Drivers are seated at a row of tables behind the scoring tower and next to the main grandstand, Sharpies in hand. One after another they dutifully sign their picture in the track program as a procession of fans filters through. The autograph session is a staple of dirt tracks across the country of course; what’s less common is when those drivers are kids as young as 5 years old.
This sight takes place at Millbridge Speedway on a special Kids Night on a Wednesday evening in early August.
Millbridge is clearly not like most dirt tracks.
Nestled alongside rural Highway 150 in Salisbury, North Carolina, 40 miles northeast of Charlotte and due east of the racing hotbed of Mooresville, Millbridge is a 1/6-mile clay oval featuring three nights of kart racing each week, with Outlaw (winged) Karts taking center stage on Wednesday and Saturday. Flat Karts make up the card on Friday.
The track has been under the ownership of Jeremy and Ashly Burnett for nearly a decade. The couple, both in their early thirties, has made significant upgrades to the facility while also adopting ideas from promoters around the country. Both come from racing families and are from the St. Louis area originally, despite having met in North Carolina.
Their Kids Night program is a rousing success, due in large part because it makes the kids feel like celebrities. Out-of-car driver intros take place for the youngest competitors in both the Beginner Box Stock (ages 5-8) and Box Stock (ages 8-13) classes, complete with a smoke machine.
The track’s other two weekly Wednesday evening divisions are the Intermediate class for ages 10 and up, and the headlining Open division, which utilizes dirt-bike style engines and make up to 100 horsepower. They weigh just a few hundred pounds with the driver and rival full-size Sprint Cars in terms of quickness. Each class is progressively faster, providing a ladder system for those who choose to use it that way.
The variety provides something for everyone and is why the track is packed both with spectators and cars more often than not.
The facility has been around for more than 25 years, but has exploded in popularity recently, with the Wednesday show being the most well-known.
“All the NASCAR teams, all the guys that travel get to come out and race with their kids,” says co-owner Jeremy Burnett.
The names throughout each of the divisions are notable, in particular in the Open ranks. Drivers like Kyle Larson, NHRA Pro Stock driver Tanner Gray and Camping World Truck Series competitor Noah Gragson are among several national-level drivers who have made appearances at the track this year alone.
Meanwhile Dirt Modified star and Ashly Burnett’s brother Nick Hoffman, Dale Earnhardt Sr.’s granddaughter Karsyn Elledge and NASCAR driver Travis Kvapil’s sons Carson and Caden (in Intermediates) compete for points nearly every week.
The spectators are intriguing too, with many NASCAR stars and other motorsports personalities often appearing in the grandstands. Dale Earnhardt Jr. even made an appearance earlier this year to support his niece, Karsyn.
It’s not just her family lineage, but also her bubbly personality that makes Karsyn Elledge one of the most popular drivers at the track competing in the Open class. The 17 year old has been around the track nearly her whole life.
“I feel like you learn a lot here at Millbridge,” she says. “It’s just a fun racetrack. I grew up racing here, so to go up through the ranks and see the way it’s different in every division, I just love it.”
Elledge explains that it’s been important for her to understand how lessons learned in one division translate into the next, helping her become a better driver while also getting to spend time with her family and friends. Her dad, longtime NASCAR crew chief Jimmy Elledge, often competes alongside her.
She isn’t racing on this particular Wednesday in August, with plans to drive at Knoxville Raceway for the first time on the upcoming weekend. Still, many in attendance are wearing T-shirts sporting her name and logo to raise money for Make-A-Wish Central and Western North Carolina. Elledge has been nominated as a junior ambassador by the W.I.S.H. (Women Inspiring Strength and Hope) Society and is raising money to grant wishes. The female who raises the most funds at the end of the year will be honored as Woman of the Year. 50-50 tickets are sold on the evening to support her cause, too.
It’s all part of the familial atmosphere at Millbridge, cultivated by the Burnetts. Ashly Burnett says the kids are by far her favorite part of what goes on at the track, while Jeremy explains it’s not uncommon for drivers like Karsyn Elledge to move through each of the ranks.
Ashly runs the drivers’ meeting and commands respect from the kids, preaching the values of both safety and sportsmanship, much like in other youth sports.
In watching the young drivers – many of whom have not yet reached high school – interact with one another on a summer evening, it’s not a stretch at all to consider this a Little League in many ways. You just need to replace the firesuits and dirt track with baseball uniforms and a diamond.
At the same time, the Open division of Outlaw Karts provides action that even the country’s top racers can use to their benefit.
Nick Hoffman won the 2017 DIRTcar UMP Gator Modified championship at Volusia Speedway Park in February, and finished as the runner-up in the Modified Nationals over the summer, but still is at Millbridge nearly every week both to have fun and to hone his skills.
“Everything happens so quick and the power-to-weight ratio in these Outlaw Karts [makes them] faster than pretty much anything I’ve raced,” he explains. “They’re fun, we come out here and play on a Wednesday night when we’re not racing, and it keeps you sharp. That’s the biggest thing.”
Outlaw Karts have long been a staple of West Coast racing, but have grown in popularity in recent years on the East Coast. Hoffman won the track’s premier event, the Speed51 Open for Outlaw Karts, during the week of the Coca-Cola 600 in late May. Speed51.com also provides live broadcasts of Millbridge races.
Ashly Burnett uses social media to spread the word about the track as well.
“I rely a lot on social media and I think a lot of local tracks struggle with that,” she says. “I think with us being as young as we are, we’re savvy and I think that’s helped us out a lot.”
Due to their youth the Burnetts are not far removed in age from some of the kids for which they put on races, while also being able to work easily with parents. In many ways they are the ideal couple to run a track like Millbridge.
For drivers like Karsyn Elledge and many others who have spent their formative summers at the track, Millbridge Speedway will always be special. It’s clear how important the place is when Elledge talks about it.
“Every week I just look forward to getting to race with all my friends and to see everyone, and my family always comes out and watches,” she says. “I love local dirt track racing more than anything.”
Photos below come courtesy of Kara CS Photography (karacsphotography.smugmug.com).