WESLEY CHAPEL — Harper Gage’s first season as a go-kart racer did not end the way she envisioned.
The 6-year-old Wesley Chapel girl predicted she’d finish in the top half for her age bracket at the World Karting Association’s national tournament held in Daytona on Dec. 28 and 29.
She almost did it.
Her mother, Lauren Gage, said Harper was sixth out of 17 racers with two of the eight laps to go. But the engine died before she reached the finish line.
“She’s pretty bummed,” Lauren texted the Tampa Bay Times after the race. “But we are so proud of her.”
A little more than a year ago, Lauren wondered if her daughter should race.
Harper was born with bilateral hearing loss. She’s not completely deaf — she can hear clearly when she wears hearing devices. But without those devices, sound is muffled or muted.
The devices don’t fit under her race helmet. So, she races without them.
“It was hard to let her do this,” Lauren told the Times a few weeks before the nationals, while Harper practiced at Andersen RacePark in Palmetto. “But she proved she can do everything. She is fearless.”
Harper doesn’t think hearing loss puts her at a disadvantage.
The engines are so loud, Harper said, that she can hear when another car is close.
Her father, Tom Gage, is not so sure.
“She says she can hear out of her right ear,” Tom said. “But that’s where her engine is. So, she might just hear her own engine.”
Having perfect hearing would help, he said, but it’s not necessary if she uses her eyes.
“She’s always looking back, maybe too much,” he said. “I don’t get worried. She does good.”
But the parents admit they were initially concerned about what hearing loss meant for their only child.
Harper was 4 months old when diagnosed.
“When she failed her newborn hearing screening, we wanted to try it again the next day because we thought she had fluid in her ear,” Lauren said. “She failed again, so we thought maybe it was the equipment. But then she failed again. It was scary.”
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Ears have three bones that transmit sound vibrations to the brain. Harper is missing one of those bones in each ear, Lauren said.
Shortly after her diagnosis, Harper was fitted with Cochlear Baha System hearing devices, tiny metal transmitter-shaped mechanisms that sit behind the ears and vibrate sounds for the missing bones.
Harper can eventually have magnets implanted to hold up the devices. But, for now, she prefers to have them attached to a pink headband.
“A lot of people don’t even notice it,” Lauren said. “They just think she loves wearing headbands.”
Harper discovered go-karts when she was 3 and her parents took visiting family members to Bushnell Motorsports Park to drive the open-wheel cars around the track.
“She watched and loved it,” Tom said. Harper told her parents she wanted to drive, too.
You must be at least 5 to compete in a race or drive at a track, but Tom had a friend with a child-sized go-kart.
The friends let her try it out and she loved it, Tom said. “So, we bought her one.”
Lauren was worried that Harper would crash into another go-kart because she wouldn’t hear it.
But Tom assured Lauren that their daughter would be OK, and when Harper turned 5, her amateur racing career began.
“It’s still nerve-wracking, especially when there are 10 or more of them out there driving 40 miles per hour, but I am doing better,” Lauren said with a laugh.
Go-kart racing is broken up by age groups. Harper competes in the division for 5- to 7-year-olds.
“They usually do a four-lap qualifier and take their single best lap,” Tom said. “The heats are six laps, and the final will be around eight or 10 laps.”
Go-kart parks, which have tracks around three-quarters of a mile, host their own series of races from February through December, Tom said. “Harper races about twice a month.”
Bushnell has a series, he said. Andersen RacePark does, too.
Harper finished her first season with 10 trophies, a mix of first, second and third.
She would like to race professionally one day, perhaps NASCAR like Danica Patrick, who also got her start racing go-karts.
Still, professional racing means communicating with a pit crew via headsets.
“Maybe by the time she is old enough to drive something where they do have communication, there’ll be technology that allows her to do it,” Tom said.
When asked about her goals, Harper shyly giggled and said, “I want to drive fast.”