At the age of 3, Tori Rinker announced to her parents that she wanted to be a canical engineer and build race cars for Jeff Gordon.
We brought her to Hendrick Motorsports the next morning, said her mother, Lynette Rinker, who is also the mayor pro tem of Cornelius.
And just a few weeks ago, Tori Rinker, now 18 and bound for Princeton University, crossed off an item on her bucket list: She got to be part of the crew while working on race cars at Hendrick in the wind tunnel at Concords Windshear, Inc. and at the NASCAR Research and Development Center.
It was all part of Rinkers Woodlawn School senior exit project, called the Capstone Project, which entails a research paper, service hours, an internship and final presentation on a topic of the students choice.
Thursday, she will graduate from Woodlawn, an independent, nonprofit K-12 school near Davidson.
She is a firecracker, said Beth Helfrich, director of Woodlawns upper school. Shes just magnetic and dynamic and funny, and shell turn the world on its head someday.
Rinker said the Hendrick internship, the culmination of her yearlong study on the physics of NASCAR, was the chance of a lifetime.
I had all these oh my gosh moments, gushed the senior. I was in the wind tunnel with (Kasey Kahne crew chief) Kenny Francis, and I got to help test Jeff Gordons car that had just raced the weekend before.
She became an honorary crew member, and throughout her project, examined the cars engines, aerodynamics, tires and just how NASCAR teams work as a cohesive unit.
Rinker said the biggest lesson she came away with was that the race cars themselves will only take drivers so far without teamwork.
Rinker would come home from Hendrick with stories about her work, some of which went over her parents heads.
It was a moment of parental pride, Lynette Rinker said. Our little girl knows what a rear gear cooler is.
But NASCAR isnt the only thing that gets Rinkers wheels turning.
Shes been acting in school plays since the eighth grade and has played violin since kindergarten.
She loves to sew and refashion cute outfits out of the ugliest Goodwill clothes she can find, and one of her guilty pleasures is watching shows on HGTV.
Shes been a tutor at her school and a four-year president of the Student Activities Club, which is essentially Woodlawns student government.
Shes a doer in every sense of the word and has also managed to have a nearly flawless academic record, Helfrich said.
Last summer, Rinker had some of her research on synthetic biology at Davidson College published. Shed come home so excited about E. coli, her mother said with a laugh.
At Princeton, Rinker plans on majoring in some sort of science, which she said shell figure out after taking courses in physics, chemistry, molecular biology and computer science. Her childhood ambition of building race cars for NASCAR is still a possibility, but she also has interests in math, Spanish, travel and international politics.
Still, Rinker, who will be attending a college famous for its vines of ivy, eating clubs and upper-echelon academics, wont let a few raised eyebrows ruin her love of NASCAR.
Ill definitely keep up with the races up there, she said. I love it all a lot more because of what Ive learned.