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`Student' driver hits the fast track

WHITE CITY -- Along with the sparkplugs, motor oil and engine parts that Gary Taylor packs into his truck for the long weekends are his school books.

Physics, advanced calculus, British literature and contemporary world issues, just to name a few.

Taylor loves to race his sprint car, but from the get-go, his father told him that schoolwork must come first.

He wants to make racing his career, but he needs to have something to fall back on in case he doesn't make it, Gary Taylor Sr. says. But I really haven't had to push him much. He's a self-motivated kid.

At 17, the younger Taylor is one of the youngest competitors on the Northern Sprint Tour, a group of racers who are competing at the Southern Oregon Speedway this weekend.

The two-day show featuring many of the top sprint car drivers in the Pacific Northwest concludes today at 6 p.m.

Lindsey Casto of Sunnyvale, Calif., won Friday's main event as he shot past pole setter Dan Menne on the eighth lap and led the rest of the way in the 25-lap event.

Casto pocketed $1,000 for the win.

Menne, of Fort Jones, Calif., finished second, followed by Bill Nutter of Central Point, Shawna Wilskey of Everett, Wash., and Ricky Fauver of Everett, Wash.

Taylor, who carries a 3.7 grade-point average as a senior at Snohomish High School in Snohomish, Wash., joined the sprint car circuit last summer.

He did reasonably well, finishing second one night and fifth on two other occasions in 15 starts.

His most memorable race, however, occurred when the World of Outlaws came to Grays Harbor Speedway in Elma, Wash.

Racing against his boyhood heroes such as Steve Kinser and Sammy Swindell, Taylor qualified for the main event and finished a respectable 17th. Every driver in front of him had an engine with 410 cubic inches; Taylor's had 360.

It was an awesome experience, says Taylor, whose father serves as his crew chief. I started in the back and worked my way past a few drivers. But I remember running as fast as I could and seeing Kinser go past me like I was tied to a pole.

It struck me how hard you have to run to get to that level.

Taylor's sprint car career got off to a rough start last year when he slammed into a fence on the first lap of his first race.

It was a rude awakening and a hard stop, says Taylor, who drives a Gambler chassis that is equipped with a 625-horse Gaerte engine. I had won my heat race and the trophy dash and was feeling great going into the main event. But my bubble burst in a big hurry.

Although he's had his driver's license for less than two years, Taylor qualifies as a racing veteran. He stepped into a quarter midget -- a glorified go-kart, of sorts -- when he was 6 and graduated to a mini sprint car when he was 13.

Taylor dominated at those levels, winning more than 200 main events, setting 33 track records and winning the national quarter midget championship in 1993.

He also became interested in basketball and played that sport for six years, but at 5-foot-8 and 120 pounds, his hoop career came to an end once he entered high school.

The long road trips to West Coast race tracks and points beyond has caused Taylor to miss dozens of days of school. But his teachers, he says, have been understanding, particularly since he regularly completes his assignments when out on the road.

Along with everything else, Taylor is accomplished in metal shop. He's one of the top students in that subject at Snohomish High, and his work recently won a regional machinery championship in the Seattle area.

That's probably the kind of work I'll get into if my racing career fizzles out, Taylor says.

Taylor plans to attend Shoreline Community College in Seattle next year and make a decision on whether to turn pro shortly after that.

AUTO EXTRAS: Two wrecks marred Friday's action in the sprint car class. Jason Finley of Fort Jones, Calif., flipped end over end in a heat race and suffered a concussion.

In the B main, Eugene's Richie Brown and Andy Page of Redding, Calif., were involved in an accident along the backstretch. Page, who at 16 was the youngest driver on the track, hit the wall after being struck by Brown and suffered a shoulder injury.

Finley and Page were both removed from their cars by ambulance workers and taken to Medford hospitals. They were released Friday night.

SPRINT CARS

Fast time -- Mike Morlock, 12.695.

FIRST HEAT -- 1, Bill Nutter. 2, Jay Cole. 3, Ricky Smith. 4, Steve Tupper.

SECOND HEAT -- 1, Shawna Wilskey. 2, Dale Smith. 3, Tyson Cross. 4, Marvin Smith.

THIRD HEAT -- 1, Cale Carder. 2, Jeff Hartjoy. 3, Lindsey Castco. 4, Rick Fauver.

FOURTH HEAT -- 1, Jay Smith. 2, James Kirkham. 3, Dan Menne. 4, Gary Taylor.

TROPHY DASH -- 1, Dan Menne. 2, Lindsey Casto. 3, Shawna Wilskey. 4, Bill Nutter.

B MAIN -- 1, Tyson Cross. 2, Gary Lynch. 3, Troy Helen. 4, Chad Bauer. 5, Manny Gobel. 6, Seth Adams. 7, Mark Huson. 8, Brett James. 9, Kevin Journey. 10, Kirk Haefs.

A MAIN -- 1, Lindsey Casto. 2, Dan Menne. 3, Billy Nutter. 4, Shawna Wilskey. 5, Ricky Fauver. 6, Dale Smith. 7, Jamie Barnes. 8, Gary Lynch. 9, Calde Carder. 10, Chad Bauer.

MINI STOCKS

FIRST HEAT -- 1, Travis Holt. 2, Tracey Bradley. 3, Jeff Midwood. 4, Larry Best.

SECOND HEAT -- 1, Mike Chastain. 2, Rick Sequeira. 3, Bill Swift. 4, Dave Casperson.

THIRD HEAT -- 1, Jim Hill. 2, Mike Shaffer. 3, Dean Combs. 4, Shawn Gillispie.

FOURTH HEAT -- 1, Eric Bray. 2, Justin Holt. 3, Matt Roland. 4, Jack Clement.

TROPHY DASH -- Mike Chastain.

B MAIN -- 1, Patrick Lanihan. 2, Mike Johnson. 3, Jerry Aplund. 4, Josh Robeson. 5, Clarence Cole. 6, Ken Thomas. 7, Brian Soltis. 8, Jim Narramore. 9, Stan Warren. 10, Warren Kniffen.