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Children, start your engines

As NASCAR has become more popular over the past decade, the stock-car series and its open-wheel cousins are spawning younger fans who participate in competitive go-kart races.
/ Source: a href="" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true">The Washington Post</a

Like any self-respecting 5-year-old, Christian Elder has started whittling down his career options. He might want to be a professional baseball player, which is why this spring he played T-ball once or twice a week near his Charles County home. He also might want to be a professional NASCAR driver, which is why after the Saturday morning T-ball games Christian and his father, Richie Elder, headed to a paved oval in King George County, Va., where Christian climbed into his $2,000 go-kart and piloted it around the 1/5 -mile track at speeds in excess of 30 mph.

"Like NASCAR, kind of," the 3-foot-6, 43-pound Christian said while sipping a can of soda after a recent race, "but not really as fast."

As NASCAR has driven motorsports toward the front of the sports lineup over the past decade, with 75 million fans and television ratings topped only by the NFL, the stock-car series and its open-wheel cousins are spawning younger fans like Christian Elder who unleash their exhaust-filled dreams every weekend in organized and competitive go-kart races.

While exponentially more grade schoolers still play organized soccer or baseball than race go-karts, the sport appears to be booming. The World Karting Association, go-karting's largest sanctioning body, estimates there are between 125,000 and 150,000 karters of all ages in the United States, up from 100,000 in 1994.

Demographic information is spotty in a decentralized sport in which anyone can show up with a go-kart at a track, but industry veterans estimate that 25-35 percent of participants are aged 21 or under, for a total of between 31,000 and 52,000 young karters. By comparison, the United States Youth Soccer Association has seen its participation numbers hover at just more than 3 million over the past four years, while Little League, which has seen its numbers decline about one percent annually since 1997, has 2.1 million American participants.

World Karting Association officials, who now set up a promotional booth at nearly every NASCAR event, attribute the growth largely to stock-car racing's increasing popularity, and track operators agree.

"If you talk to every one of these kids, the one thing they want to do is be a NASCAR driver," said Patty Pool, owner of King George Speedway, which is about halfway between Washington and Richmond. "Every one of them, that's their dream."

Growing popularity
Statewide go-kart races in Florida that drew 30 or 40 entries two decades ago now have 400 or 500 racers "because of the hype that's going on; the daddies, the parents watching racing every weekend on the boob tube," Florida Karting Association President Jimmy Sims said. Capital City Speedway, a Richmond area dirt track, has experienced similar growth; races that attracted 35 drivers in the late 1980s now have 170 or 175 "because of NASCAR, people wanting to race," track owner Ronnie Sipe said.

As racing interest cascades into younger demographics, major professional operations have gotten involved. The Indy Racing League, a North American open-wheel circuit best known for the Indianapolis 500, this year began sponsoring the Stars of Karting series for an elite group of several hundred racers; that series experienced a 36 percent growth from the first to second quarters of the year.

For the third year, energy drink manufacturer Red Bull is sponsoring a succession of national tryouts for 13- to 17 -year-old go-karters with ambitions to ride in Formula One, the international open-wheel circuit that is the world's most popular and glamorous series. More than 3,000 drivers auditioned this year -- a 50 percent increase over last year -- for no more than three spots; the winners are sent to Europe to compete in a junior formula series.

Web sites offer scouting reports on up-and-coming drivers, and NASCAR heavyweight Roush Racing just began filming a reality show for the Discovery Channel that will select the team's next truck series driver. With 25 slots available, organizers heard from 1,700 applicants, some of whom had been racing since they were 5.

"The competitiveness of the sport and the growth in popularity has meant that there's more interest in it, and to be competitive you have to start at an early age," said Torrey Galida, Roush's senior vice president of marketing. "Just like Olympic athletes, they all start very young and they dedicate their entire lives to it."

