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Little League at 60 mph

Like two generations of Harcourts before him, Harcourt "Court" Vernon IV dropped other sports to pick up racing.
Colby Katz

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.

 

Now, Court's engine problems seem to have helped him. The extra laps allowed his engine to heat up, and his slick racing tires have expanded with friction, giving him better traction. Sebastian and the others won't get peak performance out of their carts for at least a lap or two. Back in the warm-up area, the fathers are fuming over Court's new advantage. It's not uncommon to see the bunch divide against one another, accusing a rival kid of cheating. This isn't a team sport, and each dad has only one racer he wants to see finish first. Spencer's father, a bespectacled furniture-store owner named Barry, is shaking his right fist at the track. "This isn't right," he yells. "He got to warm up!"

As the starting flag comes down, Court makes a move for the outside.


Sebastian's introduction to racing was watching his dad wreck a few go-carts. Mauricio Ordoñez, a mortgage broker, wasn't much good at racing but was pretty good at crashing. "I raced just for fun," Mauricio says. " I tried it a couple of times and wasn't that good at it, to be honest. But my son... my son is very good."

Even with that history, Mauricio says he lets his son race for one simple reason: Sebastian has tremendous potential. Last year, when Sebastian was 7 years old and too young for midsized carts raced by kids at least a year older, Mauricio bought him a "baby cart." It's about the size of a beach chair but still whips around the track at 25 mph. Sebastian quickly won nearly every race he entered. Mauricio awarded his victories with two brand-new, midsized go-carts. Sebastian became one of the fastest drivers in the state for his age group. But there's a note of caution to his style, perhaps because of the memory of his dad's accidents. "He hurt his leg, his elbow, his neck," the 8-year-old says while pointing to the body parts. "He flipped too much."

Court's father says he tried for years to keep his son off the racetrack. He enrolled him in baseball and soccer, but Court always talked about racing. After all, it's in his genes. Court, whose full name is Harcourt Vernon IV, is a third-generation racecar driver. His father and namesake raced as an amateur when he was younger, before he owned Capt. Harry's Fishing Supply shop in Miami. And his grandfather, Court II, raced stock cars professionally. "He threw a fit one day," the elder Court says of his son. "He said, 'Dad, I'm a racecar driver. I don't want to play these other sports.' What was I going to do? I figured it was in his blood." He bought him a go-cart for his 12th birthday and then another a month later for Christmas. The kid with dirty blond hair and blue braces was hooked.

Court and Sebastian now spend two or three nights a week practicing their driving skills at a little-known speedway called Mega Racing. Hundreds of drivers from West Palm Beach to the Keys train there regularly on a makeshift track that meanders through a corner of a parking lot at the Opa-locka Hialeah Flea Market. There's another track in the parking lot of the Homestead Speedway and plans to open a third at Moroso Motorsports Park in Jupiter next year. There are another dozen tracks across Florida, a state with more go-cart racers than any other. An influx of drivers from South America, where the sport is more mainstream, has helped create a network of several hundred Florida drivers.

The sport has been around for at least two decades, but its revival came about five years ago with the introduction of a superfast type of go-cart. The new machines, raced only by adults, use a six-speed transmission, allowing them to hit top speeds of 130 mph by changing gears with a stick shift to the right of the steering wheel. The "shifter" carts, as they're called, burst to a start faster than any street-legal sports car, reaching 60 mph in three seconds. With that kind of acceleration, go-carts are said to have the same g-forces as a descending Six Flags roller coaster or a jet plane angling skyward. The racers feel it smashing their faces flat and slamming their bodies against the seats.

The most common time to find racers in Opa-locka is Wednesday night, when go-carts fill the parking lot of an industrial park adjacent to Mega Racing. Go-cart salesmen hawk everything from a beginner model at a couple thousand dollars to tricked-out versions that cost five figures. Shops lining the park sell sets of tires for $150 and offer pit services complete with backup parts and teams of mechanics. Among the companies is Advanced Karting, which contracted with racecar driver Christian Fittipaldi to use his famous name on its equipment. The company sells its pit-crew services, which include mechanics, spare parts, and a trailer brought to races. Court, Sebastian, and a third South Florida kid racer, 10-year-old Jarvis Gennari of Boca Raton, use the Fittipaldi pit crew.

 

Mauricio says he'll spend somewhere around $50,000 on his son's hobby this year. Of that, he pays the Fittipaldi crew $200 a day for the races, plus their travel expenses and transportation of the carts and equipment. In that time, Sebastian will enter perhaps 50 races, including dozens on a national circuit that could take him outside the state at least once a month.

