It was sometime around 1958 that 14-year-old Tish Hiestand started street racing, tearing up the backroads of Odessa, Texas in a 1950 Chevy hardtop.
“At that time in West Texas there were so many kids living in the middle of nowhere on large ranches, that if you took driver’s education you could get your license at 14,” she said during a recent interview. “I wasn’t raised on a ranch, but grew up with an uncle who was nine years older than me and a major gearhead. So, I got my passion for cars from him at a young age.”
Hiestand, whose last name was Bolton back then, was the only girl in her school with a car and the only girl she knew who street raced.
Her teenage years mirrored scenes right out of the movie “America Graffiti,” where teens gathered at drive-in restaurants, then headed off to side roads to race.
Today, Hiestand races a Dodge Neon in the Hornet Division at Tucson Speedway where the 76-year-old great-grandmother is known for her feistiness and tough competitive spirit.
“Everyone loves Tish,” said Kristi O’Brien, a former Herald/Review features editor who now writes for Tucson Speedway where her husband and two children race. “She’s the sweetest lady you’ll ever meet. But when she straps on that helmet, it’s ‘game on.’ She’s a racer through and through, and other racers know if they give her an inch, she’ll leave them in her rearview.”
After marrying John Hiestand in 1961, an Air Force electronics technician, the couple visited racetracks wherever John’s assignments took them.
Sometime around 1968 while living in Fairbanks, Alaska, both John and Tish started racing. In those days, she was limited to competing against other women in powder puff classes.
“When I first started racing, women were not allowed in the pits,” Hiestand said, recalling those earlier years. “So, we would come down from the bleachers through a gate in the safety fence and walk onto the track, climb into our cars and race in powder puff classes, which is all we were allowed to do. Racing has really changed through the years.”
While stationed in Bitburg, Germany, the couple raced on Spangdahlem Raceway, a track where Tish competed in three different classes.
“Our last year there, in 1980, John won a championship, and I won championships in all three of my classes,” she said.
Through the years, John continued to race until 2008, when he officially retired from the sport. Tish stopped racing in 1980 to focus on running a household, but in 2012, she was back on the track, racing in the Hornet Division — a class for four-cylinder cars.
“All those years that I was racing and Tish helped me, it really should have been the other way around,” John Hiestand said.
“She should have been driving and I should have been helping her. She was always much more competitive than I was, but women weren’t racing back then on a regular basis.”
Very few women raced against men like they do today, he said.
“I’m very proud of her racing and really support it,” John said of his wife’s passion. “As long as she wants to race, I’m there for her.”
Car racing is in the family’s DNA.
Before John retired, he raced in the modified class with the couple’s son, Rod Hiestand.
“And our grandson, J.R. Hiestand, was running superstock on a dirt track at USA Raceway,” John said. “Rod builds the roll cages for our cars and they’re a really good, solid roll cage.”
Despite a bad racing accident that sidelined Tish in September 2018 with an injured knee that required surgery, John said he feels comfortable about her desire to continue racing.
“It’s a fun sport. At the level that she races — a four-cylinder class — I feel it’s a much safer class than some of the others. And you don’t have a ton money riding around on the track.
When not on the racetrack, the couple tend their 30-acre property between Benson and Cascabel, where they launched Forever Home Donkey Sanctuary nearly 20 years ago. Some 25 donkeys that have been rescued from bad living situations have found refuge at the sanctuary, where they live out there lives in a quiet, comfortable setting.
“My race car number is 21x, and our racing team is Blackjack, named after our first donkey,” Tish said. “When I’m not racing, I stay busy taking care of our donkey herd.”
Meanwhile, Tish says as long as she can climb in her Hornet’s window, she’ll be racing.
“Our great-grandson, Hunter, is 7-years-old and is going to start racing go-karts on a dirt track at Tucson Speedway,” Tish said with a smile.
“If he gets into racing the way the rest of us did, we’ll have four generations of racers.”
“None of the other women are as crazy as I am,” she laughed. “John keeps egging me on. So, he’s the reason I’m not behaving myself.”