Wednesday, December 13, 2017
Public safety

Parents defend youth racing after crash critically injures 12-year-old boy

She was in the bleachers at the far end of the Auburndale Speedway Saturday night, waiting for her teenage sons' races to start, talking to another mom when she heard the crash. • Not metal on metal. This was worse. Car on concrete. • Charlene Lively, 35, looked up at 7:45 p.m. to see the No. 17 black stock race car crumpled against the wall, just past the second turn in the track. She gasped, then held her breath, waiting for the young driver to climb out. • He didn't.

"When the EMTs ran up to the car, we knew something serious had happened," Lively said. "They had to cut the car to get him out."

The driver, Tyler Morr, is 12. He had been traveling about 40 mph along the oval in Winter Haven with four other young racers. His grandfather was watching.

Monday night, Morr, who lives in Arcadia, was in critical condition at All Children's Hospital in St. Petersburg. His family couldn't be reached.

But parents of other youth race car drivers, some as young as 5, seemed eager to defend the growing sport, even as they acknowledged the risks. They had been calling the hospital to check on Tyler, praying for him and his family, talking about a fundraiser. But no one planned to make their kids stop racing.

"Naturally, when my boys' father talked to them about racing, I was scared to death," said Lively, whose 13- and 15-year-old sons have been driving for eight years. "But I went to the training facility, I saw all the safety devices they would wear, and I kind of relaxed.

"I don't think it's any more dangerous than any other sport," added Lively, a stay-home mom who lives in Riverview. "Football, to me, is much more dangerous."

She still worries, of course. "When you sign up for this, you sign a waiver that says the sport may cause injury or even death. You always know that's a possibility," she said. "But you put that aside. You have to, to let them go."

• • •

Youth car racing began in the 1930s, with quarter-midget cars — basically go-karts with roll bars. The vehicles, which have lawnmower engines, run around a quarter-mile track. They are one of the smallest class of cars, for the youngest drivers. In Florida, kids can start racing before they start kindergarten.

"We have 5-year-olds that run to speeds of 40 mph here," said J.R. Garcia, who runs the Ambassador Racing School in Wimauma. "Our 10-year-old drivers have been driving for five years."

At Garcia's racing school, instructors start kids in cars that can be shut off remotely. Soon, the youths are racing alongside their instructors. After a couple of months of instruction and practice, the young drivers are ready to race.

Rookies start at the back of the field, Garcia said, so they don't get overwhelmed by nearby cars. And all young drivers wear safety equipment: helmets lined with fire retardant, full body suits, gloves and a neck collar or brace. Restraints inside cars are checked and adjusted to properly fit each driver.

Some youth race cars include extra safety perks — for extra money.

Justin Cribbs of Lakeland, another 12-year-old who raced at the Auburndale Speedway Saturday night, uses a radio to communicate with his dad while he drives. Tyler's car spun out of control after bumping into his car. It was Justin's second time driving by himself.

Many of the young drivers have dads or granddads who raced as kids. Others have fathers who wished they had. All need their parents' commitment to the sport: time and money. For many, that means every Saturday from noon until midnight. And thousands of dollars that might help their kid become the next NASCAR star.

Even used cars for young racers run several thousand dollars and up. Parents also have to pay for a trailer to tow the vehicle, upkeep, gas and tires — about $400 per race.

"You start the kids in a smaller, slower car, and they work up in the races to bigger, faster vehicles," said Tommy King, whose 12-year-old daughter learned to race at Garcia's school. "You watch them grow up at the track. You'll have 500 to 1,000 people out there even on the worst Saturday nights."

King's daughter, Kerstin, drove a 4-cyclinder Bandolero last year. "Kind of a cross between a go-kart and a stock car," he said. This year, she could have driven stock cars — like the one Tyler Morr was driving. But King doesn't think kids should drive full-sized cars.

She chose not to race at all this season, he said. "She took up bowling."

• • •

When their boys were little, Charlene Lively and her husband tried introducing them to all sorts of sports. Nothing stuck, she said, "until my husband asked them if they wanted to race cars."

By the time her oldest, Teddy, was 7 and Trey was 5, they were hooked. They started racing quarter-midgets and graduated to Bandoleros. Teddy, who just got his learner's permit, now races a full-sized Legend car. His top speed? 80 mph.

"Teddy was 8 the first time he flipped. I almost died," Lively said. "But he came out of it okay. And the first thing he said was, 'When can I go again?' "

She set up a system with her boys, to ease her panic when they wrecked. Before they even try to get out of their harnesses, they're supposed to wave out the window.

Young drivers race for trophies. Teenagers can win $50 a race — enough to pay for gas and the $30 entrance fee. The ultimate prize, of course, is to earn a spot on a NASCAR team. Some elementary-age racers even have sponsors — and can name the professional drivers who started just as young: Ryan Newman, Tony Stewart, Jeff Gordon all were driving by the time they turned 10.

"In Teddy's mind, he's already there," Lively said.

A sophomore at Lennard High, Teddy works on his car with his dad and has a Facebook page just about his racing. Sometimes, he admits, he gets scared speeding around the oval so fast. "I just try to ignore it," he said, "and think about working my way up to the front. I have to trust my safety gear. I've hit the wall before and it just knocked the wind out of me."

Though no one keeps accident statistics for youth racers, local parents said injuries are few and far between — in fact, they could only remember one: About four years ago, in a quarter-midget race, a boy broke his arm.

After the wreck Saturday, officials temporarily closed the track. So Lively's sons never got to race. All the way back from the speedway, for more than 90 minutes, they talked about the crash. What went wrong? Had the safety harness failed? Was Tyler going to be okay?

For the first time, Lively said, her sons seemed to consider mortality: if not their own, someone just like them — only younger. Neither considered quitting racing.

"It just made me want to double check all my safety equipment," said Teddy.

On Saturday, around noon, Lively and her husband will load the boys and their cars into the trailer, like they always do, and drive to Auburndale, like they always do, and check the boys' helmets and harnesses and seat belts. And before her sons start their engines, Lively will tell them what she always does: "Be careful. I love you."

And pray those aren't the last words they hear.

Times staff writer Lyra Solochek and researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report.
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