Indeed, many national stars began some sort of racing before they were 10, whether in go-karts, quarter-midgets or on motorcycles. Jeff Gordon was winning go-kart and quarter-midget championships in elementary school; Tony Stewart, another former NASCAR champion, won an International Karting Foundation national title when he was 12; Jamie McMurray started karting at age 8 and won four U.S. titles; and Kevin Harvick began at age 5 and won seven national championships. Virtually every top European driver began in go-karts, as did most American open-wheel stars, such as Michael Andretti, Sam Hornish Jr. and current IRL phenom Danica Patrick, whose biography has given a further boost to karting in recent months.

Chasing their heroes
Like the pros, junior racers of both genders have sponsors and Web sites, engine tuners and paint schemes, backup motors and massive trailers to transport their equipment from one track to the next. They choose the car numbers of their favorite drivers; Christian Elder, fond of expounding upon Stewart's virtues, wears the driver's No. 20 on his kart. They have crew chiefs -- who often double as their fathers -- and they have imposing nicknames: 14-year-old Bobby "Cougar" Ellis of Ashburn regularly races against Jessica "Banzai" Brannam, a national champion from Illinois whose business card reads "I Might Be Small, But I Can Haul."

"Just like kids want to be like Tiger Woods or 'Be Like Mike,' they want to be like their heroes," said Darrell Sitarz, the president of Kart Marketing Group, which puts on an annual industry trade show. "They know exactly how to handle themselves at 5, 6, 7 years old. They see these drivers on TV, whether it's IndyCar or NASCAR or ChampCar or whatever, and they want to be them."

The dreams of junior drivers are hardly limited to NASCAR, which some young racers dismiss as the least interesting form of motorsports because of its repetitive nature. The Woodbridge Kart Club, a local group that is among the oldest and largest karting clubs in the country, sponsors races on long, twisting road courses rather than dirt or pavement ovals, and its junior stars -- who regularly reach speeds of 85 or 90 mph -- more often aspire to careers in the Formula One series. Others speak hopefully of a smorgasbord of minor league motorsports series, or of careers in pit crews or in engineering shops; many say they would drive anything that was offered to them.

To pursue such goals, drivers often give up other sports. Ten-year-old Christopher Hammett of Mechanicsville quit soccer to concentrate on racing; Bobby Ellis gradually gave up football, basketball and baseball; and Will McMillan, 12, of Rising Sun, Md., told his parents he wanted to stop playing Little League "because racing was way more fun."

Karters say they are drawn to the track because they've been watching racing on television their whole lives, because they grew up using diecast cars to recreate multi-car wrecks on living room carpets and because their favorite station is the Speed Channel. They stay in the sport for the thrill of driving 50 mph around ovals or handling tight corners on road courses, because they still dream of being noticed by a car-racing promoter or sponsor, and because high-speed competition becomes "like an addiction, almost," as Kevin Kopp, a senior at Langley High put it. "Pretty much anything I can get my hands on, I'll drive."

The sport, though, presents a host of challenges unique from a youth league soccer game. For one thing, there is the obvious risk. Drivers must wear safety-approved helmets and, in some series, full racing suits. Devotees insist that karting is hardly more dangerous than youth football. Still, there are wrecks and red flags and ambulances; Kevin, a WKA national champion who's attempting to move into auto racing, "has spent more time in infield hospitals than I care to think about," his father, Ray Kopp, said.

Ramona Vickers, whose son, Brian, raced go-karts before eventually landing in NASCAR, vividly recalled a wreck in which her elementary school-aged son flipped several times before being ejected from his kart with a cracked helmet. "I said, 'Let's go home, we've had enough fun, I've had enough of this, let's just go home,' " she said. "He said, 'I'm here to race.' He talked me into it. He proved to be a champion."

Christopher Hammett slammed into a pole this year, knocking the wind out of himself, bringing out emergency medical technicians and giving pause to his father, Jerry.

