Last summer, six weeks after Annabeth Barnes Crum gave birth to a baby girl, she was back in the race car.
On June 6, a month before her daughter’s first birthday, she was in Victory Lane.
Crum won the second race of a twin-40 late model bill at Hickory Motor Speedway – a NASCAR-sanctioned 0.363-mile asphalt oval track in Hickory, North Carolina.
After finishing third in the first 40, an invert put her in the eighth to start the second race. At one point she had fallen all the way back to 12th, but after a race that involved a lot of "beating and banging" and cautions, Crum’s patience and methodical way of moving up through traffic paid off. She took the lead on the last restart and held it for the final 12 laps.
It was an "awesome" win, Crum said, and something her and her team had been working towards for quite some time. She became just the third woman in track history to win a late model race, the top division, at Hickory. The historic oval dates back to 1951 and counts Junior Johnson, Ned Jarrett and Ralph Earnhardt among its track champions.
Crum, 25, took most of the 2019 season off to give birth in June, racing just three times towards the end of the season. She didn’t anticipate getting back in the car so soon after giving birth, but her dad, who also serves as her crew chief, convinced her to just go to a practice to see how it felt.
The practice quickly turned into a real race.
"It had been a while since I had been in the car even," Crum said. "So we went and practiced and he was like, ‘We’re already here, why don’t we just race tomorrow?’ and I was like, ‘Oh? Okay.’
"I was really nervous and I had a lot of reservations but he was pumping me up and he was like, ‘You got it. At some point it’s got to be your first race back so you’ve got to just go for it.’"
Crum finished fourth in her first race back, though she said it was not without difficulty.
"I never realized how physically challenging it was going to be," she said. "You don’t realize the toll that having a baby has on your body and I didn’t realize that myself even going through it and then getting back in the race car. It was hard. It was really hard. But even just coming back after six weeks and getting a fourth place finish, I was super proud of that."
Crum’s daughter, Kenley, will turn 1 on June 27.
Crum began racing when she was 6 years old after watching her dad race at Hickory and other race tracks around their home in North Carolina. Her older sister started racing go-karts "and I obviously had to do it too," Crum said.
After immediately building a passion for the sport, Crum raced go-karts for about six years before moving up. She started racing limited late models at Hickory when she was 14.
"At that time it was still kind of unheard of not only being a female but being so young," she said. "I had a lot of success there in limited late model and won some races. That was awesome."
At 17, Crum ran a late model for the first time with Rev Racing in NASCAR’s Drive for Diversity program, traveling to race around the country. After that season she returned home to focus on her own late model program and car with her family.
"We’ve had ups and downs. Racing is such a roller coaster," she said. "There’s bouts of success and bouts of the complete opposite.
"During that time I met my husband, I got married. It was just life was going on."
After traveling around and doing one-off races just here and there for the last several years, Crum and her team knew they wanted to put all of their focus on running a full season for a championship at Hickory in 2020, and they took baby steps before hitting it hard for this season.
The nerves coming back to full-time racing started to creep in as the season got closer, in part due to how much time she was away from the track, and in part because she didn’t know how seriously other competitors would take her now that she’s become a mom.
That’s what made her win so much more special.
"It felt really good. It felt like validation that this is what I’m supposed to be doing," Crum said. "This is where I’m supposed to be and all our hard work is paying off."
"I think that’s where you breed success because being at the race track every week you’re really able to focus and get better, better yourself, better your car when you’re doing it week-in and week-out, so I anticipate a lot more success going forward because we are so focused on that."
Despite delaying the start of the season due to the coronavirus pandemic, Hickory will still run for a points championship and will fill in the schedule later in the summer for races that were missed. The June 6 race was run without fans in the stands.
Growing up in a racing family, Crum is now raising a racing family of her own – Crum’s husband, Jake, is a driver who previously raced in the NASCAR ARCA Menards, Truck, and Xfinity Series. He won the prestigious Martinsville 300 late model race in 2009. She also has a 7-year-old stepson, Bentley, and a 6-year-old stepdaughter, Adalynn.
Now that she’s a parent of her own, she’s sharing the sport she loves with her growing family.
"It’s so exciting now as a parent to get to share that with my kids," she said. "Just the love of the sport and teaching them to appreciate the history of the home tracks."
Even though none of her family could see her win due to fan restrictions at track, they had a celebration the next day. Being able to share her win with her family, Crum said she feels lucky to have something they all can do and appreciate together.
Her hope is she can share more wins with her daughter in the future.
"It’s some complete motivation for me because I want to make her proud," Crum said. "I want to make all my kids proud. It’s so important for me to show her that she can do and be anything, because when I was younger there were so few females. It was almost unheard of when I started out in the sport. Even now I go to the racetrack and almost always I’m the only female.
"It’s so, so important for me to show her it doesn’t matter what she wants to be. If she wants to race, that’s awesome. If she wants to be a doctor, that’s cool. If she wants to, I don’t know, be a construction worker, she can do and be anything. And that has motivated me even more to be successful and win races because I know that she’s watching me."