We’ve all heard someone say “Check out that kid. He may be the next Jeff Gordon!” The story of a West Coast, grass roots kid who moves east in hopes of being discovered by the good old boys in NASCAR country was glamorized by Hollywood actors in the movie Days of Thunder. In today’s world, the rise to stardom at an early age in auto racing isn’t uncommon. We’ve seen the steady drop in the average age of competitors over the last few decades.
Track promotors, media journalists and the network commentators all love to talk about the “Young Guns” making headlines. Kids barely past the puberty stage winning races and moving up isn’t breaking news. However, when Jeff Gordon’s father, John Bickford packed up and took Jeff to Indiana from the Golden State at the age of 13, the racing world had no clue just how much of an impact that move would have on our sport.
At the time, racing was full of colorful stars. Some were fierce competitors with mild temperaments. Others were flamboyant on and off the track. Before the advancements in safety, the sport was not only dangerous, it was lethal. The general consensus was that racing was a “man’s sport”, as many believed that there was no place for women and children behind the wheel of a race car. Thankfully, times have changed.
The latest trend that seems to be turning heads these days is the scouting of racers at a very young age from smaller tracks. Outlaw Karts (flat go-karts with roll cages and full containment seats and belts) and Quarter Midgets have proven to crank out a ton of talent. This generation of the racing community can attribute some of the recent popularity and “new blood” in the grandstands to the likes of young stars like Kyle Larson, Rico Abreu, Shane Golobic, and Logan Seavey.
The Chili Bowl has shown that same trend each year, it appears to attract a younger crop of racers. When you look a the list of recent winners of this most prestigious event, it is fascinating just how young they have been the last few years. Another thing they have in common is a heritage in grass-roots dirt track oval racing.
Five-time Chili Bowl winner Sammy Swindell was the last of the “old guys” to take home a driller. That was in 2009 – exactly a decade ago. Sammy’s son, Kevin Swindell was the beginning of the changing of the guard. His four wins were followed by a very popular victory in 2014 by young Bryan Clauson. Rico Abreu was next to take home a pair of Golden Drillers in 2015 and 2016, and Christopher Bell has won back-to-back-to-back the last three years.
Another future star who cut her teeth in the Outlaw Karts is Karsyn Elledge. She made her Chili Bowl debut this year piloting the potent Tucker-Boat Motorsports #83. Karsyn was also born and raised in Mooresville, North Carolina. Currently she resides in Indianapolis, and attends Indiana University Purdue University Indiana, where she is a college cheerleader. She joked during a local media interview this week that people say to her she has both “the most girly thing and the most non-girly thing you can do” as her activities away from school.
Karsyn’s racing career is something that some might say was inevitable. In her words, “I guess I didn’t have a choice.” After-all, she comes from a rich racing bloodline. Her grandfather is Dale Earnhardt Senior, and Dale Junior is her uncle. As if that wasn’t enough incentive to start racing, her father, Jimmy Elledge has a background in Nascar and go-kart racing as well. Jimmy also competes at the Chili Bowl Nationals. He is the current owner of QRC Karts. For as long as she can remember, she has spent her weekends hanging out at Millbridge Speedway in North Carolina.
At the age of 9, Karsyn made her first start in the Box Stock division and has been hooked ever since. She has raced all over the country, including several trips to California to do battle with the West Coast regulars. She has a Junior Late Model race on her racing resume, which took place on the larger pavement oval at Hickory Motor Speedway. We asked her what her plans are moving forward. Karsyn replied that she secured a full-time seat this season and will compete for the 2019 USAC National Midget Series Championship.
A trip to the Clauson-Marshall Racing (CMR) camp gave us an opportunity to catch up with another young talent on the rise. Cole Bodine is from Rossville, Indiana. Prior to the Chili Bowl, he only had a dozen or so full midget races under his belt. Cole was selected to wheel the team’s #57BC entry in his sophomore Chili Bowl effort.
Cole Bodine’s racing career started in Quarter Midgets. Although similar in size to go-karts, Quarter Midgets are scaled-down versions of full midget chassis. They have suspension, as opposed to the rigid go-kart chassis, and are run on both dirt and pavement. When Cole was old enough, he jumped at the chance to move up to micro midgets.
The racing community in Indiana are traditionalists. They are partial to non-wing racing. Largely due to the hot, dry weather during the summer months, the tracks are often dry slick. Therefore, Cole had to learn throttle control and how to conserve tires.
We asked Cole if he had done any winged micro racing. “Yeah, a little, but not much” Cole answered. He continued “It was fun, and sometimes easier. But, you had to have money and a better motor. I liked the non-wing deal because it was more about the driver, more technical.”
Not long ago, Cole Bodine sent Tim Clauson an email asking him if he had any openings at CMR. He was told he could come hang out at the shop, but no promises were made. Cole figured he’d come spend a week or two with the team. “Weeks turned into months, and I was lucky enough to get hired as a crew member” Cole said.
Then, just before the team was to head to a race at Southern Illinois Raceway, CMR driver Zeb Wise was hurt in an accident. Cole was fortunate enough to be given a shot to fill in temporarily while Zeb healed. He took full advantage of the audition. In just his first USAC race, Cole lead from the drop of the green flag until finally being overtaken on the last lap to finish Second to series standout Chris Windom.
