By Karen Zurvalec
Every racer, no matter what series or style of car, had to start somewhere…and we all know they're starting younger. From quarter midgets to junior dragsters, there's something for every kid who dreams of being like the drivers he or she sees on TV. And if parents are willing to make the investment, a weekend pastime could become a lifelong passion.
"One of the things we're seeing is that big tracks and weekly tracks are seeing the need to incorporate youth into their programs," said James Spink, USAC, Speedway, Indiana. "They see this as their future racers. What we've seen through our relationships with these tracks is that a lot of them are starting to build quarter midget tracks and introduce quarter midgets or youth motorsports into their programs. That way, the kids' families are used to coming out to the speedway every Saturday night from when they're five years old up through when they're adults. The tracks are almost building their own minor league system."
"Fortunately for us in the youth racing market, we are seeing more and more kids getting involved," said Ashley Garrett, US Legend Cars International, Harrisburg, North Carolina. "Many kids that are involved come from racing families, but not all. We are starting to see kids who had traditionally been involved with 'stick and ball' sports such as baseball, basketball, and soccer, jumping into racing full force. In many cases, once kids begin in racing, they start to get away from sports that they were involved with in the past and focus 100 percent on their racing hopes and dreams. We are even seeing more and more kids being home schooled to allow for the travel many families put in during racing season."
There are a number of programs available for youth racers. In fact, tracks and sanctioning bodies are adding new programs all the time, to cater to a market that's almost as energetic as the kids it serves. While karting is another entry point into racing, this article is limited to oval track, drag, and off-road racing.
Youth racing programs are proving to be lucrative to drivers, manufacturers, and local speed shops for a variety of reasons. First and foremost is that many of these programs offer kids an opportunity to get involved in a sport they love. At the same time, these programs teach kids the importance of competition and sportsmanship, lessons they'll take with them throughout the rest of their lives.
"The youth movement is a great thing in racing," said Frank Simonetti, iTi Motorsports, Ontario, California. "It gets kids involved, it's fun, and it's given our kids a different alternative instead of going out and playing soccer or baseball."
"It keeps kids off the street," agreed Terry Kaiser, California Outlaw Racing Association, Vacaville, California. "It keeps them busy, and it humbles them a lot. They get out there in one of these cars, and it's a whole different world for some of them."
"It's a great way to get kids involved," added Eric Lotz, NHRA Jr. Drag Racing League, Glendora, California. "It's a great example for them. It's helping them to create a drive to accomplish things, and to learn sportsmanship. We have a wide age range, and it just teaches them so many different skills they need throughout their lives."
"I don't think you're going to have a better family-oriented sport," said Aaron Mari, Southwest Racing Association (SWRA), El Centro, California. "And there are too many ways for young kids these days to have extra time, not use it correctly, and end up making some dumb decisions at a young age. Racing gives them something to look forward to as a priority, and it also gives them some mechanical skills that are invaluable. Racing is an individual sport when you're on the track, but it's a team sport when you're trying to get to the track. It teaches young people how to be a good team member, and it also teaches patience."
And it's not just kids and their parents who benefit from getting involved in racing. Racing businesses that support youth racers and youth racing programs often maintain relationships with these racers as they move up through different series, and into adulthood—when they start making their own buying decisions.
"That's where the future is," advised Kristal Loescher, Finishline Racing, Edgewater, Florida. "We've seen it a lot—they start in quarter midgets, and then step into Late Models. They could even get up into the Sprint Cup series. It's endless. Jamie McMurray and Reed Sorensen were quarter midget drivers. That's your future—if you get brand loyalty now and get them comfortable with you as a speed shop, you'll be able to sell them parts and equipment for every division they get into, whether it's safety apparel or hardcore parts like brakes and axles."
One of the most popular oval track cars for youth racers is the quarter midget. While these have been around for years, there are some new programs available to racers and their families.
"We started our quarter midget initiative last August, with a goal of introducing the kids to the quarter midget realm, and also keeping in mind safety first and foremost, as well as cost," said Spink. "That's been a huge success for us here at USAC." Last year's national championship event featured over 200 cars at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. "We're also doing a seven race Generation Next tour throughout the Midwest, and that's averaged 120 cars per weekend. It's started a ladder system for us here at USAC. So now a boy or girl as young as five years old can start racing quarter midgets, and continue on up through Junior Focus, our Focus program, and also our National series."
