Let’s go kart: life as an aspiring race car driverWritten by Staff Reports | | firstname.lastname@example.org
By Michelle Li, Toledo Free Press Staff Writer
For most of us, go-karting means an afternoon at the putt-putt course: three rounds of the track and then calling it a day. It’s over when the helmet comes off.
But for Evan Fritts, go-karting doesn’t end there.
It’s a lifestyle.
It means the path to becoming a professional race car driver, his dream job since the age of 10.
It means a 200-mile drive every weekend to Pittsburgh to practice with his Checkered Motorsports teammates. What weekends he doesn’t spend in Pittsburgh, he spends in cities across the country competing against other teens.
It means driving a kart at speeds up to 90 miles per hour, where a few tenths of a second is the difference between first place and seventh place.
It means following an intense fitness regimen required to withstand the heat and maintain control of the kart during a race.
It means watching hours of footage from his GoPro camera to analyze the best strategy for improving by those tenths of a second.
“Brake three feet deeper here,” his coach might tell him. And that means Evan will go out to the track to practice that turn for another hour.
For Fritts, go-karting has meant adrenaline, constant travel and ruthless dedication.
On paper, he’s a 16-year-old student at St. Francis de Sales High School, thinking about college and studying business.
In the flesh, he’s a racer.
Last month, that hard work brought Evan to his first time on the podium in a national race. This month, Evan finishes out his third season of karting — his first in the United States Pro Kart Series.
Karen Fritts, Evan’s mother, said go-karting at the putt-putt course creates a misconception about Evan’s sport.
“Most people think, when you tell them [Evan does] karting, they’re thinking that’s what you’re in — going 15, 30 miles an hour,” Karen said. “There’s really no comparison, in terms of the chassis, the engines, the setup. It’s totally different. It’s a serious sport.”
Evan added that the bustle of activity surrounding the racetrack on race day is overwhelming. He said one recent event had 300 entries.
“There’s tens of millions of dollars’ worth of trailers and equipment there, with at least 15 or 20 53-foot-long NASCAR trailers,” he said. “It’s such a small sport that so few people know about it. Until you’re in it, you just don’t realize how huge it is.”
Fritts’ dive into the sport started with a video game.
“It was my seventh or eighth birthday when I got a PlayStation for Christmas, and I got a racing game on it,” he said. “I remember just playing it and thinking, ‘Wow, I just love racing cars.’”
But what compelled him to pursue racing beyond video games, he said, happened when he was 10. Up until then, he said he had never realized what racing could be like outside of a putt-putt course.
“We went to the auto shows every year and I had like a million Hot Wheels,” he joked, “but I never really thought about racing until I was channel surfing one day, and I saw that the Formula One Grand Prix of Japan was on. And I thought, ‘Maybe I’ll watch this.’”
The more he watched, the more Fritts realized he wanted to be a race car driver when he grew up.
His said his decision solidified when he and his family attended a Grand-Am Rolex race later that year.
“I just remember the noise of the cars, and I could smell the tires and the gasoline, just thinking that this is the coolest thing ever,” Fritts said. “I wanna do this, you know, why not?”
A bit of research told him that many race car drivers started out racing go karts. So karting was where he would start his racing career, too.
Karen said Evan began begging her and her husband for a kart, further inspired by their neighbor at the time who had a street kart of his own.
“We had to keep explaining to him that no, they’re not street legal. No, I’m not buying you a kart,” Karen said.
But two years later, she and her husband relented. In January 2012, Evan and his father discovered the Pittsburgh International Race Complex, a racetrack with a club racing series that had an age class in which Evan could compete.
Next was getting their hands on a kart.
“It was later in spring of that year when [my dad and I] got a chassis,” Evan said. “It was a secondhand chassis, you know, because we were just getting into the sport. So we got an old chassis, and an even older motor, and we just set out doing tons of days of testing, just to learn to drive and race . . . how to brake hard, be aggressive, and then how to tune the car.”
In his first Pittsburgh club series race, Fritts finished in last place.
