This is the future of our sport of circle track racing. Keeping them interested and motiva
Ask anybody in the sport of oval track racing about the future and most will say that there won’t be a future unless we get more kids involved in motorsports. But how to get kids involved in the sport and at what age to get them involved can become a political hot potato. We have touched on the subject in a variety of articles over the past five or so years. We know of kids as young as 12 climbing behind the wheel of full-blown Dirt Late Models. We’ve witnessed, firsthand, a 13-year-old wreck an Asphalt Late Model and get injured. Ultimately, there’s a right way and a wrong way to go about getting a youngster involved in motorsports. We’ve talked in the past about the wrong ways, such as parents forcing the child to pursue “their” dream (Ed note: Who’s dream is it really?). But this time around we thought we’d take a look at the right way to groom a future racing star.
Pundits on television might question whether or not a child of 5 years old (or in some cases, younger) could really make a conscious decision that he or she would want to engage in any type of activity with the fervor of an Olympic athlete. After all, these Pre-K tykes are largely only concerned with eating, playing, and watching Barney on TV, right? So isn’t it the parents who define and/or push them into a particular sport?
Quarter Midgets are where many youngsters get their first taste of competition.
Obviously, it’s our job as parents to direct our children to try new things and experience a wide variety of activities so that they can form their own opinions about what they would like to do over the course of their lives, be it bird-watching, banking, or motorsports. That’s our stance here at Circle Track, expose them to everything and let them decide. After all, it’s their lives.
A couple of issues ago, Circle Track highlighted the Ambassador Racing School in Florida and its summer camp. The concept behind the Quarter Midget summer camp is an excellent way to introduce your children to motorsports, it gives them a taste of the competition to see if they truly like it. There are other ways as well.
Take the case of 8-year-old Famous Rhodes who started racing at the age of 6. Not surprisingly, he comes from a racing family. His grandfather was Paul Rhodes a “famous” dirt track racer from Western Pennsylvania who notched more than 100 feature wins and had multiple track championships including three titles in 1983 for the same class at three different tracks (Sharon, Lernerville, and Mercer Speedways). Grandpa used to watch videos of Sprint Car racing with Little Famous. That, coupled with the family’s passion for watching NASCAR on Sundays lit a fire in the kid’s belly.
“I like cars,” says Famous. “I told my dad I liked race cars, then he asked me if I wanted to do it and I said yes.”
Simple enough right?
At the time, the Rhodes lived in Texas and as Famous’s father tells the story the only racing option nearby to them was go-karts. “I wasn’t too keen on karts,” says Famous Rhodes (who shares his name with his son). “But when we moved to California for a job relocation we found Quarter Midget racing.”
Famous Rhodes is one of the students of the legendary Ken Rice, who trained Jeff Gordon. H
Ironically, Famous Sr. never raced cars. “I grew up at the racetrack. My fondest memories as a child are at circle tracks all over the country. But my dad didn’t want us to get into racing, he was very adamant about it. He wanted us to go to school. He was a mechanic his whole life; and that’s not an easy life. He really wanted us to get away from racing, even though on the weekends all we did was go to the racetrack.”
That begs the question, other than racing, what else does Little Famous do? Well he does a lot. Famous plays soccer, rugby, and football. Coupled with a 33-race schedule this season, that’s one busy 8-year-old. But there’s a method to Rhodes’s madness, “We feel that the best thing to do for our children is to give them not only the racing but a physical component as well. They need another avenue to compete in like team sports, because racing is very individual. Once you’re in the cockpit, it’s just you.”
You might think that keeping such a packed schedule would be challenging for any parent to maintain sanity, right? Again, Rhodes uses it almost as what we will call a distraction. “It really takes a lot of time, but what I love about it is I can come home from work and spend a couple hours in the garage working on the cars, Little Famous and I get to talk through what we are going to do with the cars that we get, so it’s a real learning experience of not just about cars but setup variances and tracks and it gives us time to spend together.”
