By Richard Mundy
For Hometown News
If you are a racing fan, you recognize names like Jeff Gordon, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Danica Patrick and Tony Stewart. But do you know Dillen Brown, Chase Stewart or even Chase Symons? Probably not -- at least not yet.
They all have one thing in common. They all started their racing careers in go-karts. The difference: the first group includes some of the brightest stars of NASCAR while the second group is just getting started.
With its roots in the 1950s, go-kart racing is the least expensive form of motor sports. As it evolved, hometown races became a popular pastime, sanctioning bodies such as the World Karting Association sprang up and, in the 1990s, it became a professional sport.
Volusia County is a hotbed for go-kart tracks, which is only fitting for "The Birthplace of Speed." And many articles written about "How to become a race car driver" state to "start early and start in go karts."
There are a number of public tracks around, where a budding Jimmie Johnson can go, plunk down a few bucks, and get on the track and test his or her abilities. Tracks such as Go Kart City in Port Orange, Daytona Beach's Fun Spot, Volusia Karting and Daytona Lagoon.
Josh Henderson of Daytona Lagoon said, "Our go karts are recreational, we don't do organized racing. Our owners have interests in some other tracks, too." One track is Speed Park Motorsports near Daytona International Speedway. They also are open to the public with three different tracks and a drag strip.
As young racers move from the public tracks to the tracks that offer racing with other competitors, the more skillful drivers rise up the ranks to faster equipment and sanctioned races. And when the sport produces a Kevin Harvick or Michael Andretti, it lights the path for a wanna-be racecar driver.
One such local racer is Dillen Brown, a 12-year old who has been racing since he was 5 years old, according to his mother, Lisa Brown. "His father raced and Dillen was always at race tracks. My older son also started racing in go-karts. It's always been a family thing.
"He started out at Volusia Karting, enjoyed it and it developed from that," Ms. Brown said. He's now racing in the middle class division with karts going as fast as 60 mph. He races on dirt ovals from Florida to North Carolina and last year he did really well. He won four touring championships and the Maxxis (a tire manufacturer sponsor) championship in Neese, S.C., which was a National Dirt Championship series."
He also raced at the WKA finale in December at the DIS go-kart track.
"We started on a high and ended on a low," Ms. Brown said. "On the first race, first lap, he wrecked."
"Right now he wants to discover what his next step is -- his options are open," she said. "He wants to race, he has a knack for it, but he's shy and talking with the public or press is a challenge.
"He's learning now to give feedback about what the kart is doing so that it can be improved," Ms. Brown said. "He's starting to 'turn the wrenches' and asking questions. We're excited about the upcoming season because he's becoming so much more involved in more than just driving."
Also, she said, "It's a family activity. My son, husband, myself and my daughter, who goes with us to all the races, involve us all together."
Chase Stewart, 10, is another budding go-karter who has had no other ambition than to drive racecars. His grandfather, Lonnie Ritenour, is the former owner of the Mercedes and Jaguar dealerships in Ormond Beach and an ace mechanic. His race team, Silver Star, provides for its star driver, Chase.
In fact, as with most, the whole family, mother (Heather Linek), father, grandfather, grandmother (official photographer) and sister (who provides a special hand shake before each race as a good luck charm) are involved.
Chase has been driving for about two years, according to Ms. Linek. "He won three championships in 2013, Vega State Pro Series, Volusia Karting and Original Park Speedway. He has always loved racing, appreciates the history of it and loves today's racing as well."
At the premier event of the year at DIS in December, Chase ran in the Junior One Lite Category and led most of the race until the last lap when he finished second in a photo finish. The Junior One division is for 10 to 12 year olds.
"He's racing and beating older kids," his grandfather said. "He ran at Leesburg and won that series. Out of 14 races he won six and the championship. He won six of 15 at the Barberville track, winning that championship. So he's been on a little streak right now."
Naturally he has aspirations of racing in NASCAR and he's already picked his number. He wants to run as no. 40, the number he uses on his kart.
His grandfather added, "We were racing at Jasper (a large two-track facility where Chase won three races that day) when one of the 'big guys' (a representative of a go-kart engine manufacturer) came up to me ... and said that's hard to do when somebody from out of town comes in and wins like that. He said he had watched Jeff Gordon race as a kid ... and said (Chase) races just like Jeff did. He said that Chase was a future Jeff Gordon."
"You can't get a much better compliment than that," Mr. Ritenour said.
It seems the pipeline is always full. Glenn Carter of the New Smyrna Beach Kart Track has nighttime races.
"The minimum age is five and our oldest driver is 57," Mr. Carter said. "We're trying to get kids interested in something other than video games."
"I've got one kid that started last year at 5 years old and he's setting the track on fire," he said. "His Dad is a racecar driver at the speedway. His name is Chase Symons."