ST. PETERSBURG — Nick Andries was 5 when he first settled into the seat of a go cart and took several spins around Sunshine Speedway. He could barely reach the pedals, but he sure knew how to hit the gas.
Soon after his father, Quilly, entered him in races, Andries was zooming past the competition in a heart-thumping dash all the way to the checkered flag.
Now, with years behind him as a carting champion, Andries has more full-throttled ambitions.
"I want to be a professional driver," Andries said. "I want to be in IndyCar."
Andries, a Pinellas Park High School graduate, is on that path. He is in his second season in the open-wheel developmental Star Mazda series, and will race Saturday and Sunday in St. Petersburg.
Other locals will be competing this weekend — Tarpon Springs' Walt Bowlin is in the Star Mazda series, and new St. Petersburg resident Shannon McIntosh will be racing for St. Petersburg-based Cape Motorsports in the USF2000 series.
"This is the race that has always been on my calendar," Andries said. "It's the start of the season and can give you a lot of momentum. But it's just as important for me because it's my home race and one of the few times my whole family can watch me race."
Racing is in Andries' blood. His grandfather raced short tracks on Long Island. His father was a motocross champion in the Midwest.
Andries had imagined a route that would bring him closer to the path his father followed. But after Quilly broke his back in a motorcycle accident, he encouraged his son to race on four wheels instead of two.
Many racing drivers begin young in carts, then progress through the various levels of open-wheel racing up to IndyCar, where race speeds can reach 225 mph, or Formula One.
By age 12, Andries had a handful of trophies and the backing of several local sponsors, enabling him to compete on a more serious scale. He was the Yamaha Junior Sportsman World Karting Association state champion in 2001, and has won at virtually every level in his ascent through the minor-league ranks.
While he seemed to come out of nowhere two years ago, when he was the Skip Barber Karting Shootout winner and summer series champion, he has been one of the best-prepared drivers on the developmental circuit.
"It's hard to equate to other sports, but racing on this level is a lot like minor-league baseball," Andries said. "The Star Mazda is the equivalent to Double A."
Andries, 19, has balanced his racing aspirations with schoolwork. At Pinellas Park, he held a 3.4 GPA in the criminal justice magnet program and was a two-time state qualifier in wrestling.
Now a student at St. Petersburg College, Andries is a president's list scholar and plans to major in mechanical engineering.
"I've never tried to go the home-school route because of racing," Andries said. "My teachers in high school were always great about letting me make up work if I was at a race. I've always found a way to handle school and racing. It's important to me."
This week, Andries has been in Palmetto working on his car to prepare for this weekend's races.
Last year, in his Star Mazda debut, Andries ran into trouble early and finished 21st.
"That was my first time in the car without much practice," Andries said. "I'll definitely be more prepared this time."