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No Trikes for These Tykes

For a growing number of kids, drag racing has become the sport of choice.

May 01, 1997|LAURIE K. SCHENDEN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Snuggled into the seat of a sleek, low-to-the-ground dragster, Mallory O'Brien is unrecognizable in a shiny black helmet, thick gloves and fire-retardant clothing. The Too Hot to Handle monogram on the side of her pointy racing machine is an intimidating sight at the starting line. O'Brien studies the tree--the vertically stacked starting lights between the two racing lanes.

Yellow, yellow, yellow, green! Too Hot zips down the straight one-eighth-mile stretch of Pomona Raceway, going nearly 60 mph.

O'Brien appears to have already mastered the mental, physical and mechanical demands of the sport in only her second year as a drag racer. But one thing annoys her, and that's the reaction--mostly from outside the racing community--to her gender. About one-third of the competitors in the Pomona racing league are female, so she thinks being a girl is not a big deal.

What is a big deal, however, is her age. O'Brien is only 10 years old.

Credit the National Hot Rod Assn. (NHRA) with taking toys out of the hands of children and replacing them with Briggs & Stratton 5-horsepower engines.

And, although it seems scary, in the four years juniors have been racing at Pomona, there has never been a racing accident, according to George Phillips, NHRA director of field services. The reason is that, although the cars can go up to 60 mph for younger drivers and 80 mph for the older kids, the safety precautions are as elaborate as for the top-fuel drivers who go 300 mph. Besides the helmets and other safety clothing the kids wear, there are also roll bars on the cars and the young drivers don't have any curves or corners to maneuver.

In just six years, the Jr. Drag Racing League has developed a 10-race series that is held at 120 tracks around the country, including O'Brien's home track in Pomona (others include Rialto, Palmdale, Bakersfield and San Diego). The series culminates with a national competition, which this year is set for the last weekend in July in Denver.

The dragsters are half-scale replicas of the top-fuel dragsters on the pro circuit and go half the distance. Some of the cars are owned by parents, others by sponsors. Some drivers share their cars, especially siblings who compete in different age groups. The divisions begin with 8- to 9-year-olds, followed by 10-11, 12-13 and 14-17.

The philosophy behind the junior racing, said Marilyn Ablott, an NHRA employee whose 11-year-old son, Andy, is in his first year behind the wheel, is that racing "is an alternative to gangs and drugs. Not every kid is good in baseball or good in soccer, and we want kids to have a reason to stay in school and get good grades."

From the NHRA's viewpoint, it's also a good way to get kids interested in racing, whether as a spectator or as a future participant.

"As a mother," Ablott said, "I think Andy is learning to be a good sport; he's having fun--and keeping his grades up in school. He knows if he doesn't keep his grades up, he's not going to drive."

The sport is not cheap, with the average dragster costing $3,000 to $4,000. Most kids get sponsors to cover the cost of entry fees, clothing, gas and oil. But, as Phillips, likes to put it: "If Dad plays golf, he probably spends as much as it would take to run the car. There are all kinds of ways to spend money on a hobby."

And, NHRA's Phillips added, the entire family gets involved in drag racing. "The family becomes the team, the parents don't just drop the kids off," he says.

Although the driver is the center of attention for the 10 to 12 seconds of the race, the preparation takes days, and race day is an all-day commitment.

"My parents take care of my car," Mallory said. "My grandma comes out every week to watch. My mom makes sure I get my time slip, Dad gets the car ready, Grandpa starts it and my little brother Billy is in my pit crew."

The Cox family takes its dedication to the sport even further. Known around the track as the "Mr. Toads" (in honor of Grandpa "Toad" Cox, their sponsor), the three racers in the family are Del Cox Jr., 15, and his cousins, Chris Bond, 11, and Christina Bond, 13. The troupe travels to racetracks every weekend in a custom trailer driven by Del Sr. Uncle Fred maintains the cars, Aunt Sharon helps prepare the picnic-style meals. The family trailer hauls 10 race cars and sleeps several people--and has all the comforts of home, including a shower, TV and VCR.

Del Sr. has been taking his son, now among the top drivers in his age category, to drag races since the child was 2. About six years ago, they were at a Las Vegas track where the Jr. Drag Racing league was running. "I said, 'We need that here,' " Del Sr. said. "This is the greatest thing they've done for kids since Little League."

Ralph Hinds, the late CEO of the Los Angeles County fairgrounds, made it all possible, opening the Pomona Raceway to junior racers four years ago. Since then, Pomona has become the largest track for juniors in Southern California.

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