"It made me think, 'Am I doing this for him or am I doing this for me?' " the father said. "I asked him and he looked at me like I was crazy. He said, 'I want to race.' "

As with other professional sports, the payoffs for elite stars are immense. Three of the 25 highest paid athletes on Forbes's 2004 list were racecar drivers, including Formula One star Michael Schumacher, whose earnings of $80 million were second only to Tiger Woods. Dale Earnhardt Jr., the most popular NASCAR driver, earned $20.1 million, according to Forbes, and most top-tier Nextel Cup drivers earn millions from winnings and endorsements.

"I hope he progresses with it, because I want to retire and drive his motor home to the NASCAR track every week," laughed Charlie Trost, whose 9-year-old son, Trevor, is in his second year of racing. "That's the pipedream, anyhow."

But the sport also requires substantial investments of time and money, especially for young drivers participating in national series. Fathers can spend up to 35 or 40 hours a week breaking down karts and cleaning parts, and hours more tinkering at the track, thus considering themselves as much a part of the competition as their children.

As Will McMillan began winning national and regional races, his parents bought a 38-foot trailer with living quarters that takes them to 30 race weekends a year and has logged more than 15,000 miles since January. His younger brother, Wyatt, recently reached the WKA age minimum of 5 and also began racing, although points-paying races don't begin until age 8. The McMillan family has considered relocating to North Carolina -- like southern Virginia, a hotbed of dirt and pavement oval tracks -- to be closer to more racing. Last year he won a national karting title, and by next year he plans to move into more expensive micro sprint cars and start heading to tracks where NASCAR stars were discovered.

Improving technology has also led to skyrocketing equipment costs. Depending on the type of racing, a competitive starting setup can cost from $3,500 to more than $6,000. Engine rebuilds can cost up to $1,000, replacement tires cost a couple hundred dollars a set, optional radio systems for on-track communication are around $1,500, and every race weekend has entry fees. Serious juniors spend at least $6,000 or $7,000 a year; those who compete nationally estimate their annual costs at between $20,000 and $30,000.

And success, veterans of the sport say, is directly linked to having top-flight equipment, making it difficult for poorly funded juniors to compete. Finding both sponsors and professional opportunities is often related to "who you know, your bling-bling connections," said Floridian Matt Michel, 16, during a recent national WKA event in Summit Point, W. Va.

"I'm just convinced that there are a lot of really talented drivers out there whose parents can't afford to put them in the equipment that their talent would deserve," said Dan Davis, the director of Ford Racing Technology. "That's just a fact of life right now."

Which is why teenagers with professional ambitions work on more than just hitting their lines, keeping their bodies in shape and fine-tuning their setups. Some take speech classes at school to help with their public relations skills, imperative in attracting sponsors that can provide racing gear or equipment or help defray costs. Others prepare résumés and DVDs to send to pro racing teams and potential sponsors. Jessica Brannam, a two-time WKA champion whose mother spends 25 hours a week dealing with her daughter's nearly two dozen sponsors and attempting to attract more, recently sent out 140 letters to race teams.

"She got three responses, and one of 'em was, 'If you don't have any money, quit now,' " her father, Phil Brannam, said.

If anything, though, Jessica might be helped by her gender. Patrick's popularity has invigorated the Indy Racing League, and racing teams in all series continue to search for talented young women and minorities. Hendrick Motorsports last year signed a developmental deal with Chase Austin, 15, a black driver who started racing go-karts in elementary school. This week, Ford announced an agreement with Clorox to provide midget car sponsorship for two young female drivers, with a sponsored Busch Series car waiting whenever one of the women is ready to advance.

Still, the odds are discouraging even for young drivers who win national titles -- "there's hundreds of kids trying to get that one seat," said Steve DeSouza, vice president of Busch operations and special projects at Joe Gibbs Racing. Forty-three cars start every NASCAR race, fewer in the open-wheel series, and local young drivers who fantasize about such a ride recognize that their chances are "slim to none, probably," as Jason Shultz, 15, of Manassas put it.

"You have to be at the national events, run good and hope somebody sees you, you know?" Christopher Hammett said. "That's pretty much all you can hope for."