Mauricio figures it's a gamble on his kid's future. If it works, Sebastian will repay his father someday with his winnings as a pro. Wayne Vensel, a Miami architect who organizes the statewide races for the Florida Championship Series, says every kid dreams of racing in the big leagues. For most, they're only dreams. "Most kids know there's a slim chance of being a quarterback in the NFL," Vensel says. "But the reality is, you've got an even slimmer chance making it to the top level of racing."


Court took his birthday present out for the first time in Opa-locka, zooming around corners marked by old tires. On his first run, he misjudged a corner, failed to brake in time, and went headfirst into the tires. "So Mom wasn't really happy at all," his dad recalls. Court walked away from that one, but things got worse.

In January, Court enrolled in his first race at a speedway in Daytona Beach, driving alongside Sebastian, who had already raced a half-dozen times. A few laps into the race, another driver stopped quickly in front of Court. He slammed on his brakes, but the driver behind him didn't react quickly enough. None of the go-carts has brake lights, and even the young drivers draft off one another by staying within inches of the cart in front. The cart behind Court slammed into his rear bumper. The force sent the trailing cart skyward, and its front bumper violently smacked Court in the back of the head. As Sebastian and the others passed him slowly with the yellow caution flag flying, Court sat motionless on the track.

No one keeps record of how many accidents happen in organized go-cart racing. The most thorough study involving the sport was conducted in 1998 by the U.S. Consumer Products Safety Commission. Investigators found that 231 people died on go-carts in the 12 years starting in 1985, including 158 kids under 16 years old. And children made up 65 percent of the 125,000 injuries during that time. Still, the report counted go-cart accidents on roads and in backyards and didn't specify how many happened on racetracks. The report looked into the deaths of 45 children. Of those, only three, an average of about one child a year, died on commercial speedways.

Race officials acknowledge that the sport is dangerous, and the type of go-cart raced on most tracks lacks safety equipment like seat belts, airbags, or roll cages. The reason is simple: Drivers contend that they're better off not strapped into a cart when it flips. New drivers are taught instead to push themselves away from the cart if they roll over. The padded neck brace and helmets they wear will help stave off paralysis, and the full-body race suits will lessen road burns as they skid down the track. The real danger when they come free of the carts, however, is becoming a human missile or a speed bump.

As for the crash in Daytona, rescue workers pulled Court from his go-cart and brought him to Halifax Medical Center. He spent the night in the intensive-care ward with a severe concussion, and doctors ordered him to stay off the track for two months. "I couldn't keep him off," his father confesses. "He was back out three weeks later."

The elder Court says he is asked frequently why he lets his son race. He has tried to restrain his son, he says, taking the go-cart away for a week when the boy got a D in math. The kid moped around for weeks, Court III says. Racing isn't so bad when you compare it with other sports, he says. "Look, every sport is dangerous," he says. "In soccer, there were kids who had broken legs, and kids in baseball are getting pegged in the head. One guy on Court's team had his teeth knocked out."

 

The Daytona race in which Court crashed was the last for Court's mother. Like most moms, Pilar Ordoñez now stays home. She'll take a peek sometimes at Opa-locka, only because she has to bring her son after school. But not at competitive events. "I can't watch it," she says one night on an empty bandstand next to the track. "I can't watch him crash again."

As for the kids, they say they don't think much about the crashes. Most appear to possess a fearlessness on the racetrack that makes them both more competitive and more dangerous. The laid-back Sebastian explains it by blinking his eyes quickly. "When you do like that," he says, "it's already over, and you don't feel anything. It's after that you feel it."


Before the race in Jacksonville, a grass field near the track quickly fills with rows of travel trailers stocked with go-carts. Mechanics hired by adult racers or parents of young ones work to rebuild engines blown during test heats or to replace tires that sometimes last no more than one race. It's easy to spot the Fittipaldi trailer. It's cherry red and one of the biggest. After running a half-dozen laps of practice and a few more just to qualify for the race, Court, Sebastian, and Jarvis head back to the air-conditioned trailer. Their faces are flushed from reaching a point of heat exhaustion wearing the thick race suits in the sun. A boy from another race team follows them in, obviously envious of the only air-conditioned spot on a day when the heat index is well over 100 degrees.

"I got a 38," the newcomer brags of his lap time in qualifying. Each driver must complete a qualifying heat, and those with the best times get a better starting position in the race.

"I got a 37," Jarvis says. He's been racing since last April and has his own website, www.teamgennari.com, but Sebastian still regularly beats him.

"The record is a 40," Court adds.

Sebastian, in his typical mild-mannered style, doesn't join in the fibbing. "I got a 42."

"Yeah, so did I," Jarvis confesses.

The four still wear their race suits, despite the way the padded material holds in the heat. None of them wants to remove these symbols of being a racecar driver.