That huge time commitment is a good thing. “It’s not drop your kid off for soccer for a 2-hour game and go, its qualifications in the mornings and heats, then it’s features at night. It’s a 12-hour commitment on a given Saturday or Sunday but that’s what I love about it. I mean you get 12 hours to bond with your son at a track with him and his friends and other parents. It’s a real community experience that you don’t get with any other sport because other sports are just so quick, to be started and done with.”
But this isn’t just Dad and son, the Rhodes make racing a family affair.
Little Famous takes a victory lap with the flag after one of his many wins.
“I love it,” says mom, Sherri. “I still get a little nervous as any mom would, but I love it. I think especially when he does another sport, you go out on the weekend for an hour and it’s done. The racing is a big family. You get to know everybody, you’re together all day. The kids get a lot of interaction with their elders and they learn respect. I think it’s a great environment.”
Parental involvement reflects very positively on the Rhodes’s little racer. When asked if he has fun when his whole family goes to the track? He responded by saying, “Yeah, it gives me more chances of winning.”
“Quarter Midgets are by far the safest sports you can have your child be involved with. You know when looking at statistics over the past 20 years there have been less incidents in that sport in those vehicles than like football, basketball, baseball. And to be honest with you, we have had more injuries in football and soccer than we have ever had in Quarter Midgets,” explains Rhodes.
Rhodes says that Little Famous has flipped his Quarter Midget once and has had some good hits, but he wears a HANS device and has the car built to strict standards, all in an effort to keep him as safe as possible.
Add in the fact that a full main field in the Junior Class (under age 9) consists of eight racers—and in fact, eight is the maximum number of cars allowed on the track at any given time. The smaller number of cars means that there is less chance for a major incident. In fact, the maximum number of cars on the track in any class is 10, so QMA provides for an excellent training ground for young racers.
Rhodes is being trained by the legendary Ken Rice and it’s paying off with win after win.
While Famous is still just 7 years old, the concept of making a career out of racing is very real. Kids latch onto something they love and want to continue it forever, but there is a harsh reality in racing. “You know, it’s something my wife and I struggle with. Making a career out of racing is so difficult,” says Rhodes. “Look at all the major sports, every year the NFL drafts 400 candidates out of college. Baseball drafts something like 720 kids a year, to potentially make it into the minors. Racing NASCAR, Indy, and others, there are just a couple of drivers that make it up. We are talking a handful. So we have tried to instill in Famous a real understanding that this is a tough road.
“He wants to make a run out of it, so we want to give him every opportunity to show his skills beforehand. I would love to see him make it up to dirt track racing to where he can have something to enjoy on the weekends and call his own. And have a professional career outside of racing. But he is dead set on this is what he wants to do.”
The Best Approach
Since Famous runs both USAC .25 and QMA, Rhodes Sr. had the opportunity to strike up a relationship with Kevin Miller at USAC who introduced him to Ken Rice, who coached, among others, some guy named Jeff Gordon. “I met the guy and it was like a done deal,” says Rhodes. “It was a relationship made in heaven. He could put the cars together, could help train Famous, and provide him a way to explore his passion. It’s been no looking back since.”
There is a camaraderie shared by the kids who compete against Famous (standing far left).
Getting on Rice’s program was a no-brainer for Rhodes. “I think it takes away when you’re the dad trying to coach your son. It really hurts you at times because it’s a different bond when you start playing that game with your kid of this is how you should do that. Meanwhile, the kid is feeling something totally different. Having Rice has really allowed me to enjoy more of the sport and just be the mechanic as opposed to being everything for Famous.”
Rhodes says not only is the training aspect of bringing up a young racer important, but it’s critical. “We are very committed to not just the cars and equipment for Famous to be successful, but we invest in training for him. So many times I see parents neglect the coaching components and the kids don’t get the fundamentals. It’s a natural step to want to do, but so few people do it. We have been lucky to have Team Rice and Ken Rice help us with those elements so we can build the fundamentals for Famous which has led us to some success in the short term.”
