McKendree’s drag-racing dean proves there’s more to sports than just trophies

The last place you might expect to find a high-ranking university administrator is with grease on her hands in the pit area at a drag-racing strip.

But if she’s not in her third-story office in a stately brick building in the middle of the McKendree University campus in Lebanon, that’s where you’ll find assistant dean and professor of psychology Tami Eggleston.

Well, either there or in the garage of her Highland-area home, where Eggleston wrenches alongside her husband, Mike, on a Sportsman Class rear-engined dragster that produces nearly 1,200 horsepower. The two-person team travels across the Midwest to fulfill its need for speed, fellowship and a sense of accomplishment.

“You have to have a passion in life,” Eggleston said of her love of racing. “The people in this world who are the happiest are the people who are really passionate about something. I tell people they have to find what they’re passionate about, go after it and make the most of it.”

Eggleston admits that some folks might find her hobby an odd one for a person in academia. But she said she’s been in and around drag racing since she was a small child. She added that racing in many ways has helped her be better at her job, which includes serving as sports psychologist for McKendree athletes of all sorts.

“Life, in many ways, is about dealing with the highs and the lows,” Eggleston said. “One of the reasons so many people play sports as a hobby is that they learn how to deal with the highs and lows that come with winning and losing in a competition.”

When she arrived at McKendree two decades ago, it was drag-racing that was a major factor in her decision to follow her career away from her native Iowa.

She grew up there helping out her dad, who also was a racer. Around the drag strips is where she met her future spouse. They teamed up on the track when they joined as a couple.

“I had a checklist of requirements when I was searching for a job,” Eggleston said. “I wanted to work at a high-quality, small, liberal arts school. My husband said he was OK with moving... as long as it had a quality drag strip nearby.”

At the time, Gateway International Raceway had just been completely renovated. It was an excellent drag strip to call home.

Odd or not, McKendree provost and dean Christine Bahr said it’s apparent how much Eggleston’s passion for drag racing compliments her career in education.

“When I first learned that drag racing is her hobby, I was kind of surprised,” Bahr said. “But Tami is so passionate about so many things — racing, psychology, McKendree... It all just sort of works together.”

Bahr said Eggleston’s personal experience as a competitor has given her insight into “what goes on in people’s minds” when they compete in sports. “You have to know how to mentally prepare for racing just like you have to learn how to focus in life,” Bahr said.

She added, “You need to learn how to deal with setbacks and losing sometimes. There is a big difference between having theories and putting things into practice. And her passion for racing allows her to better help our athletes in her role as sports psychologist.”

Be it racing, quilting or gardening, Eggleston said it’s important for people to have an interest that helps them reset their mind away from their responsibilities.

As winter draws to an end, Eggleston said she’s anxious for the thrills of a new racing season.

Over the winter, she and her husband tear down their car and rebuild it from scratch. It’s a labor of love, but it doesn’t have the thrills of zooming down a track at well over 100 mph.

Eggleston said she also misses the tight bonds that racers share as they travel around the Midwest in the name of competition.

“It’s funny, because you’ll loan a $300 part to a person you just met because they need it,” Eggleston said. “But back home, your neighbor asks if they can borrow your lawn mower and you said, ‘Well, I don’t know...’

“There’s a sense of family among racers,” Eggleston said. “And win or lose, I love to be in that atmosphere.”

Eggleston said she also craves the feeling she gets when something breaks on the car between races, and it’s just her and Mike working against the clock to fix it before it’s time to race again.

“We’ve had to change transmissions before at the track, just the two of us,” Eggleston said. “It’s a big feeling of accomplishment to get that kind of job done under pressure.”

But she laughed and said on race days, it’s Mike who does most of the “heavy lifting.”

He drives the car on the strip — although she sometimes drives it when they’re tuning. Eggleston’s favorite part of her role on the team is something that seems a bit more expected from an educator.

“I’m the one on the computer who is programming things and going over the data to make sure everything is working right,” Eggleston said. “We both have jobs to do, and when we do them right, we have a lot of success.”