Cole is currently one of the mechanics on CMR’s USAC National Sprint Car Team, and has impressed team members with his abilities both on and off the track. His racing plans beyond the 2019 Chili Bowl are undetermined. He has his sights set on trying to land a full-time ride on the National circuit.
Driving the #72 Keith Kunz Motorsports entry, Sam was another rookie contender in the 33rd running of the Lucas Oil Chili Bowl Nationals presented by General Tire. He came to the team with little experience in full midgets, but not short of laps on dirt tracks scattered all over the United States.
Sam told us that his background is in flat karts. He has grown accustomed to racing several divisions of karts at each event. Oftentimes, Sam’s team would enter him in 7 different classes each race night. When you multiply that by running races in Georgia, Kansas, North Carolina, South Carolina, California and other states in between each season, the experience this kid has racked up in a short time is more than that of competitors his senior.
Having only one season of racing with KKM, Sam admitted he had some learning to do, but he was gaining confidence and learning to communicate with the team. We asked him what he found to be the most challenging so far at KKM. He explained that with a team as large as KKM, with such a diverse pool of talent, it was hard to digest all of the advice that is thrown at him. “I try to just listen to one team member (for input).” Smart kid.
We weren’t done yet. There was another rising star in a hot pink Keith Kunz Motorsports entry we had to get to know. McKenna Haase made the trip from her hometown of Des Moines, Iowa, to sling some clay and hopefully open some doors for future opportunities. The last of the KKM entries to be announced, McKenna strapped into the #71X with very limited midget racing experience before arriving at this year’s Chili Bowl. “I ran two other midget races, but they were on tracks smaller than here, and they didn’t have a cushion” she told us.
McKenna started racing Outlaw Karts at age 13, which is a few year later than the others we’ve discussed. However, she is obviously a quick study and has wasted no time mastering her craft. Now 21 years old, McKenna has seven seasons of racing experience to fall back on. From Outlaw Karts she moved up to the micro midget ranks. After a short stint there, she felt confident enough to strap into a 305 cubic inch winged sprint car at the wicked-fast, half-mile at Knoxville Raceway.
It wasn’t ever easy for her. After all, there haven’t been too many females aggressive enough to attempt to climb behind the wheel of such a beast at the famed oval, let alone excel in one. For McKenna, however, the statistics don’t matter.
Despite criticism and a lack of respect from some of her competitors, McKenna silenced all those who doubted her as she became the first woman to win at the historic track. Before the end of the 2018 season, she had accomplished this feat twice and solidified her spot in the sprint car racing history books forever.
McKenna’s qualifying races did not go as planned on Thursday night. Obviously dejected, she wasn’t thrilled to recount the evening with us. However, she was gracious enough to answer a few questions. We wanted to know if she was able to take away some things that could be used in a positive way on Saturday. “I learned some things, I guess … but, I’m just disappointed in how everything went,” she expressed. “I knew what I needed to do, but I was nervous and didn’t seem to get the car to do what I wanted.”
We think she is being pretty hard on herself. This joint has been known to make even the most skilled veterans look like amateurs. In addition, there are some big differences between how a winged sprint car reacts compared to the much lighter, non-wing midget. According to McKenna, the most difficult thing to get used to was being sideways. In her words, “In these (midget) cars, you need to slide the corners. I’m used to having to keep my car straight and be smooth.”
There was one other “Young Gun” hanging out this week with the KKM gang who grabbed our attention. Her name is Mariah Ede. Although too young to be entered in this year’s Chili Bowl, we have a feeling she is going to be a name to remember. At only 13 years of age, Mariah will be starting her third full season in Outlaw Karts in 2019. She will tackle a very ambitious schedule which consists of over 70 races in multiple states.
Mariah’s pedigree is full of racing blood. Her grandfather, Fred Ede, was a successful racer of hardtops and supermodifieds in California in the 1970s. Once retired from driving, he fielded championship-caliber USAC Silver Crown cars for a list of drivers who included Jeff Gordon, Jimmy Sills, Ryan Newman, and Kenny Irwin. Fred’s son (Mariah’s dad) Chad Ede, grew up racing Quarter Midgets on the West Coast and was the 1986 Dirt Grand National Champion.
In addition to racing, Mariah has a passion for horses and has done rather well in equestrian events when she isn’t racing. Juggling her different schedules while still going to school full-time can be difficult. Mariah wouldn’t have it any other way. She pointed out that traveling to several tracks is ideal, because she feels it helps her adapt better to different conditions. When we asked Mariah what she liked most about racing so far, her answer was short and simple: “The speed!” We absolutely love that.
Each year it seems the average age of the rookie contenders is shrinking. Despite having fewer trips around the sun, these kids appear more motivated than ever to rise to the occasion. The stories behind these and all of the other young racers are unique in their own ways. One thing is certain for all of them … they are bringing a fresh new look to our sport. Times, they are a changin’. Age no longer represents experience. The record books will soon be rewritten with a new host of characters with a colorful new complexion. It may be time to scrap the “Young Gun” title and embrace the new era.