When racing forced New Port Richey's RC Enerson to miss half of his freshman year of high school, Enerson made what he considered an easy choice. He left Gulf High.
When he realized that his body was holding him back from climbing racing's ladder toward the IndyCar series, he showed his dedication again. He lost 40 pounds.
That drive will be on display this weekend in St. Petersburg, when the Tampa Bay native makes his debut in the Indy Lights series — IndyCar's equivalent of Triple-A baseball — at age 18.
"He's made a decision in his life," said his dad, Neil. "This is what I want to do."
And Enerson, whose initials stand for Richard Clayton, started making the sacrifices accordingly.
His love of cars began early. Enerson played with cases and cases of Hot Wheels cars and loved sitting on his dad's lap as they drove their truck across the country roads of Pasco County. Not long after his grandmother bought him a kids' electric Jeep, he learned how to back it up and park it perfectly, right next to the charger in the garage.
By age 5, his mother decided to get him into the kids' go-cart program at Sunshine Speedway.
"I'm pretty sure my mom regrets that decision," Enerson said. "Every single race, she's (biting) through her nails."
It wasn't until a few years later, after plenty of carting success, that he began to realize racing might become his career. He was 15 when he made his debut in the USF2000 series — the first rung in the Road to Indy program.
"Once we started moving up," Enerson said, "it just got better and better and better."
Enerson guesses that his racing schedule caused him to miss 90 days of class during his freshman year at Gulf. The conflicts weren't worth the reward, so he hired a tutor and enrolled in Pasco eSchool to take his classes online.
He learned how to teach himself and how to cram extra work into his days off so he could focus completely on driving during race weekends. He finished almost all of his graduation requirements in December, so he can walk across the stage with Gulf's senior class in May.
"I definitely had to put my mind forward to get that stuff out of the way," Enerson said.
With his mind figured out, Enerson started thinking about how to improve his body so he could top his ninth-place finish from 2013.
He went to work in Indianapolis at PitFit Training, a fitness center with programs geared specifically toward racers. Enerson worked out alongside IndyCar stars such as three-time series champion Scott Dixon and 2013 Grand Prix winner James Hinchcliffe.
"He saw them training as hard as they did, and it kind of showed him, I need to take this a little more seriously ," said Jim Leo, PitFit's founder and president. "Once he figured it out, it didn't take any prodding from us."
The improved fitness led to a breakout year in USF2000. He went from two podium finishes in 2013 to five victories — including one in St. Petersburg. He finished in the top three in nine of the 14 races to become the series' runnerup and skip one rung of the ladder by landing a ride with Schmidt Peterson Motorsports' Indy Lights team in the offseason.
Enerson said he expects to have about 30 friends or family members watching him make his series debut this weekend at his home track. He's not setting any goals for himself this season, other than to adapt to the new cars and put himself in strong position for next year.
If all goes well, Enerson plans to need only two or three series in Indy Lights before jumping to the top series and racing against his idols such as three-time Indy 500 champion Helio Castroneves — all before his 21st birthday.
"That'd be cool," Enerson said, "to race with those guys."
Contact Matt Baker at [email protected]. Follow @MBakerTBTimes.