Kids on the fast track

Melanie Stetson Freeman/The Christian Science Monitor
The winner parades around the track with the checkered flag. Children from ages 5 to 16 participate in Quarter Midget Racing around a 1/4-mile-long track. Parents - especially fathers - are the crew. This is the training ground for future NASCAR drivers.

"It's very interesting, strapping your kid into a 40-m.p.h. car at 6 years old," says Charles Geer. But every weekend and three times during the week, he does just that.

Mr. Geer and his son, Austin, are members of the Metro Atlanta Quarter Midget Racing Association. Every Saturday, the parking lot at their track across from the Lanier Speedway is filled with huge trailers – the kind NASCAR drivers use – filled with little cars and all their accouterments: tools, helmets, jumpsuits… everything needed to outfit a driver and keep his or her car on track.

"This is a sport where the parents are the mechanics, the child is the driver," says Mike Smith, father and pit crew for Chandler, 7, who is eager to get moving.

With about 4,000 drivers and 60 clubs nationwide, Quarter Midget requires full-family commitment in terms of time and money. Dads constantly adjust and fine-tune the one-cylinder, four-cycle engines, as well as wheels and bodies. Moms and siblings tape racing numbers onto cars, sell refreshments, or keep score in the air-conditioned booth high above the small track.

The gear and ancillary costs are high. Cars alone cost between $2,000 and $9,000, not to mention track membership and training.

Children ages 5 to 16 compete in the sport billed as safer than football or skateboarding. Full roll bars, seat and shoulder belts, neck and arm restraints, full-face helmets, fire-resistant jumpsuits, flagmen, and hyperobservant parents stationed around the track protect the young drivers from harm.

Driving a race car is a dream come true for many boys – and some girls.

Emilee Riley, 14, has a pink tank top and long blond hair. She competes against the boys. "I want to be the next NASCAR racer," she says.

Someday, maybe a handful of these young drivers will be talented enough to turn pro, but for now, the look that Austin Geer gives his father as he prepares to race is reward enough. •

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