SALEM, Ore. (AP) — When Katara Paulk has a poor start to a race and finishes seventh, she immediately puts the result into perspective.
A bad race can't phase her.
The experiences the flat track quad racer from Salem has survived in her 18 years — learning at 15 she had breast cancer and spending much of her young life in foster care, removed from a family affected by drug abuse — have shaped her.
"It's made me stronger and a little more fearless," said Paulk, a freshman at Chemeketa Community College.
"If something happens out on the track, I always think when I get hurt I can bounce right back because I've been through something much worse, and I came back from that."
Paulk has succeeded in racing despite a significant experience disadvantage to her competition.
In a little more than a year of racing quads on oval dirt tracks, she has won two championships on her Suzuki all-terrain vehicle in women's divisions — the Lipstick Quad championship at the Rainier (Wash.) Flat Track last summer and the women's quad class at the Salem Indoor last winter — and leads the points at Rainier again this summer.
Few could have done in a lifetime of racing what Paulk has done so quickly.
"Her therapy is she can get out there and ride," said stepfather Bill Toland, who also serves as her mechanic.
Life hasn't always been as happy as it is now for the recent high school graduate.
Because of mother Linda Toland's addiction to methamphetamine, Paulk, her sister, Matallica, and brother, Jesse, were in and out of their mother's care at an early age.
"I don't remember a lot from when I was little," Paulk said. "I do remember being passed down from family to family."
When she was 5, her mother was sent to prison, and Paulk and her sister were put into foster care in Eagle Point, while her brother was adopted. She hasn't seen him since.
After being released from five years in prison, Linda married Bill Toland, also a recovering addict who is now a drug and alcohol abuse counselor.
They moved to a house in North Salem, built a stable home life, and Paulk came back to live with her mother at age 13.
"I got to visit the kids when I first got out of prison, but they wouldn't let me have them back," Linda Toland said. "I got visitation with them. Within three weeks after visitation, (Katara) wanted to come home, and they let her come back. My other daughter came a year later."
Her stepfather introduced Paulk and her sister to racing.
In Toland's youth, he was a professional motocross racer. He gave racing another try in 2009 after years away from the sport by racing a motorcycle in the 50 plus class at Albany MX Park.
Paulk had some experience from riding ATVs recreationally, but she was competitive immediately after starting racing one at age 15 — she captured the championship in the Blaster class in motocross at Albany her first season.
When they raced against each other, the Paulk sisters competed against each other harder than they did anyone else.
On the track, Matallica was the fearless one while Katara was more even tempered.
"They would be neck-and-neck and their bikes even would lock up because they would bump each other," Linda Toland said. "You didn't want to ride home with the one who lost."
Soon after Paulk started racing she found out she had breast cancer.
"I was kind of freaked out because I had never had any problems before," she said. "No one in my family's ever had it. I'm the first one and I just think 'Why me?' "
Her doctors took a wait and see approach, but after a year, the cancerous mass had doubled so the doctors performed surgery to remove it when she was 16.
Paulk missed four months of racing and a couple weeks of school — she was attending McNary at the time — after the surgery.
It was a difficult situation for someone her age to deal with.
"I couldn't really tell anybody because I was so young and it was such a big deal at the time," Paulk said.
She has been screened every six months since the surgery and has been cancer free.
Her current quad is decorated with pink breast cancer awareness decals in memory of her experience.
Not long after her surgery, A.J. Davis and Josh Faulk, the owners of Octane Performance ATV in Lebanon, encouraged Bill Toland to let Paulk give flat track racing a try.
They had seen her race motocross and thought she might have potential on a circle track. She rode one of their quads in a practice session at Willamette Speedway in Lebanon in 2010.
She found her niche, and nothing has been able to stop her.
"She's been upside down," Bill Toland said about her crashes. "She's been over the hay bales and still gets up and rides."
Paulk competes in classes against men as well as the women's classes, and she has been competitive in them, too — she placed fifth in the Youth Quad class last year at Rainier and was third in the quad sport class at the Salem Indoor last winter.
"Running with the guys, I get fearless," Paulk said.
Her short-term goal is to race a quad in the AMA Extreme Dirt Track National Championship Series, but in the long term she wants to race cars on oval tracks or arena trucks.
Paulk graduated from Roberts High School in May and is getting an early start on a college degree. She is considering whether to major in criminology or nursing.
Paulk travels to the races with her parents and stepbrother, Jeremy, and each family member has their role in her racing — Linda Toland cooks and Jeremy films her races.
At races in Washington they, along with the family of Kiana and Todd Griffin of Dallas, camp out at the track the nights before and after the races.
It's an idyllic life compared with where she was a few years ago, but the obstacles she faced have given her focus and determination.
"I've had a lot more trauma in my life," she says. "If something happens, it's just another setback."
Copyright 2012 The Associated Press.