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Photos by Ray Hymer, Jesse Easterling and Jimmy Magahern

01“Racing families are just like any average families,” insists Vanessa Hymer, a 16-year-old El Mirage girl who’s been into two-wheeled racing for about the past five years. “Except they get hurt a lot more!”

057-year-old Zane “Insane” Almon (left) with friend and competitor Drake Edwards, 6. “You see them playing around together like regular kids before the races," says Tammie Easterling. "But then they get in their cars, and all of a sudden they put on what we call their ‘race face.’ They get very serious!”

02Flipping a car over is “kind of fun,” admits 11-year-old Queen Creek driver Maggee Miller, one of a surprising number of girls involved in the sport. “Except you’re always worried someone else will hit you.”

03Parents coach from the sidelines, signaling the kids whether to go wide or tight on the turns and which cars to watch. Still, if a driver decides it’s more fun to bump his buddy on that last turn, all dad’s manic gesturing ultimately adds up to zilch.

06Cody Welker, now at the Quarter Midget Association of America’s cut-off age of 17, has been racing for the past ten years. His dad, Dave, raced the same track on South Mountain in the 1960's.

04Parents can spend between $1,200 to $5,000 to buy a decent quarter midget racer and then can spend countless hours and dollars souping up the cars and traveling to weekend racing events with their kids from Sacramento, CA to Silver Springs, CT.

Splash

Published by Times Publications, March 2010

He’s got a name tailor-made for NASCAR glory and a track record rivaling the best drivers in his class across the nation. And he’s missing his four front baby teeth.

At 7 years old, Phoenix’s Zane “Insane” Almon is a terror on the tracks in the quarter-midget racing scene, where kids ages 5 to 17 race miniaturized race cars — roughly one quarter the size of standard midget racers — at speeds of up to 70 mph in what’s become known as the “little league of NASCAR.”

“He’s been racing since he was about four-and-a-half,” says dad Chuck Almon, whose older sons, now ages 18 and 20, also raced quarter-midgets and now volunteer as part of Zane’s pit crew. “He gets a lot of pressure from his older brothers, who both did really well in it. But that’s his main competition right now.”

Almon points to 6-year-old Drake Edwards, a little taller than Zane, who is now sitting shoulder-to-shoulder with his rival on one of Almon’s toolboxes — the adorable pair looking like they just stepped off Sesame Street, were it not for their junior racing jackets. In about 30 minutes, the two will be ruthlessly duking it out on the 1/20th mile oval at the Valley of the Sun Quarter Midget Association’s track at South Mountain Park in the 2010 Desert Springs Nationals, an important match that has drawn contestants from Phoenix, Tucson and Albuquerque. But right now, they’re simply two best buds mixing shop talk about reigning stock-car kings like Kyle Busch and Carl Edwards with occasional complaints about elementary school cafeteria food and homework.

“I flipped over once — because of him!” Zane says, elbowing his friend, both chuckling. “I tried to pass him, but my tires hit the wall. It was scary!”

“It’s great watching the kids at these events,” says Tammie Easterling, who, along with her husband, Jesse, travels the country in a motorhome digitally photographing racing events and selling laser-printed copies in the parking lots immediately afterwards. “You see them playing around together like regular kids before the races. But then they get in their cars, and all of a sudden they put on what we call their ‘race face.’ They get very serious!”

Even more serious are their parents, who typically shell out a minimum of $1,200 to $5,000 to buy a decent 120cc Honda engine racer and then can spend countless hours and dollars souping up the cars and traveling to weekend racing events with their kids from Sacramento, CA to Silver Springs, CT. During about the tenth lap of Zane and Drake’s race, two other drivers momentarily lock tires and the inside car is tipped about 45 degrees to its left side, causing whoops and hollers to be heard in the stands above the engine noise, even long after the car bounces back in position.

