Little wheels, big fun

Blazing-fast cars hitting the straightaway at 45 mph, risking shredded tires, the smell of burning fuel in the air ... all the familiar sights and sounds of big-time racing.

And afterward for the drivers, the winners or the also-rans: homework.

This is quarter midget racing, one of the best-kept secrets in youth sports.

With the Quarter Midgets of America club alone boasting more than 4,000 members and 50 clubs nationwide, this abridged version of oval car racing for youths 5 to 16 - as long as they can fit into the cars - has a grip on many of the youngest racing hopefuls.

Firmly in that grip is one Nathan Whitney, a 10-year-old who attends Helen Haller Elementary on weekdays and maneuvers his quarter midget race car around the Little Wheels' racetrack in Graham on weekends.

Sure, Nathan could bounce a ball or jog around a track. Instead he guns his engine in ovals, clocking laps at Little Wheels in less than seven seconds.

"It feels a little weird (at first)," Nathan says with a shrug. "But afterward it feels better."

And as much as Nathan reveals about his desire for the sport - not much on this particular afternoon - his parents Ron and Tina seem all for it.

"What's neat about the sport is that it's a family sport: He can't race without mom and dad being there," Ron says. "It also teaches him sportsmanship. It's a sport that you have to learn give and take."

To get started, Nathan and his dad had to take some initiative. The two got interested in the sport after hearing about it at a monster truck show at the Tacoma Dome a little more than a year ago.

"(My dad) told me to go to one of the tryout days," Nathan recalls.

The Sequim youth took to quarter midgets quickly. With cars, rules and safety procedures designed specifically for children, quarter midget racers compete on oval tracks about one-twentieth (1/20) of a mile.

Mom was pleased to see the sport has safety as its priority. Quarter midget cars, literally a quarter the size of midget racers that compete on quarter-mile tracks across the country, include such safety features as full roll cages, multi-point seat harnesses and five belts, full face helmets, safety suits, boots and other gear.

The sport, officials insist, has fewer injuries than Little-League football and not one death to mar its image.

"The strict rules made me feel safe (about it)," Tina says.

Nathan's father knows a thing or two about safety. A self-described diehard NASCAR fan, Ron raced on the Olympic Peninsula from 1985 to about 1989 in the demo and mini-stock classes and served as an emergency medical technician at times.

Are there crashes? Sure, Ron says, but if youths ever get hurt it's usually a finger or an ankle.

"No one has ever been killed doing quarter midgets; that's why we went in that direction," Ron says.

Drivers are less concerned about getting to top speed than cuts or bruises. Nathan competes in the Heavy Honda class. As a novice last year, he competed against other novice racers as is the policy for most beginning drivers - that is, only after a three-month-long novice training class.

Fully loaded, Nathan's car weighs about 325 pounds and can get around the track in 6.9 seconds - faster this year with some modifications. Still, Nathan and other drivers get a push start to begin races.

Nathan's parents also like the fact that the sport is gender-friendly. Tina notes there are just as many young girls as boys, and that Little Wheels' best driver is a girl: Kayla Pittman.

For his part, Nathan raced well enough to bring home plenty of hardware his first season.

"He likes the trophies," his mom says.

But, his parents note, most of the young drivers don't take it all too seriously.

"A lot of them go right back to playing after they race," Ron says.

Quarter midget club members tout aspects of the sport that youths and parents can embrace - the family atmosphere, the knowledge and respect for safety and of how cars operate, sportsmanship, coordination and timing, self-reliance, spirit of competition, driving skills, a sense of responsibility. Thanks to that, and likely a healthy nationwide fan base of professional and semi-professional auto racing, the sport has flourished in Washington and nationwide.

At Little Wheels, Ron says, the club gets 60-80 drivers per average weekend, more than 150 for regional races and nearly 600 racers at the Western Grands, held this year in Langley, British Columbia, Canada. A large club in Monroe boasts a 14-race schedule that sees drivers compete in Yakima and Graham to Elma and Portland, Ore.

"The only thing we don't like is the distance," Tina says.

But Nathan and the Whitney pit crew have little choice right now. While the clubs in Graham and Monroe are thriving, there's no quarter midget track on the Olympic Peninsula. Yet.

"I think the more people know about it, the more will get into it," Ron asserts, musing that Nathan may be the only quarter midget racer on the peninsula. That could change, he says, if people saw the draw to this kind of sport.

In a sense, Ron Whitney is trying to give youths on the peninsula what he gives Nathan before the start of every race: one big push start.

To find out more about quarter midget racing, see the Web sites listed in the box or contact the Whitney family at

Quarter midget car specs, classes

Quarter midget cars are built around a tubular frame and are fully suspended with springs or torsion bars and shocks. The bodies are fiberglass, usually painted to the driver's preference. Surrounding the driver is a chrome-moly roll cage and nerf bars. The engines are single cylinder and are manufactured by Honda, Continental, Briggs & Stratton and Deco. In the motor's stock configuration, they produce between 2.5 and 4.0 horsepower. Modifications in the upper classes allow these engines to reach several times the stock horsepower. These air-cooled, four-cycle engines can produce as much as 10,000 rpms in their more highly modified forms.

Quarter midget racing is divided into 14 classes and divisions with ages ranging from 5-16: Junior Novice, Senior Novice, Junior Honda, Senior Honda, Heavy Honda, Junior Super-stock, Senior Super-stock, Heavy Super-stock, Light Mod, Heavy Mod, Light B, Heavy B, Light A, and Heavy A. Additionally quarter midget drivers may graduate to junior half midgets. Junior half-midget drivers may be ages 12-17.

Quarter midgets

on the Web (Little Wheels Club, Graham) (Washington Quarter Midgets Assoc.) (national news, classifieds, etc.)

Michael Dashiell can be reached at miked@sequim

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