A small victory came when he finished second to last in a later club race.
But he said this didn’t deter him from his dream.
“That year, the first year racing — it was just a learning year,” he said. “It was just figuring out how to drive it . . . just hours of frustration in the garage, trying to figure things out.”
Coach Robert Bujdoso, whose father owns the Pittsburgh International Race Complex, said these hours in the garage are what set Fritts apart from his teammates.
Since meeting Fritts last year, Bujdoso said he has seen his passion for the sport show in many ways. The most prominent is an enthusiasm for learning the mechanics behind the strategy of karting.
“He’s more of a hands-on guy who really works on his own stuff,” Bujdoso said. “He’s not someone who just sits around, being there. He’s there doing things himself.”
Bujdoso recalled a time when Evan’s kart broke down during a race in South Bend, Indiana. While other racers may have had someone else do the repairs, Fritts jumped in himself.
“He just ended up putting the whole engine on by himself,” Bujdoso said.
Fritts’ racing career picked up quickly once the first learning year ended. After winning champion of the first three club races in his second season last year, he said he felt ready to compete in regional races.
It was only a matter of weeks before Fritts entered the national circuit. Karen said he moved from one series to another fairly quickly, often placing higher than his peers who have raced far longer than he has.
“One thing to remember is, the kids that he’s racing with at this level — they’ve been racing since they were 5 or 6 years old,” Karen said. “So Evan really started kind of late in the game and has progressed well in a short amount of time.”
That year, after placing sixth in his first national race, Evan was named Driver of the Year by the Pittsburgh International Race Complex.
At the end of his second season karting, Fritts joined a bigger team with Checkered Motorsports. He said this past year has been filled primarily by national races with club races in between as practice.
Fritts said the challenge of competing at the national level brings mixed feelings, describing the initial chaos of a race.
“I get a little nervous, especially in the starting grid. Two-by-two, everybody’s rolling up to the starting line, trying to get the best start possible,” he said. “You don’t really know what’s going to happen next. ’Cause when you’re trying to get 30 guys through a 10-foot-wide patch of asphalt, it’s just so hectic and everybody’s shuffling, bumping each other. So there’s a little bit of a fear aspect in there, but I think that’s fun. I just ride the adrenaline.”
Those around Fritts have found themselves brought closer together by the sport.
“We’ve officially become a racing family,” Karen said, adding with a smile, “We even have the clothing to verify that.”
“As you get to know someone, you start to open up a little bit,” he said. “We’re already a big family. We’ve [become one] as the year has kind of played out.”
Bujdoso said he rarely sees the kind of support provided by Evan’s racing family, particularly by Evan’s parents. They provide a deeper level of encouragement, he said, that’s not just simply supplying Evan with the will to continue.
“It’s not that Karen motivates Evan, because I think Evan’s already motivated on his own,” Bujdoso said. “But she keeps pushing him to get better.”
Fritts said he feels the same way about his racing family. Aside from Bujdoso and others who help with the team, he said his parents have been helpful from the very beginning.
“When you tell your parents, ‘I wanna race go-karts’ — which means you’re gonna have to spend tens of thousands of dollars and give up just about every weekend in the spring, fall and summer — most of them would’ve said no,” Fritts said. “But mine said, ‘Yeah, let’s do it.’”
There’s an old saying in the racing world, Fritts said, about turn one. They say you can’t win the race in the first turn, but you can lose it in the first turn.
For Fritts, the past three years have been filled with crazy experiences and national achievements. He said the first turn is crucial in every race.
So what does go-karting mean to him?
It means the first turn is just the beginning.
For more information, visit “Evan Fritts Racing” on Facebook or read Evan’s blog at www.evanfrittsracing.com.
Tags: Checkered Motorsports, Evan Fritts, go kart racing, GoPro camera, Grand-Am Rolex race, Karen Fritts, karting, Nascar, Pittsburgh International Race Complex, PlayStation, race car driver, Robert Bujdoso, St. Francis De Sales High School, United States Pro Kart Series