“It’s usually the parents who act like idiots at these events,” acknowledges Danny Cappello, whose 14-year-old son, Dylan, has won 10 national championships. “The parents are losing their minds over something another kid did to theirs, and meanwhile the kids themselves are back playing together five minutes after the races are over!”

Part of the challenge of being a parent to a kid racer includes overcoming the frustration with your grade schooler’s desire to play bumper cars with your expensive investment — not to mention risking their own limbs. Flipping a car over is “kind of fun,” admits 11-year-old Queen Creek driver Maggee Miller, one of a surprising number of girls involved in the sport. “Except you’re always worried someone else will hit you.”

“The problem is, when you’re racing a kid, you have no control. You’re helpless,” explains Cappello. “As soon as you push them off the starting line, it’s completely in their hands.”

Parents aggressively coach from the sidelines, signaling the kids whether to go wide or tight on the turns and which cars to watch. Still, if a driver decides it’s more fun to bump his buddy on that last turn, all dad’s manic gesturing ultimately adds up to zilch.

“As much as you might want them to think like professional race car drivers,” Cappello says with a laugh, “they’re still kids.”

Fast Families

Beyond soccer moms and softball dads lies the oft-maligned subculture of racing parents: that couple with the big trailer parked in front of the house and the kids with the loud go-karts and dirt bikes, whose fierce dedication to their childrens’ particular sport is often badmouthed as plain reckless, rednecked rearin’.

A couple of years ago, the hit ABC reality show Wife Swap had easy fun typecasting Gilbert’s Chuck and Stephanie Sundstrom, a pair of Firebird International Raceway employees with four kids more into racing than hanging up their clothes at home. Pitted against a prim Massachusetts mom obsessed with clean countertops and well-pressed dresses, the kicked-back couple and their gear-grinding young ’uns proved perfectly cast as that “other family” in a show dramatizing parenting extremes. Tired of fielding potshots over the laundry-draped pool table that became the episode’s punchline, the couple has since become a bit more media wary.

In their defense, racing families are often the tightest tribes on the block, easily spending more quality time together on a single shared pursuit than those who only assemble for ballgames and gymnastic meets.

“When you first see these people at a race track,” says Keith Schwalenberg, a Connecticut-born indie filmmaker whose 2009 documentary, Drive (available at quartermidgetmovie.com), follows the families of several young quarter-midget racers, “the last thing you’re thinking is, ‘Here are some really good parents.’ You’re thinking, ‘Look at all these trailer-trash couples putting their kids in these dangerous machines and letting them go wild!’

“But as you spend more time around them, you see these aren’t like parents who drop their kids off at soccer practice or maybe spend an hour or two watching a game. They spend the entire weekend with their kids. They show up Friday night and they don’t leave until Sunday night. And they’re with their kids the whole time.”

“It has been fun, expensive and sometimes scary,” allows Dave Leatham, a Mesa dad whose two sons and two daughters started out riding pocket bikes — scaled-down versions of Grand Prix-style motorcycles that can reach speeds of up to 60 mph, when modified — and have since graduated to riding full-sized motorcycles. The hobby has resulted in plenty of family outings — “everything from camping trips to hospital trips,” Leatham says. “But it has also brought us close together as a family as we shared it all.”

“Racing families are just like any average families,” insists Vanessa Hymer, a 16-year-old El Mirage girl who’s been into two-wheeled racing for about the past five years. “Except they get hurt a lot more!”

Hymer, who started out on pocket bikes but eventually moved on to dirt bikes to join a racing organization (something absent from the pocket-bike scene), admits she’s had her share of injuries on the way to the two class championships she’s won so far.

“I’ve broken my collar bone and I’ve broken a couple of ribs and sprained my wrists a few times,” says the sole female sibling among five racing brothers in the Hymer house. After nearly slicing off a thumb in a chain sprocket — an injury that’s required five surgeries to re-attach and rehabilitate the digit — Hymer concedes she’s no longer quite as fearless on the track as she used to be. “Once I got back to riding, it just didn’t feel the same. But now I’m getting back up there [in bravery].”