"Most kids start out, depending on their age, in a kart or a quarter midget," agreed Garrett. "These are great avenues for kids to learn the fundamentals of racing—what the flags mean, race procedures, racing lines, clean racing, and so on. We begin getting racers in Bandoleros at the age of eight. Some of our racers coming into the Bandolero divisions have experience in karts or quarter midgets, and some have never driven anything before.
"The progression that we generally see are kids coming from karts or QM's up to a Bandolero, then to a Legends car and beyond," he continued. "A young racer may start out in a kart or a QM at the age of four or five, race a few years before moving into a Bandolero at the age of eight. Once a child has reached 12 years old and has a minimum of 45 races in a Bandolero, that child is eligible to move into a Legends car if the child so chooses. From there, they will typically race a Legends car for three to four years, depending on the child's age, until they feel it is time to move to a bigger car, or choose to keep competing in Legends races."
The California Outlaw Racing Association (CORA) has a number of youth classes. "We've got a Beginner Box class, Stock Box class, and we run them all the way up to the 600 Multi Class, where they can run pretty much whatever they want to run," said Kaiser. "They start racing at four and a half. The Baby Box, which is the Beginner Box, is just a little go kart with a five horse Briggs motor on it."
The number of racers at each event depends on the class, he continued. "Probably 90 percent of our drivers are kids," he said. "We get anywhere between 19 and 29 cars, and I would say 12 of them are kids in each class. A big majority of kids are racing with us."
"We started our Mini Dwarf program five or six years ago," said Mari. The SWRA is the sanctioning body for Imperial Valley Speedway, also in El Centro. "The minimum age is five, up to 14. We wanted to be able to give that age group a venue to race. We built a separate track in the infield, and the larger track runs around the outside of it. But we wanted to give that age group some experience and seat time, because the entry level that we have at the larger track is Pure Stock. We found that when we put the young kids, both boys and girls, into the Mini Dwarves, it enhanced their ability to understand their capabilities when they're on the track, and it also gave them a much greater understanding of the regulations that are operated when you're on a track. We use the same flagmen that we use on the large track, and the kids are expected to understand all of the flags, and how to get back in line. It makes it a lot easier when they get on the large track if they've spent at least a season in a Mini Dwarf."
The NHRA's venerable Junior Drag Racing League is celebrating its 17th season this year, said Lotz. "The age range is from 8 to 17 years old. It's a really family-oriented series. Mom and dad serve as the crew chiefs while the kid races the car."
The Junior Drag Racing League has different classes, divided by age groups, Lotz continued. "There are three: The 8 to 12 year olds run in one, then the 12 to 15 year olds, and the 15 and over group. And the NHRA umbrella is over the whole series. Although there isn't a national series, there are track championships at most of our 140 member tracks, and then we have two national events. One is at Bristol, and the other is at Bandimere. At those events, we have over 500 kids participating in eight categories." The League has about 4500 members, he added.
The Junior Dragster is a half-scale version of a Top Fuel dragster, with a five-horsepower, single-cylinder engine. "The racing is bracket style," Lotz noted, "so the kids are competing against their times, and not each other." Notable racers who got their starts in the Junior Drag Racing League include Top Fuel drivers Del Cox Jr., Shawn Langdon, Spencer Massey, and JR Todd; and Pro Stock drivers Erica Enders, Rickie Jones, and Richie Stevens Jr.
"The kids may be the youth market of today, but as they grow older they will become the mature, informed racers/buyers of tomorrow," said Sherrie Barbour, IHRA (International Hot Rod Association), Norwalk, Ohio. "They are the ones who will carry the sport to the next level. They are at the time in their lives where impressions can last a long time, so now is the time to reach each of them."
Barbour noted that the most popular Jr. Dragster is the Halfscale, and hundreds of those cars are sold every year. The most effective way to get kids interested in Jr. Dragsters is to take them to the track so they can experience the thrill firsthand, and "hearing from others who actually race a Jr. Dragster is another great method of getting them into the sport," Barbour added.
