Sprint car driver Seth Nunes has been racing for nine years, competes at three different tracks, and has a slew of championships under his belt. Yet the "veteran" doesn't even have a driver's license; he's just 14 years old and the youngest driver competing at the Southern Oregon Speedway.
He and a talented crop of six other 18-and-under racers are trying to make a name for themselves driving against older, seasoned drivers at the speedway.
Nunes' fledgling cohorts include 15-year-old Marissa Earle, 17-year-old Amber Waldon, 15-year-old Nolan Fincher, 16-year-old Parker Jones, 18-year-old Preston Jones and 17-year-old Ricki-Lynn Rapp.
Fueled by goals that span everything from winning rookie-of-the-year in their class to racing World of Outlaws late models and even NASCAR, each is cutting their racing teeth at the speedway.
Like most of his juvenile accomplices, Nunes started out racing at the adjacent Southern Oregon Outlaw Kart Track, a one-eighth-mile asphalt track open to drivers ages 5 and up. The track features a variety of classes in which drivers progress to bigger engines and faster karts, in many cases pitting young drivers against older veterans.
In comparison to the one-quarter-mile dirt track racing of the Southern Oregon Speedway, kart racing is quicker and possibly more intense with speedy vehicles in a narrower racing space.
"When Seth was 3, we brought him out here and he was just hooked," says dad Randy Nunes. "At 5, he was racing."
Nunes started out in a 5-horsepower Briggs and Stratton-motored kart, eventually working his way through all the classes and winning the 2008 Open 500 Track Championship, among other titles. Now that he's on the dirt track, he's a rookie in the Sprint Car class and is 13th in the points standings. He also competes at tracks in Red Bluff, Calif., and Cottage Grove.
His first race at Southern Oregon Speedway proved memorable.
"It wasn't that great because I flipped," he says. "I started on the pole and the axle snapped in half. I went into the wall and flipped. It didn't hurt at all, but I was just mad at myself for wrecking on my first race."
And how does Mom feel about her 14-year-old racing cars against older drivers at speeds up to 90 miles per hour?
"If you ask anyone who knows me, I'm as scared as can be," says Debbie Nunes. "I'm a mom and I should be used to it by now, but the level of power is so much that it makes me very nervous. It's kind of neat having the youngest driver out there, but at the same time I wonder what the other drivers think, like maybe he's too young."
"It's kind of scary and a thrill because I'm really young running against these guys with years of experience," says Nunes, who will be a freshman at Cascade Christian High School. "It's a little intimidating at first, but once you get used to running with them, it's not too bad. I try to stay humble, since I'm young and still learning."
"We're really proud of him," says Randy Nunes. "In time he's going to learn a lot from these veteran drivers, and I think he's going to do real well. He's always been of the mind-set that he wants to learn the car control, but he's also real aggressive — he wants to win."
Fellow sprint car driver Earle, who's the only female 360 sprint car driver in Oregon, started racing at the kart track when she was just 6. She's also a rookie at the speedway and is 14th in points.
"She saw cage karts and fell in love with them," says her dad and coach, Don Earle, "and she's been driving ever since. She loves to drive race cars and be competitive. For me, I'm still absolutely nervous with butterflies churning when she races. But it's a real pleasure and total satisfaction. It's about doing what she loves to do."
"My first race was good, but I was a little nervous. Just a little nervous," says Marissa Earle. "I took it slow the first couple of laps, then picked up the speed a little bit. Now I'm definitely going a lot faster.
"It's not really intimidating being a young driver. I like going fast. I just think it's a lot of fun."
Brothers Preston and Parker Jones have grown up around racing; the boys' uncle, Scott Lenz, races in the Modified 'A' Main class, and their grandfather, Jerry Matty, raced at the old Medford Speedway. Parker started racing when he was 9 on the kart track. Now with seven years experience, he's a rookie in the Super 4 class and ranked second in points.
"It was exhilarating," he says of his first race on the dirt track. "I wasn't really intimidated. It was more like being thrown into a pack of wolves, and I didn't really know what I was getting into. It's kind of cool being younger out here because of the experience I've gotten and what it's taught me in life about responsibility."
At 18, Preston Jones is in his third year racing on the dirt track after four years of kart track competition. Starting out in the Super 4 class, he's now ranked fourth in his rookie Modified class season.
"I started racing at 12 and I've been racing ever since and loving every minute of it," he says. "I love going fast and I love the competition. Being young, sometimes it feels like the older drivers are picking on you out on the track, but most of the time it's not an issue because once you're out there, cars are cars and everyone forgets who's in what."
"You earn respect with how well you do out here," says Fincher, a rookie in the Super 4 Class, seventh in points. "It's tough coming out when you're young going against the adults when it comes to respect. You have to watch yourself and keep pretty humble. There's a lot of competition and you can get too prideful."
Fincher, who started racing at 10 on the kart track, says his first race on the big track was "an absolute thrill. It's tough, but an absolute blast."
Unlike the other young drivers, Rapp is in her first year of racing. She says she entered the sport with one goal in mind: to beat her dad, longtime racer Rick Rapp, who like his daughter races in the Super 4 class. With little experience, her first race was frightening, she says.
"It was nerve-racking," she says. "I was horrified. I literally started shaking because I felt like I had no idea what I was doing. But now that I've been doing it more, it's been fun. I'm still scared, but more stoked. It's different from driving on the highway — you have everything in control and you can just go as fast as you want."
Waldon, of Yreka, is in her third year of racing in the Mini Stock class. She's also in her second year of racing in the Outlaw Karts, operated by her dad, Jack Waldon. According to Amber Waldon, kart track racing is excellent preparation for the dirt track, and in some ways more difficult.
"With the karts, you have to set it up on the corners or you're pretty much going to go off the track because it's so fast. But with mini stocks, you can pretty much chill out, relax and go around the corner. You don't have to go fast, you just go around the corner," she says.
"Coming from asphalt to dirt is a very tough transition," says Jack Waldon. "With the karts, it's so much faster with more action that it prepares them for the big cars, which almost seem like they're in slow motion in comparison."
For all of these young drivers, experience is key as they work their way up. While youth shows in their faces, each displays a level of respect for their older competitors.
"They have a lot more experience and I'm still learning and have a lot more to learn," says Preston Jones.
Says Nunes: "They've helped me out a lot. If they see something I'm doing wrong or something with my driving style, they'll help me out."
"My dad has been racing since he was younger than me," says Ricki-Lynn Rapp. "He just kind of calms me down before I go out there because I worry about screwing up and wrecking other drivers. Dad just tells me not to worry about it."
"I try to teach her," says a smiling Rick Rapp, "but you've got to remember, she's 17."
Andy Durst is a freelance writer. To comment on this story, call 776-4479, or e-mail email@example.com