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Usually, Sebastian Ordoñez is a race-car driver only when he's pushing toy cars across his bedroom floor. The 8-year-old will sputter engine noises between his lips as he maneuvers imaginary Formula One racetracks all over the globe. "In like Brazil, Australia, lots of places," he says. He'll be a star some day of the Indy cars and Formula Ones and NASCAR, he asserts in the unshakably confident way kids talk about their dreams.
But on this day, a scorching Saturday afternoon at a racetrack in Jacksonville, his fantasy is real. His racecar is a supercharged go-cart, and he's up against kids from all over the state who are living the same dream. They all know him. Sebastian, he's the fast one. He doesn't talk or smile much, but on the racetrack, he flies. He's only 8, but he's the one people point to when asked who might be a pro one day.
The racers wear long-sleeved, padded jackets and pants and airbrushed helmets they'll grow out of in a year or two. Under them are go-carts that look not much different in size and shape from the ones for rent at putt-putt-golf places. But these go-carts rumble like a pack of motorcycles revving at a stoplight and fill the air with the metallic odor of high-octane fuel exhaust. Their parents shelled out as much as $10,000 to outfit the go-carts, and they can spend five times that every year sending them to races across the country.
On signal, a dozen drivers, all from 8 to 12 years old, leave the warm-up area next to the speedway and head for the starting line on the opposite side of the track. There, they'll line up in order. Spencer Pigot, a 9-year-old from Orlando with straw-colored hair and blue eyes, took first in the qualifying; he gets the prime spot at the head of the pack. Sebastian took a respectable second. He has a game plan ready that stresses patience uncommon for a kid his age: He'll trail close behind while hitting speeds over 60 mph, waiting for his time to make a move to the outside. If the leader drives perfectly, Sebastian may wait until the last turn to make his move.
A few carts behind Sebastian is Court Vernon. Like Sebastian, his father drove him from Miami for the race. Court didn't do so well in the qualifying, so his place is next-to-last. He knows Sebastian is faster, but Court also has a strategy. He's 12 years old and, like the older drivers, more aggressive. "If they're really slow, you can bump them like that," he explains before the race, knocking one of his small hands into the other to illustrate. "It's not legal, but they usually don't say anything." It might sound malicious to a novice, but Court and the others have learned it from their heroes by watching races on TV. Most consider it just an advanced tactic every driver uses. He employs this risky strategy even though collisions during races have nearly killed both Court and Sebastian since they began racing last fall. It's all in the game, he says. Every newcomer will quickly learn, Court says, that you're better off being the one who causes the collision on a racetrack: "You know it's coming, and you can react."
Every year, go-cart crashes kill an average of 13 kids and injure 10,500 more. Accidents are likely to multiply in a sport that is growing in spurts, particularly in Florida. The number of adults and kids joining the sport, which some participants say has doubled in the past decade, is helping turn go-cart racing into a costly and sometimes deadly substitute for Little League.
The carts rumble onto the Jacksonville course and past the only crowd at such races, a swarm of dads gathered at the warm-up area. But as soon as the racers turn onto the track, Court's go-cart sounds like a lawnmower that won't turn over. The rolling-pin-sized muffler behind his seat spits and pops each time he pushes the gas pedal. Finally, the go-cart stalls and rolls to a stop in the middle of the track. Court waves his right hand toward the warm-up area to beckon mechanic Carlos Clemente. Like most of the parents, Court's father hires a pit crew to work on the go-carts before and during races.
"My carburetor!" Court yells, tears already running down his cheeks. "It's broken!"
"Calm down," says Clemente, a former big-rig mechanic who now works full time repairing go-carts. "We'll get you going."
As Court's go-cart sputters forward again, the pack of racers arrives at the starting line. By rule, any driver who fails to pull up to the starting grid in time gets an extra two laps to warm up. This is, after all, a friendly race among kids. On the first lap, Court's cart limps along and barely makes it around without quitting. But on the second, the carburetor seems to have fixed itself. Still sputtering, though, race officials give him one more lap. He zooms through the banked turns and speeds into the straightaway at full throttle before joining the rest of the drivers.