To start out in Jr. Dragsters, the most important thing that's needed is a vehicle, according to Barbour. "Many of the crew chiefs/dads are starting to develop engine and clutch programs of their own rather than sourcing out the task," she stated. "In doing this they will need a dial indicator, micrometers, hones, valve removal/installation tools and, in some cases, boring equipment."
Youth divisions are relatively new to off-road racing, but there are a number of companies and series providing avenues for kids to race.
"Most of the youth market that we do is in off-road racing," said Simonetti. "The off-road racing market has become very big for us. We build Viper chassis off-road karts. There are three series that they run them in: Junior 1, Junior 2, and Modifieds. There are fields of 25 or 30 kids every weekend in the Southern California area racing these things. They start at age eight, and go all the way up to 16 years of age."
SWRA will run a Trophy Kart class at Imperial Valley Speedway for the first time this season, said Mari. "We're designing and building a track in the infield," he said. "It's the same age range as the Mini Dwarfs, but they're driving off-road in a miniature Class 1."
While many sanctioning bodies and tracks use youth programs as a stepping stone for kids to get into higher levels of racing, some team owners take a different approach to finding the next great race car driver. The All-American Driver Challenge was started by Tracy Trotter, of Calico Coatings, Denver, North Carolina, to find the next driver of his USAC midget.
"I was looking for drivers to drive my race car," he said. "I wanted to find the best driver I could, and I was also looking to help somebody financially because they didn't have the money to go race. That was the ideal person I was looking for—someone who had talent, and not necessarily the ways and means to go racing."
Trotter set up contests at indoor kart tracks across the country. "We had qualifying heats, races, and time trials," he said. "We took the top five from each center to Atlanta, Georgia, to the Andretti Kart Center. We took 100 kids total. Then we had a three-day runoff. We did time trials, oval racing, road course racing, and endurance racing. We did interviewing skills, and we interviewed them for their marketing skills. We went through three days of testing, took notes, and everybody got racing points, passing points, interview points, and so on. We kept score every day. At the end of the first day, we narrowed it down to 25, and on the last day, we narrowed it down from 25 to 10."
The racers were all judged by an expert panel, including Trotter and his crew chief, Gary Huffman, John Andretti, Bones Bourcier, and Rick Benjamin—all well-known names in the racing industry. At the end, the top 10 drivers were taken to Hickory Motor Speedway, and put into Trotter's midget.
"Bob East came down with all the judges, and helped us judge them in the midget," Trotter said. "We wanted to find out what kind of feedback they could give us in the midget, how well they listened to the crew chief, and what they could tell us about the car, what the car was doing, and how fast they could go. We did that for three days, and at the end of three days, there was always one person that stood out, clearly stood out. So we found out that the system does work, the talent really shines. We've gotten three good drivers so far. The first was Bradley Riethmeyer. He won the championship with us, and the kid just wins everything he gets into. He's a joy to work with. Tanner Swanson won the second year, and we won a championship with him. Jeremy Frankowski is the third kid we picked," who was leading the points at the time of this interview. "So the system works. These guys are capable if they're given the opportunity."
Kids can get involved in racing for a relatively low initial investment, according to our contacts. The amount a parent ends up spending ultimately depends on what kind of racing the child wants to do, and how deeply involved the parents want to get. In many cases, the only things a kid needs are a car and some safety equipment.
"First off, you need a Junior Drag Racing League car," said Lotz. "Some of our tracks still rent cars. It's really an inexpensive cost to get involved. A basic Junior Dragster costs about $5000. It can be a simple car, and still be competitive. Then you need approved safety gear, including a helmet, jacket, neck collar, and gloves. All drivers must also wear long pants and arm restraints while behind the wheel."
"Kids starting in Bandoleros and Legends cars need to have a helmet with a Snell SA rating, a fire suit of Nomex or equivalent material, fire retardant gloves, racing shoes, and a head and neck restraint of some type—like a HANS, Hutchins or D-Cell," said Garrett.
"We all need to realize that the youth market is the future for all of our business," Garrett concluded. "We need to work hard on cultivating new drivers, keeping current racers going, and doing all we can to make sure that youth racers are well served. Our industry is constantly evolving and changing, and in order for us to keep up, we all need to be flexible and realize that our young potential customers today will be our customers tomorrow."