ST. PETERSBURG — At nearly every race he has attended in the past eight years, Hayden Duerson has had a hard time remaining anonymous.
He has been on the radar after racing — and beating — older drivers in his ascent through the ranks.
Now comes his biggest challenge.
Duerson, 18, a senior at Shorecrest Preparatory School, is in his debut season in the open-wheel developmental Star Mazda Championship series. He will race Saturday and Sunday in St. Petersburg.
"I'm not nervous," Duerson said. "I'm excited. I love racing and this is the one I've always wanted to be in."
Thanks to his father, Craig, Duerson has racing in his blood, and he long imagined a route that would bring him closer to the path his father followed.
In 1997, Craig Duerson received a trip to the Skip Barber Driving School as a 10-year anniversary present from his wife, Chris.
He went on to race part-time in the Barber Dodge developmental series, including an event in St. Petersburg in 2003 supporting Champ Car.
Hayden connected with his dad through the sport. Craig, 46, raced. Hayden cheered. They talked cars. They lived cars. But Hayden wanted more. He was itching to race one.
When Hayden was 4, Craig bought his son a battery-operated power wheel car because he thought he would have fun with it. Hayden was a quick learner. He fish-tailed and skidded the plastic tires around the driveway like a pro.
At 6, Hayden had his own go-cart and his family purchased property in Winter Haven so they could race.
After that, it was over.
Hayden was hooked.
He roared around tracks at maximum speed and showed such control that he rarely crashed.
Hayden's reputation as an up-and-coming driver grew at rapid speed.
From 2005-07, Duerson was a member of the Italian Motors carting team. In 2007, he was the Stars of Karting "Rookie of the Year."
But just as his career was taking off, Duerson decided he needed a break. He gave up racing the past year so he could devote time to being co-captain of the football team.
"I wanted to take football seriously," Duerson said.
Once the football season ended in November, he resumed racing. He signed a two-race deal with Juncos Racing to compete in the Star Mazda Championship series.
The move was a risk.
"It's basically a jump from two series up," he said.
Duerson also is racing for the first time on the 1.8-mile St. Petersburg street course.
That is where his father has played a role.
This week, Craig and Hayden have ridden bikes around the track.
"I've basically tried to give him advice on what to expect on turns," Craig said.
But the coaching ends there. Craig said he probably won't spend too much time on pit road.
"I'll be too busy in the bathroom," Craig said. "The sport is a great adrenaline rush. But it's nerve-wrecking to watch, especially if your son is out there."