“The kids have no fear,” says Schwalenberg, who, along with his older brother, raced quarter-midgets himself as a child. “But I still see the dads cringe whenever a car flips over or goes flying into the wall, and the moms jumping over the fence to go check on their kids — who always have a huge grin on their faces as soon as they lift the visors!”

The cars are built for safety, with heavy-duty roll cages and five-point harnesses that most parents consider safer than go-karts. Still, it’s the perilous nature of the sport that Schwalenberg says binds the families so closely together, from choosing the tires to coordinating the hand signals flashed during the race.

“There’s no other sport I’ve seen that has that kind of connection, because you’re so reliant on each other as a team,” he says. “And that inherently bonds them. There’s a huge bond of trust between the parents and their kids. That in itself is pretty special.”

Hanging Up the Helmet

The classified pages of the online forums dedicated to youth racing are constantly full of “retirement sales,” listing thousands of dollars worth of pocket bikes and quarter-midget cars the sellers’ children have inevitably outgrown.

“Yeah, this is my boy’s last year,” says Dave Welker, whose son Cody, now at the Quarter Midget Association of America’s cut-off age of 17, has been racing for the past ten years. “He’s just getting too big for the car anymore.”

For Cody, who on this race day seems more content to tailgate party with his friends than tend to his car, there appears to be little sadness. But it’s a bittersweet season for his dad.

“I raced these style cars when I was a kid — at this same track, back in the ‘60s,” Welker says. “And my oldest son raced this track in the ‘80s.” Forty years ago, Welker recalls, this stretch of land at the foot of South Mountain also held tracks for young soapbox racers and roller derby queens. “Wallace and Ladmo used to do shows here all the time. Oh, it was a great scene.”

Some race retirees, like Zane Almon’s older brothers, manage to stay in the scene by mentoring younger siblings on their hand-me-down race cars, and the more serious progress to sprint and stock cars. Often the adults get back in the game as grandparents, when their grown children begin training their own kids.

“Years ago, I ran my own kids in this,” says Jan Sneva, himself a former midget-car racer whose brother Tom won the Indianapolis 500 in 1983. “Now my girlfriend’s granddaughter is into it, so I’ve been helping her.”

The granddaughter, Maggee Miller, is clearly delighted to be the center of attention for not only her mom, Lisa Dix, who serves on the Phoenix QMA chapter’s board, but also for her grandmother and Sneva, who acts as her crew chief.

“The men typically are ex-racers,” says Sneva. “And the wives, moms and grandmothers are typically the administrators and scorekeepers of the racing organizations. And then, of course, the kids are the drivers. So it’s not like Little League baseball, where the parents are just watching their kids play. In this, the parents are just as involved as the kids.”

That involvement can consume most weekends — QMA’s tracks in Phoenix and Tucson each hold races on alternating weekends, and Albuquerque’s season picks up when Arizona’s breaks. And in the summer, when kids are out of school, the bigger races — including the Eastern and Western Grand Nationals, held in Connecticut and Colorado, respectively, and the Gasoline Alley Nationals, held at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway — keep racing families, who tend to own their own businesses, “caravaning” across the country.

For all of that time investment, there’s no real money to be won; the most kids can score may be an occasional $500 savings bond. “You’re racing for plastic trophies, essentially,” says Cappello, whose son has netted approximately 300 such baubles, and is now moving on to mini sprint cars. “And you can spend upwards of $50,000 a year to get ’em. You get a handful of trophies that are prestigious, and then the rest go in the back of the garage, or in the garbage.”

And if it’s all over way too soon, most racing parents say, well, that’s all the more reason to put in as much time in the pits with their kids as possible.

“Those childhood years,” Cappello says, echoing a familiar refrain particularly appropriate to an activity where parents literally watch their kids whisk by them in a constant blur, “go by really, really fast.”

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