It was a hot March day at the Sebring International Raceway in Florida when rookie driver Sarah Montgomery found herself in her first-ever professional race, a sport long dominated by men.

The 20-year-old University of Louisiana at Lafayette sophomore was whizzing around a four-mile track that had felt the hot rubber of racing stars like Mario Andretti, Dan Gurney and Stirling Moss that came before her.

After sliding into the grass and falling back to seventh place, she veered toward the leading cloud of cars, overtaking rivals left and right as the pack edged toward a sharp turn.

“All of a sudden, you hear it,” said her father, Robert Montgomery.

“Move the motor homes!” The announcer boomed. “There are cars over the fence!”

Robert Montgomery frantically scanned the track for his daughter’s car, hoping for the best.

He didn’t see her.

“My wife is calling me, asking ‘what’s wrong?’” He recalled, with his daughter chuckling in the background. “She sees the yellow flag. I go, ‘It’s a bad wreck, there are ambulances on the track, and I don’t see Sarah.’”

As Robert Montgomery relayed his distress to his wife, a woman grabbed the panicked father, and told him she spotted his daughter unharmed, ahead of the pace cars. “I was dying,” he said.

At 20 years old, Montgomery is the only woman professional racer out of Louisiana in the BFGoodrich MX-5 Pro Cup Series Skip Barber league, a circuit that has races compete in Mazda MX-5 Miatas modified slightly for the raceway. Montgomery is currently ranked fifth in the Pro Cup Series standings.

Montgomery said she won’t settle with her current fifth overall standing and intends to win more races.

She’s got plans for her career in racing that include marketing her racing prowess to sponsors, or if that doesn’t work out, market other racers. She’s currently working toward a marketing degree at UL-Lafayette.

“(I want to) just stay in the racing field so I can be at a race track every weekend,” she said.

Right behind her is her paternal publicist.

After 20 years of selling cars, Robert Montgomery bowed out of the business to spend more time with his family and support his daughter.

He’s missed just one race.

Montgomery left Sarah behind to compete in her second professional race at California’s Mazda Raceway in May so he could fly back to Louisiana as a surprise to his other daughter, who was going to be on the prom court.

Sarah Montgomery said her father can be her anchor when things on the track get stressful.

“It’s fine as long as he isn’t working on the car,” she said. “He keeps me sane, and he knows when to push me and he knows when not to push me. I just give him the look and he’ll stop. It’s not as bad as you’d think.”

Robert Montgomery’s eyes locked onto his offspring.

“What do you mean!?” he retorted with a smile.

Both Robert and Sarah Montgomery have been racing fans all their lives. She said her transition from sitting in the bleachers to sitting in the driver’s seat was natural.

“It kind of just happened,” she said. “We always watched racing on TV and thought it was cool.”

When she saw Danica Patrick race Indy cars in Texas she began to think she could race too.

Montgomery found a local go-kart raceway and begged her parents to help her follow her dream.

“I can remember Sarah coming to us with her piggy bank and saying, ‘Please help me buy a dirt kart,’” her father recalled.

From age 12 until 16, she raced go-karts around the state, winning roughly 20 races and clinching multiple track championships.

With a driver’s license in hand, 16-year-old Sarah Montgomery transitioned from the mud-soaked go-kart tracks to the asphalt and concrete of amateur Mazda Miata races, with the help of Brent Mosing, marketing director for Frank’s International, the Lafayette-based oil and gas service company.

“I knew she was real interested in transitioning from go-karts to cars so I put her in one of my cars and she took off from there,” Mosing said. “She was green, but she showed a lot of potential.”

In the Mazda circuit, she’d prove Mosing right, racking up wins and high finishes until Team Skip Barber offered her a chance to drive with the pros this year.

As for her proudest moment so far, Sarah Montgomery gave a confident answer.

“Making a name for myself,” she replied. “This kind of sounds cocky, but I’m impressive enough to have people want to help me out. That’s what I’m most grateful for; if there was nothing impressive about me, I’d still be out racing go-karts. But I’m good enough and I was raised right to have people want to help me out.”

As for the future, Sarah Montgomery said she’d love to race open-wheel Indy cars but is keeping her options open.

“I’m not complaining, because I’m having a blast,” she said.

“It’s crazy; in this career, you’ll never know what tomorrow may bring,” her father said. “You may have a career-ending crash, someone may see you and may try to pick her up for a different series. We’ll go wherever the money goes.”

Montgomery’s next race in the Mazda MX-5 Cup takes place June 27-29 at the Grand Prix of Houston, a 1.7-mile track located downtown set to the backdrop of recently renamed NRG Park.