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It's so hot inside the tent that Mickey Mouse must take a break every 15 minutes to properly hydrate. An assistant leads His Mickeyness to a nearby but concealed location because, at Walt Disney World in Orlando, it is assumed that actually seeing the mouse head pop off and some dripping-wet cast member inside the costume guzzling Gatorade could be so traumatic for children that lawsuits may result. It has happened before.
By now, everyone is ready to go home, but the trophy presentation is an integral part of any United States Auto Club (USAC) national event. This is, after all, the first-ever Mopar .25 Nationals, a genuine big-deal motorsports event for quarter-midget-racing kids, many of whom are still young enough to put out milk and cookies for Santa. Since the racing was held at Walt Disney World — or, more accurately, on a vacant parking lot at Walt Disney World Resort — it was assumed that the Disney cast of characters would present trophies. Mickey Mouse must have drawn the short straw, because he is the only one who showed up.
These are tough, plucky kids — the best of 165 from as far away as New Mexico — who raced their way into the awards-ceremony tent by wheeling their quarter-midgets around the tri-oval racetrack that is 1/20th of a mile long. Since the 1930s, quarter-midgets — which are certainly larger than one-quarter the size of a regular midget race car but compete at speeds that are about one-quarter as fast, on a track that is one-quarter as long -- have been the launching point for hundreds, perhaps thousands, of racing careers.
A.J. Foyt started in a quarter-midget. And so did Johnny Rutherford, Swede Savage, Bobby Labonte, Terry Labonte, Jimmy Vasser, Sarah Fisher, and Ryan Newman. Joey Logano started racing quarter-midgets at age six. Jeff Gordon was five, and had won a championship by age eight.
Are there young drivers at the Mopar .25 Nationals who hope to follow in those footsteps? Yes. And there are definitely a lot of parents single-mindedly steering their kids toward stardom here, especially judging from the 40-foot trailers towed by diesel trucks, evidently required to haul a couple of quarter-midget cars that weigh from 160 to 320 pounds, driver included.
Until a couple of years ago, quarter-midget racing was loosely organized around local racing clubs, which would typically build a little track — dirt or asphalt, they run on both. Then USAC, which sanctions full-size-midget and sprint-car racing, and from 1956 to 1997 sanctioned the Indianapolis 500, smelled an opportunity. In March 2009, USAC created the .25 series, which organized local clubs under one set of rules, and began hosting national events. National champions are decided after 10 races, held from California to Florida. There is no prize money. Racers can be as young as four and a half, as old as 16 before they must "retire." Most racers, if they are serious about it, move on to larger cars in other series long before they reach 16.
There are 15 different classes of quarter-midgets at the mini-Mickyard, but they pretty much look the same to the uninitiated. They differ mostly in wheelbase and the engine used — typically Honda or Briggs & Stratton. Quarter-midget advocates tout the fact that the machines are more like full-size cars than karts, specifically because they have cages, seatbelts, and four-wheel suspensions. Used cars start at about $1,800 complete, and new cars clad in carbon fiber can top $10,000.
Budgets are something Todd "Bubba the Love Sponge" Clem knows all about. As a radio personality, Bubba the Love Sponge — that is what his driver's license and passport say — hosts a very raw syndicated show from Tampa on terrestrial radio, and in 2006, he became the first personality hired by equally raw Howard Stern to help fill out the two channels Stern programs on Sirius satellite radio.
Besides owning a super-late-model team that he races for himself at full-size dirt tracks across the Southeast, Bubba the Love Sponge has a first-class quarter-midget program for his eight-year-old son, Tyler, as well as for two friends, 11-year-old Michael Atwell and, next year, nine-year-old Trevor Taylor. All race under the banner of Clem Racing, Inc., and Tyler and Michael have already been signed as development drivers for NASCAR racer Tony Stewart and his Stewart-Haas motorsports team.
Bubba the Love Sponge has some sponsors, but most of the expenses come out of his pocket. "If I had to write a check for everything we've spent on Tyler's career, it would probably be somewhere between $500,000 and $750,000," he says. "And you include the plane I bought to make sure we can get to and from the races" — a twin-engine Cessna 414 — "and we're over a million dollars."
Tyler started driving quarter-midgets when he was three. Bubba says, "I bought a Stanley quarter-midget, fabbed it up with pedals and seats for him, and he just drove it around for two years. We called it 'quarter-midget day care.' " Two years later, Tyler started racing, and this year, he has been pursuing a national USAC title. He raced in nine of the 10 national races this season, missing only the California one, and finished third out of 66 racers in the Junior Honda class and won the Junior Animal title ("Animal" is the Briggs & Stratton engine used in that division). By the end of the year, Tyler will have raced in 55 local, regional, and national events in 2010.