Devyn Kilby leads a pack of young racers through Turn 4 at Madras Speedway. Photo by Jerry
Holli Hughes and Chrystail Marquez sat on the fender of the pumpkin orange Camaro and talked about things that teen girls talk about. School. Sports. Boys. Tire Pressures.
"They are really important," says the 14-year-old driver known as "Chrystail the Pistol" at Madras Speedway, a quarter-mile clay oval carved out of the high desert sand in central Oregon.
Chrystail, Hurricane Holli, and Jesse "Big Bubba" Roberts are part of the next generation of dirt track racers honing their driving skills as part of the track's Junior Division, created to attract kids between 12 and 15 to the oval.
"I heard about the Juniors during a promoter's meeting about four years ago," says Debi Arnold, who runs the oval with her husband. "It was pretty popular at some of the tracks in the Midwest, and it sounded like it might work for us. It started kind of slow. I think the first year there were only about six kids, but we picked up a few more every year. Now some of our first crop of Juniors are moving up into other divisions or other series."
On most Saturday nights, a field of about a dozen young drivers take to the oval in what has become one of the most popular race groups.
"It's a different crowd in the stands when the Juniors race," says Gary Adams, the track announcer. "There will be groups of 'Hurricane' fans and pockets of 'Big Bubba' fans, and they really let go when the kids come onto the track. The crowd really gets into the kids during the race. It's a lot of fun to see the fans so involved."
"They drive a lot cleaner than the so-called adult drivers," Arnold says. "We have better races and fewer wrecks. And if the kids have a problem on the track, they are the first ones to jump out of the car at the end of the race and apologize. The parents could learn a lot from them."
Chrystail Marquez is expected to help on race day by swapping tires, checking air pressure
The high desert is mostly irrigated farm land dotted by small towns with lots of miles in between, so most of the drivers see one another only during Saturday night races. Only a couple of the kids attend the same school, so the first hours of every race night consists of catching up on everything that is happening in their young lives, in between doing chores on the car such as tightening lug nuts, checking fluids, and setting tire pressures.
There are no standard rules for Junior Division racing, and not all tracks offer it as a class. At Madras Speedway, the cars are fullsize, 3,000-pound American sedans-it's where old Camaros go to die-prepared to the Sportsman Class rules, similar to Street Stocks or Limiteds at other tracks.
The Sportsman class was picked because the cars are priced low enough for a family man to build one (about $1,200 beyond the purchase price of a running car), and they are sturdy enough to survive the rigors of two sets of hot laps, trophy dashes, and main events in one night.
Madras insists that both parents sign the waiver to allow a youngster to compete. Arnold says there was some concern about letting drivers as young as 12 into fullsize cars, powered by V-8s, but in three years there have been no problems.
"A lot of kids at 12 have already [spent] a number of years driving karts," she says. "It's a bit of a transition, but they all seem to handle it well."
"The biggest difference is how slowly the car reacts, compared to a kart," says Tyson "The Tyrant" Nash, who moved into the fullsize cars after winning a closet full of trophies during six years in karts.
Jesse Roberts gets sideways in the Camaro he and his dad built for the Junior Division at
"The cars are actually harder because everything takes so much more time," says the 14-year-old. "You have to think about what you want the car to do a long time before you want it to do it."
Like most of the kids, Tyson shares his car with a parent. Unlike the other Juniors, it is his mother, Sandy Toms, who is the second driver.
"He's gotten pretty good," says the proud mom. He's been strong enough to sweep three races in a row, with wins in the trophy dash and A-Main.
Tyson missed a number of races early in the season, so later in the year he was trying to catch up with the drivers who were running the full schedule, climbing up the points list one weekend at a time.
Jesse Roberts and his dad, Chaz, shared a car when Jesse began racing, but when money got tight, Chaz hung up his helmet.
"We couldn't afford to have both of us run, and I had so much fun watching him that I didn't want to give that up," Chaz says. "It wasn't a hard decision to make. Jesse was shagging wrenches for me since he was 5. As soon as he was old enough to know how to use them, he was working on the car. I owe him this chance to race."
"The first car got wrecked," says Jesse. "This was my dad's street car. We kinda looked around at what we owned and figured that this was the best one we had, so we began stripping it. Ten days later it was at the track. We did everything-the rollcage, the engine, the transmission, everything."