Murto: How young is too young?

Ever since Jeff Gordon appeared on the racing scene in the early 1990s, the race has been on to get young drivers behind the wheel at a young age.

NASCAR allows 15-year-old drivers in its K&N Pro Series cars on short tracks. There are touring Late Model series that allow drivers as young as 12 behind the wheel.

Over the weekend in Florida, a 15-year-old girl was killed in a four-cylinder car at a local dirt track. Newspaper reports state the accident occurred on her second lap of time trials, and that she hit a concrete barrier head-on. According to the reports, it was the girl’s first time at the track and first time in the car.

Nobody’s reported whether the girl had a modern racing seat installed or was wearing a HANS device. And it could be that the girl was a Legends champion and the newspaper reporter didn’t know enough to ask about prior racing experience.

But the fact still remains that a 15-year-old girl was killed on a dirt track behind the wheel of a full-size race car.

You’ll see it all over the country; children behind the wheel of race cars that many adults can’t handle. But is it the right thing to do?

The sport has changed a lot. It used to be that you had to be 21 to race at all at most local tracks, and 18-year-olds could race with parental permission. Rookies in top NASCAR divisions were 30 years old by the time they worked their way up, not 17 and 18 as they are now.

Racing’s a dangerous game at any age. There are those who will argue that children get killed and injured playing football and hockey, and that racing is so much safer today than it’s ever been that these tragedies are rare.

That may be true, but what’s not rare are politicians grabbing a hold of an emotionally charged issue and using it to make a name for themselves. Racing needs to take a good look at this issue and police itself, because when 15-year-old girls get killed on dirt short tracks people who are not involved in the sport take notice. And when they take notice, politicians take notice, and may we may not like the results if they choose to police the sport for us.

Are mentoring programs the answer, in which young racers get instruction from veterans before being allowed on the track? How young is too young? Should racers not be allowed to race against adults or race in full-size vehicles until the age of 16, and only if they have previous experience? Are safety measures at some these short tracks adequate for anybody, let alone children? Should racers — regardless of age — be made to get a competition license based on ability, as is the way things are done in sports car racing?

This is not to fault anybody for the tragic loss of the 15-year-old girl in Florida. Our thoughts and prayers should be with her parents, family and friends. Officials at the track will have heavy hearts for a long time. But we can’t have this happening and just brush it off as a case of racing being dangerous. If racing doesn’t police itself, politicians may get involved, and we probably won’t like what they dictate.

Dale Hollidge dictated to the field at Potomac Speedway in Maryland on Friday, winning the opening Late Model feature of the year. Unfortunately there were only 11 cars. The Crate Late Models did a little better with 12 cars; their feature winner was Ben Bowie.

Winchester Speedway opened last weekend, and as he did at Hagerstown, Rick Eckert dominated and won the Late Model opener behind the wheel of Paul Crowl’s No. 7. Only 14 cars were in the event, though the Crate Late Models had a healthy 24-car field, bested by Chad McClellan.

Hagerstown Speedway had the healthiest field for local dirt tracks, as Mason Zeigler won the 24-car Late Model feature and Justin Weaver grabbed the Late Model Sportsman win against 16 other competitors. Be sure to put July 5 on your calendar to head to Hagerstown and see the AMA Hub City Classic flat track motorcycle race.

Of course the big AMA flat track race in the region will be Aug. 23 at Colonial Downs. The 1.25-mile track, known as “the Virginia Mega Mile,” is the biggest on the flat track schedule and provides for a spectacular show.

Shenandoah Speedway’s oval opens April 12. The motocross competitors are already racing; visit Shenandoah-speedway.com for information.

Veteran motorsports columnist Craig Murto is a Linden resident.