Ken Rice is a legend in Quarter Midget racing, having done just about everything there is to do in the club including being President. He loves kids and wants to see them do the best they can, but he is a no-nonsense type of guy. “This is the way it is, if you want me to help you then that’s it,” he says. There is no discussion.
But there is a reason for his approach. “You can only teach a child as long as they are having fun and enjoying it. You can’t force them to learn. The old saying is ‘you can pull a rope but you can’t push it.’ As long as the child wants to learn and is having fun, they are going to learn like little sponges and they are going to learn faster than you can teach them. They’re all different and there is no set formula. It’s got to come from them. I ask them what they like about racing and if it’s winning then we are OK if it’s going out and watching the birds fly by, then we got a problem.”
Famous has designs on a career in racing, but his parents are quick to say that they don’t
Rice teaches something he calls reactionary, explaining that he wants his students to react to the situation; he doesn’t want them to think at all. “I don’t want the parents to sit down and tell them how to drive because it’s not gonna work. You have to teach them how to be a robot, and they are not robots. They are individuals; they have to react to something. If you and I are sitting here talking and somebody puts a cigarette in the ash tray, we are engrossed in the conversation, you reach over and set your hand on that cigarette you can’t have to say, ‘Boy, that’s hot. I better move my hand, I don’t want to burn myself,’ you yank your hand away. That’s the reaction I’m looking for. I’m not looking for someone to think about it.”
Rice says that kids racing QMA have just thousandths of a second to make a decision and they have to make several of those per lap. You can’t slow them down by asking them, “What were you thinking?” And parents have a habit of doing that.
“I was watching a thing on Jeff Gordon a year ago, he moved from the inside of the track to the outside passed a car, then bounced back to the bottom,” says Rice. “After the race one of the announcers said how did you do that? And he said, ‘I don’t know.’”
He didn’t know he just did it, that’s what Rice teaches and he does it through trust. “In order to maintain that trust, you can’t fib with them or joke with them (students),” says Rice. “You gotta tell it to them straight once and then get rid of it, you’re done with it. If they don’t believe it, it’s not gonna work.”
“Each child is different. I teach each one a little different but one of the important things is to listen to them. Little Famous is right on. He looks at me with those big eyes, what I tell him goes right in and then he goes out does it.”
Little Famous gets help strapping in from his dad. The elder Rhodes says that racing has h
Over some 54 years of teaching, Rice’s methods and philosophies have helped dozens upon dozens of racers up their game, many to the level of Jeff Gordon. Now Rice’s son and grandson help continue the legacy that he created and Little Famous Rhodes is one of his shining students.
At 8 years old, Rhodes already has four National Championships, something many 9 year olds only dream about. The kid has also won more than 30 features and heats since starting racing in 2009, including the 2010 and 2011 Western Grands, as well as two wins at Gasoline Alley at the Little Brickyard in both Junior Animal and Junior Stock [USAC .25], all major races in Quarter Midget competition.
When it comes to the future for Famous Rhodes, his father has a very defined, very conservative plan that we here at Circle Track think can help out many parents of young racers. “I really want him to continuing honing the skills in Quarter Midgets for the next two years. He needs to continue developing the basics fundamentals in the sport.
“By the time he’s 10 I’d like to see him in the fastest versions of Quarter Midgets that they allow. From there, I would love to get him into 5/8 Sprints here locally (California). Then try to move into USAC Midgets on asphalt, to build that skill set, and then eventually USAC Midgets on dirt. I think from now to five years, when he is 12, he needs to stay in that bracket. Sure, I’d love to get him in Late Models because there are 12- to 15-year-olds, but I want to hold him off. That day will come, so I don’t need to rush it.”
Notice he says that he doesn’t need to rush it. Great advice that could help a lot of racers out there today.