The first kid racer most of us knew was animated, not real. Speed Racer was his name, and he drove into our worlds every Saturday morning on television, wheeling the too-cool Mark 5 and winning every race he entered.
In case you missed it, today's Speed Racers are all real, and most all are still in school. They sometimes even spend their time away from the books getting ready to race on the weekends. There's just something about a 10-year-old in a driving suit, taking things very seriously, that sets off the curiosity button in all of us.
Kid Racing is big, it's hot, and it's here to stay.
According to INEX, the sanctioning body for the immensely popular Legends, Thunder Roadsters, and Bandoleros, approximately 30 percent of its 4,500-plus members are age 15 or younger, and when you add in those still in school, the number is more like 40 percent.
INEX's primary entry-level class is the Bandolero, which is a half-scale stock car with a tube frame and a peppy little 30hp Briggs & Stratton Vanguard engine that can rocket the little cars to about 70 mph. The tube frame is welded with a solid overhead support and extra protection on the driver's side-although the driver sits basically in the center of the car. It has a 70-inch wheelbase, is 47 inches wide, and nearly 11 feet long. It weighs, with driver, about 750 pounds and uses 7-inch BFGoodrich tires and Bilstein coilover shock absorbers. Steel bumpers protect the fiberglass body shell.
Bandoleros race in three classes-Bandits for 8 to 11-year-olds, Young Guns for drivers 12 to 16, and Outlaws for drivers 17 and over. The neat thing is all three classes use exactly the same car, so the progression is good for nine years, if a parent so decides. The car only has 150 moving parts, half that of a Legends Car, and a centrifugal clutch so shifting is not required.
According to Jason Foxworthy, car sales and parts manager for 600 Racing, the exciting thing about Bandolero racing is that a family can field a car for a season for less than $10,000. "The car is going to run you about $6,900 and you can use an enclosed or open trailer," Foxworthy said. "You can get an open trailer from about $800, to $2,500 for an enclosed trailer. You would need some tools, and if you don't have any of that, you're looking at another $2,000. So you're looking at an initial cost of under $10,000. The initial hurdle is the cost of the car. Once you have a car, you'll spend an average of $2,000-$3,000 a season racing. That's tires, oil, entry fees, everything."
There has not been a significant injury in Bandolero racing, and Foxworthy says that is a major selling point. "Not only is there the safety factor, but the affordability is good too," he said. "If you race 30 times a season, you're going to go through 2 or 211/42 sets of tires. For the Legends car, it's mostly the same way. With our cars, everything is spec, so everyone has to run the same tire, the same shocks, the same everything. The engines are sealed so you can't get into them, and that keeps the cost really low. That is the biggest thing. We take the cost out of racing. We take the tire bill and reduce it dramatically as well as what the engine costs. You don't have a $5,000-$10,000 rebuild on these engines."
INEX Executive Director Darrell Krentz echoed Foxworthy, saying that other forms of racing are not structured that way.
"One great thing about the Bandolero is it's not an overly complicated race car," Krentz said. "It's very simple, straightforward, and easy to work on. You don't have to be an ASE certified mechanic with a $20,000 toolbox to work on a Bandolero. That encourages parents to get involved in a sport they may not be very well versed in.
"Even go-karts-you'll see a lot of different tires and engines and a lot of technology going into it. A Bandolero team, they don't have racks of tires and different engines. They just have a Bandolero and a lawn chair and a Craftsman toolbox. More often than not they'll have two lawn chairs because they spend a lot of time in one. I used to be a Legends car dealer before I came here, and that's what I would tell my customers-the first thing to do is to get a comfortable lawn chair because you don't have to work on them a lot. That really applies to Bandoleros."
Family InvolvementThe feeder system for Bandoleros is, ironically enough, go-karts and quarter midgets, the other two main forms of Kid Racing in this country.
Amanda Harrell, a 14-year-old from nearby Belmont, North Carolina, is in her first year as a Young Gun driver in INEX events at Lowe's Motor Speedway. Her father, Jeff, was a World Karting Association go-kart racer in the past, and her seven-year-old brother Jacob will go from karts to Bandoleros next season.
"This is my first year, and I love it. I love NASCAR, too," she said. "I thought if the guys can do it, then so can I. It's been excellent."
Her mother, Susan, said that her nerves calmed down somewhat as Amanda's first season progressed. "At first, I was a nervous wreck. I had to take an Imodium before every race, and that's the God's honest truth. I didn't eat. Now, she's more comfortable in the car and I'm more comfortable with her in it. I'll probably still be nervous when Jacob starts. He's coming out of go-karts, where he did very well."
Susan Harrell said she prefers Bandolero racing to karts, but insists that the karts offer a valuable training tool to young racers. "Karting seems to take longer, it's more drawn out, and it's dirty, because you are racing on dirt," she said. "I do feel that a child coming into racing needs that dirt experience, so when they get on the asphalt they can tell their parents what the car is doing. It gives them a good feel."
As a family, Susan Harrell said that the four of them spend at least four nights a week prepping the cars to race. "It's kind of an ongoing thing with both kids being in school," she said. "A lot of times, after school, they come in and do their homework, and then we go take the cars apart and make sure everything is right on them. We set the toe and camber, so I would say we spend at least four nights a week making sure the car is ready to come out here."
Benny Mingo, a 15-year-old African-American driver from Kannapolis, North Carolina, has a different story. A friend of two-time NASCAR Busch Series champion Randy LaJoie's son Corey, Mingo races in one of the elder LaJoie's old FINA driving suits. It's his first season as a driver, too.
"I've been working on Corey LaJoie's car for two years, and I got in the car one day and I was pretty good, running close to Corey's lap times," he said. "Randy just decided one day to look at one, and we finally bought it."
Mingo spent four years racing go-karts before making the jump. "It's the speed," he laughed. "It's knowing you can go fast without getting caught. Just jumping into it and learning how to drive it is much different than a go-kart because of the suspension. A go-kart doesn't have one."
Mingo said he plans to graduate to mini-stocks soon, probably out at Concord Motorsport Park. "I want to do this for a living," he said.
If nothing else, Kid Racing is planting seeds for the future-one of the core reasons that H.A. "Humpy" Wheeler, founder of the Legends Car, and road racing great Elliot Forbes-Robinson, employed when they started the class back in the early '90s. They wanted to give young racers a chance to meld themselves into the sport at an early age.