Court whispers something in Sebastian's ear, pointing at the new kid. He repeats his secret to Jarvis. "I've got a fart bomb. Let's explode it on him."

The new kid tries to change the subject and points at Sebastian, saying, "He doesn't talk much." Sebastian just raises his shoulders.

"You're a piece of crap," Court tells the new kid, who's about to respond when Court's dad enters the kitchen.

"He's using curse words," the new kid reports, pointing at Court.

"He better not be," the father says sternly. He orders the boys to each eat a banana. Lunch would be too much and probably make them throw up. Adrenaline and a full belly of food don't mix. "A banana keeps their energy up," he explains.

With Dad in the room, the boys jump into the raised section at the front of the trailer, tumbling into a pile. "Hey, no wrestling," Court III scolds. "We don't want any injuries before the race."

While Sebastian is one of the fastest on the racetrack, his age makes him the smallest in the wrestling pile. He weighs just 50 pounds, and the races require all go-carts, including their drivers, to weigh 200 pounds. Mechanics strap a few weights even on Court's cart to make sure he weighs enough; Sebastian's cart has weights strapped on the back of the seat and on the steering column. Mechanics even put extra gas in the tank that sits between his legs to add weight. They had to replace Sebastian's standard seat with one removed from his smaller "baby cart," which is built for kids as young as 4. If he doesn't fit snugly, he could end up with broken bones. The force from the quick turns taken in go-carts often crack drivers' ribs.

The elder Court concedes that his boy did poorly in qualifying. The official times haven't been announced, but every cart has a computer on board that keeps track of the lap times. After qualifying, the mechanics have found a glitch in the carburetor of Court's cart and believe it's pumping too much fuel. "It drives me nuts," Court III says. "We go through all this, all this practicing, then to end up with a terrible time." For every race, the kids get points for where they finish, and the points are tallied at the end of the year. Sebastian so far is in second, and Court is not far behind in third out of a pack of about a hundred. "He's third in points, and now he's going to drop down again. We'll just have to make up for it with a win later on."

 

It's troubling too for the elder Court that there's only so much he can do. He counsels his son before the race, but at the starting line or during pit stops, he knows he has to back off. "He'll listen to the mechanics or the other guys," Dad says, "but he just gets frustrated with me."

The Jacksonville track is famous among go-cart drivers for being one of the country's fastest. Built by the city about three decades ago, the track's corners are banked like the ones in NASCAR. The angled turns allow racers to keep their speed up around the corners before hitting the 1,000-foot straightaway on a track that's six-tenths of a mile long. Those who qualify will have to go into the turns at high speeds to pass on the outside. Passing is the most dangerous part, though. That's when collisions and spin-outs happen. Racers follow a line drawn on the track by rubber left behind by other racers. It gives the go-carts better traction and is the quickest way to the next turn. There's less rubber burned on the straightaways, so racers have to picture the line. "A line is like an imaginary track," the younger Court explains, with an impressive grasp of the technical aspects of his sport. "You make it up in your head, and you follow it, because you want to win. If you get outside the black rubber line, the tires will slide and you scrub off speed."

When the official qualifying times are finally announced, the boys spill out of the trailer for some counseling with the dads. Sebastian had raced better than he thought, with a 39.65-second lap, just six-hundredths of a second behind the kid from Orlando. With that time, he averaged 54 mph during qualifying. Sebastian gets a high-five from his dad, who immediately calls Mom with the news. He's already thinking about what's next, a national race in Illinois this month. After that, Mauricio says, he'll start looking for sponsors to help pay expenses. It's rare for kid racers to get sponsors, but occasionally they may help pay travel expenses for an advertisement on the cart or on the race suits. Mauricio thinks the sponsors will see that his son has a future. "I'm just going to talk to people and say, 'Hey, do you know someone who wants to sponsor my son for, say, $500?'" he says. "I'm going to get a portfolio together with all his wins and photos. It's going to be impressive."

Court, meanwhile, looks near tears as his father bends down over him next to the go-cart. Dad is wearing a T-shirt from his tackle shop and sunglasses on a string. They both have the same hairstyle, although the younger Court's is slightly lighter. "You'll just have to make up for it later on, OK?" Dad consoles.

"Yeah."

"You know you're better than this, right?"

"Yeah."


Finally, the main event for these youngsters. The race in Jacksonville begins with Court quickly taking advantage of his heated tires, which expanded during his extra warm-up laps while his carburetor worked out its kinks. On the first turn, he cuts in front of one cart and then another. His carburetor is now running perfectly. As the drivers enter the long straightaway on the back side, Court passes another kid. He's now just four carts behind Sebastian and moving up fast.

