposed to be there (Topeka), because we were racing Pro Star and now I feel like I’m in the way of John trying to get a championship. I was using his spare engines since he was giving them up for me to run.
“We were running well in Topeka and there was a good chance we could win. However, if we did beat John, there was a good chance we might hurt him in the points. So, we decided collectively as a team, we would not race against John in the final. I didn’t want to lie like a lot of people have done in the past, I wanted to be honest. If I knew I wasn’t going to win, I’m gonna do it honestly and I’m not going to bring my bike to the starting line.
“So, we went out there where John was on the starting line, and we didn’t bring the bike. We got booed by the crowd. They booed us like crazy because they wanted to see me race. It was the most horrible moment of my career. You know, for the fans to turn against me, and be so mad that I wasn’t racing where in reality I wanted to earn their respect. Like look, I wasn’t going to be allowed to win this race anyway. So, I don’t want to lie about it. Now, I know that was a mistake and I should have gone up there and raced him. Who cares if he was going for a championship, right? Like, I’m here to race and win for myself.”
SM: As you look back on your career, are there any races that come to your mind that you wish you had another opportunity at?
AS: “That would be one of them (the Topeka 1996 race),” Sampey said. “There’s been so many more (races) after that. I wish I had another opportunity this past weekend (Gatornationals). I had my teammate Andrew Hines in the third round and I pushed it (bike) too hard. I had the bike to win the race. My Harley Davidson was running really good numbers. I went up there (on Sunday) but I red-lighted, lost the round.
“That is so disappointing because if you go up there and ruin the race all by yourself, that is something I would love to have back. I said it to my team Sunday night at dinner, ‘I just want to try that race again.’”
SM: When you entered NHRA in 1996 at the age of 27, did you ever think you would have 42 race wins, and three championships throughout your career?
AS: “I didn’t think I was going to race longer than five years,” she said. “My (former) Team Owner (George Bryce) asked me when I first started ‘How long do you want to do this (racing)?’ I thought about it, and I figured I could be lucky lasting five years. I had hoped to win a race or two in those five years. The five years went by in like five months, and before I knew it, I had a championship and was racing for another (championship).
“Now 24 years into my racing career, I’m still amazed at what has happened and I definitely credit that to the amazing teams I’ve been on. Amazing teammates, sponsors, everybody that’s helped me along the way to get everything I had. Especially my mom and my dad, my family.
“This is a career especially difficult for a woman, very tough to stay in for a long time. You’re on the road a lot and being away from family.”
SM: I know retirement is a long way off yet for you. But before your career is over, what is one thing you would like to accomplish the most or check off your bucket list?
AS: “Once I got to a certain point, I could be the winningest racer in history when I realized that possibility,” Sampey said. “I don’t like being the winningest female. I just want to be the winningest person on a Pro Stock bike. I know I’ll never have more wins than John Force, but I want to be known as a person who has the most wins on a Pro Stock Motorcycle.
“I don’t know if that will ever happen, because Andrew Hines has made that so hard to reach now and I’m running out of time quickly. If I could just get Andrew to stay at the trailer or stay off the motorcycle, I might be able to catch him. That has always been my goal to be the ultimate winningest Pro Stock racer.”
SM: I asked Ron Capps this question and he always said his last victory is his favorite victory. For you, what would you say is your favorite Wally (NHRA’s trophy) out of your collection?
AS: “My typical answer is the next one,” she jokingly says. “It’s a tough decision between the last two (Wally’s) I had, as they are extremely important to me. The Englishtown in 2016 was my favorite win as a mom and I dedicated that race to my daughter Ava. I couldn’t believe that I had done this (racing) for all these years and put off being a mom for it and now I’m back to doing it (racing) but being a mom at the same time.
“It was like starting all over again at the beginning. Englishtown in 2016 was the most important win in my career because I had Ava. This last one (Indianapolis race 3) is just as important to me because I’m doing something that I would have never imagined, driving for the Harley Davidson Vance and Hines team. I never ever, ever believed it would be a possibility. I still have a hard time believing that. To get a win on a Harley-Davidson, I would give up tons of Wally’s for that one (Indy).
“I couldn’t be more proud, and I’m so happy to be on this team. I’m over the moon that I’ll end my career with the Harley-Davidson team.”
SM: Some racers have a memorabilia collection and some don’t. Are you a driver that collects your own merchandise and if so, what do you have in your collection that reminds you about your rookie season(s)?
AS: “You know, I’m not that kind of driver, and I regret it,” Sampey said about keeping merchandise. “I’m so mad at myself that I did not keep it (my own merchandise). I should have kept at least five t-shirts of every shirt that was ever made, every hat, everything. I didn’t have any idea how important all of this was going to be, because I was so young and dumb.
“I was just living in the moment when I was young. Now, I did find some things (old t-shirts), my daughter wears them, and it’s so awesome for me to see her wear my t-shirts 15-20 years ago.”
SM: It’s been 24 years since your first start in Denver. What would a 50-year-old Angelle Sampey tell a 27-year-old Angelle Sampey, if time travel was available? Is there anything you would do differently?
AS: “There’s almost everything I would do differently,” she said. “Almost everything. The way I rode; I would change that. Just the way I handled everything, everything we talked about, saving stuff. I didn’t even keep track of the publications I was in, like, New York Times and USA Today. I should have kept all of those for my little girl to see.
“But, I would go back to the younger me, tell myself to appreciate everything more.”
In Sampey’s career, the Matthews, Louisiana native has collected 42 race victories, three championships (2000, 2001 and 2002), 31 runner-up finishes, 44 semifinals, 75 quarterfinals, 59 Round 1 victories and 51 No. 1 qualifiers.
Special thanks to Natalie Jahnke for coordinating the interview and Angelle Sampey for taking time out of her busy schedule.