Make no mistake about it, a Sprint Car is not a toy. It is a ruthlessly mean, disobedient, and unforgiving machine. Throwing a 14-year-old behind the wheel of a Sprint Car can be a trying, and at times, precarious situation. It is kind of like throwing a 14-year-old with a whip into a cage of 12 snarling lions under the big top. Most would panic and race for the door of the cage, leaving it to someone else to be the next “Clyde Beatty.”
Like anything, there are a few exceptions. There are a few kids who seem mindful of the risks at hand and understand what it takes to make a Sprint Car go fast, and perhaps, more importantly, go straight. One of the adolescents who gets it, is 15-year-old Joel Rayborne of West Covina, California. On April 21st, he will begin his second-year racing Sprint Cars in the Perris Auto Speedway “Young Guns” series, which is comprised of drivers aged 14-25 with no prior Sprint Car experience.
When Rayborne first took on the series in 2017, he was anything but a newbie to racing. He was just four-years-old when his father, Rodney, signed him up for the Pomona Valley Quarter Midget Association. In his second year of competition, he copped his first-ever title when he was crowned “USAC .25 Western District” Champion. It was easy to see at that point that the kid had a special talent.
His experience, patience, and determination quickly shined through in the “Young Guns” category. Over the years, some in the class seemed to stomp on the loud pedal and close their eyes. Rayborne was the exact opposite; he exhibited the unflappability of a veteran. Like a seasoned pro, he observed and analyzed the moves of others before taking action. Clearly, his calm at the wheel was beyond his years.
“It did not bother me getting into a Sprint Car as it [driving a Sprint Car] is my dream,” Rayborne said. “You have to keep fighting and trying to realize that dream. The hard adjustment I had getting into a Sprint Car was using my throttle more to get around the corner. We did some off-season practicing, and it took me about two test days to learn that.”
Rayborne’s father wanted to be sure that his son had a good mentor. He brought in long-time Sprint Car driver, car builder, and fabricator, Tobey Sampson. If the blunt Oklahoma native saw something he did not like, he addressed it straight away. Likewise, he would not have hesitated to walk away from the deal if he felt the kid would not heed his guidance.
“He is such a level-headed kid,” Sampson said. “He is not scared of it. He has a good level head for a kid as young as he is. And, he is a very good listener. He respects the equipment and knows if he wads it up he may not come back to the next race.”
The kid encountered a couple scary situations during 2017. First came a nasty flip that saw his car beaten and battered. Rather than calling it a night, the driver and the team put their noses to the grindstone, patched the car together, and amazingly came back to finish second in the main event.
On another occasion, the teenage racer came face-to-face with a race car driver’s worst fear – fire! It happened when his car burst into flames coming to the checkered flag and a second-place finish last June. Rather than panic, Rayborne slowed the car and brought it to a safe stop just past the finish line. He then calmly unbuckled and got out with the car still ablaze. Seconds later, he patiently answered questions from legendary infield announcer Chris Holt. You would have been hard-pressed to tell if he had just been on fire or stood up from lunch. There was a reason for that calm.
“We practiced what to do in case that happened,” the West Covina High School student said. “We practiced getting unbuckled and getting out of the car. I did not get scared because I knew what to do from practicing.”
Besides those two instances, Rayborne’s smooth, patient style, kept him near the front of the pack all season long. In the eight-race series, he had one win, four second-place finishes, he finished third twice, and was fourth once.
The 2018 season could be an interesting year for the now 15-year-old. Plans have him racing in the “Young Gun” series at Perris once again, but he may end up in the USAC/CRA Series. It all depends on the car counts in the “Young Guns.” If he does end up running with the big boys in USAC/CRA, Sampson has full confidence in his protégé.
“You see a lot of kids who are all over the place on the racetrack,” Sampson said. “Joel is not like that. You will never see him running it up to the fence coming into the turn and try to cut back to the bottom in the middle of the corner. He is too smart for that. I am never worried about him doing something stupid. As I said before, he respects the equipment and he will not drive over his head in USAC/CRA.”
Whichever series Rayborne ends up competing in, he will be doing it in a historical car. Last year, in all but one race, Rayborne drove for Dunkel Motorsports. For 2018, he will be wheeling the black #12B car. The car, which comes courtesy of Jim Blakesley, was formerly owned by legendary Southern California speed shop owner and hot rod aficionado Don Blair. As well as driving the Blakesly car at Perris, Rayborne may contest some races in the USAC Western Midget Series.
“If there are not enough cars for the “Young Gun” series, we will jump up to USAC,” Rayborne declared. “We also have a Midget and we are just trying to find some sponsors to finish it up. We plan on running it a few times later in the year. We plan to be at Santa Maria, Ventura, Bakersfield, and maybe make a trip up north. Hopefully, we’ll make the Turkey Night Grand Prix, too.”