Even with professional drivers, go-cart racing has not yet become a spectator sport. But the races have the same thrills as the ones driven by pros. Like their elders, the kids employ advanced driving skills to draft inches from the go-cart in front of them and pull off dangerous passes that risk their lives. The only significant audience, the dads, cheer and bellow as if their kids have just won the Le Mans. Many wear T-shirts printed with a racecar-driver hero or polo shirts embroidered with the name of the pit crew they've hired for their sons. They're in their 30s or 40s and clearly well-off -- able to spend tens of thousands of dollars on their sons' pastime. They talk about the sport as if it were their own and speak with lust about the intoxicating fumes, the deafening howl of passing carts, and the excitement and heartbreak at the end of the race. "Can you smell that?" Court's father asks while breathing in deeply from beside the track. "God, that's racing fumes."

 

With Court coming up behind him, Sebastian excels. In contrast to his jittery demeanor before the race, he stays calm, blocking out anything but the track. "It's really exciting," he says. "It feels like you're going to lose. But when you get on the track you don't think about anything else. I don't think again until it's over." In the fifth lap, Sebastian uses his momentum from the s-curve and cuts to his right. He angles around Spencer, the kid from Orlando, and into first. Mauricio bites his nails as he watches the action and makes a fist as he sees his son take the lead. He's standing in a pack of dads who cluster under an overhang in the warm-up area, cheering over the growl of the passing go-carts. With Sebastian now in the lead and Spencer close behind, Court continues his ascent by passing Jarvis and another driver. He's now in third, right behind Sebastian.

On the straightaway, Sebastian can almost feel the carts behind him like a breath on the back of his neck. They're following inches from one anothers' bumpers, waiting for a chance to pass on the outside. Sebastian cuts to his left to stop Spencer from passing and then again to his right. In race terms, it's called a "zig and a zag," and it's an illegal maneuver. Racers can cut off a driver in only one direction. Spencer's father, Barry, a former Formula One driver himself, explodes. He was already fired up over Court's extra warm-up. "He can't do that! He just zigged and zagged!"

As it turns out, the move doesn't matter. Sebastian slows too much, and he watches Spencer go by, back into first place, with Court close behind in third. Sebastian quickly realizes what went wrong; his father has been telling him for months to drive more forcefully. Zooming into the turns at full speed while hitting the brake at the last second is scary, Sebastian explains, but fighting among a pack of racers unafraid of slamming into one another is worse. This is where his skills as a driver fail him and fear takes over. "I have to be more aggressive," Sebastian confesses later in a rare moment of candor about the dangers he faces. "I have to pass without being afraid."

In the sixth lap, with just two to go, Court makes a move. Sebastian hugs the inside of the s-curve just before the straightaway, and Court takes the dangerous angle to the outside, where there's less rubber on the road, where a driver can spin out or, worse, flip. There are no stacks of old tires or protective walls on the Jacksonville course. If he fails to judge the turn, Court could end up rocketed into a chain-link fence. Court hits the gas and angles around Sebastian as they hit the straightaway. Again, Sebastian fails to take an aggressive stance by cutting in front of Court, who speeds by in the straightaway. And with Sebastian's failure, Court didn't need the bump-and-pass strategy after all. His heated engine and warmed-up tires gave him that much of an edge.

In the final lap, just over three minutes after the race began, Court has one last chance to seize first from Spencer. They enter the s-curve, and Court cuts up slightly to his right. Spencer is ready, and his cart stays solidly in the center of the track. They enter the straightaway, the g-forces pushing them backward, steering wheels shaking, and the impossible come-from-behind finish remains just out of reach. Court takes second, followed by Sebastian in third and Jarvis in fifth.

In the pit, Sebastian leaves his cart with the mechanics. His dad gets on the cell phone to tell Mom about the results, and more important, that their son is in one piece. Sebastian undoes his racing jacket and lets it hang down on his waist. A third-place finish behind him, he walks back to the trailer alone.

Court III greets his son with the hearty laugh a proud father bestows on a successful son. "Hey, great job, sport!"

"Yeah, I knew I could do it." Court's smiling so wide he's showing a mouthful of blue braces. He didn't win, but Court proved his skill by moving up from nearly last to second. The two of them push the cart together toward the trailer. "Oh man, I thought I could take it."

"That's OK," Dad says. "You did great."

Court and Sebastian head back to the trailer, their faces flushed from the heat and the adrenaline. Their red and black race suits stained from exhaust and road dirt, they settle in behind the trailer's kitchen table. Someday, maybe, paparazzi and fans and champagne will be waiting for the famous Formula One champions after a race. For now, Court and Sebastian celebrate with a couple of cherry snow cones.


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