Rodika Tollefson, KP News
Somewhere on the Key Peninsula, a young man hopes to someday race cars in NASCAR.
“That’s been my dream since I was little,” AJ Butler says.
It’s not so far fetched. This Key Peninsula Middle School sixth-grader, who calls himself an average student, has already conquered many tracks and races. Just on a slightly smaller scale.
AJ started riding dirt bikes at age 5. His father, Frank Butler, was an avid racer who had raced in a NASCAR division. The family traveled around to watch him race. Then Frank decided to quit due to injuries — and AJ got his own racing start.
Three years after doing dirt bikes, AJ and his dad “wanted to do something different,” and switched to quartermidgets. These are the miniature versions of actual midget racers, at about onequarter scale. At least twice a week, they drive to Graham for practice. Almost every weekend during the summer, they drive as far as British Columbia and Portland to competitions — and even to Las Vegas once a year, for the nationals.
AJ says the best part is when he wins, when he takes “the last corner and the checker’s thrown.” He wins quite often. This year in Vegas, he placed eighth in his class of 88 racers. That wasn’t his personal best. Two nationals prior, he placed sixth.
That’s when AJ got a new quartermidget. It was a promise: If he did well, they would move to better equipment. Mom Debbie, who wasn’t so sure about the whole quarter-midget racing deal at first, was the one who insisted on the purchase. Now she can often be spotted putting air into the tires before a race.
And that’s how they all go about it. Mom, dad, AJ. The youngster’s the only one driving the cars, but it’s pretty much a family sport. AJ says his success is due 75 percent to his father. Frank helps him scale the cars, work on the shocks, air the tires, make sure the driver is comfortable. In this sport, the prep work, “setting up the car,” is 50 percent of the battle. The rest is driver skill and knowledge — and here too, Frank plays an integral role.
“It takes more than one person to make a good team. It takes the whole family,” Frank says. “Any child and family can do this.” Adds AJ, “It pulls us together, and makes us a better family."
Boys and girls ages 5 to 16 can drive the open wheel race cars. Safety rules are strictly enforced, and include belts and buckles, arm restraints, racing clothing, helmets, gloves, neck braces, car roll cages, and more. To learn more about quarter-midget racing, visit the Quarter Midgets of America association online at www.quartermidgets.org, or the Little Wheels Quarter Midget Association at www.little-wheels.org.
AJ says he focuses on racing “every day a lot.” But academics come first. No good grades, no racing — that’s the rule. He says he used to get in trouble more often in school, but racing has taught him discipline and has motivated him to get better grades. Some kids at school tease him about his racing, he says, “but it doesn’t change anything.”
For the family, his passion for racing is a huge commitment. On the track, that commitment frequently pays off, along with his own devotion. A racer who skipped the novice category and went to compete straight into senior ones, AJ describes part of his strategy: At home, he often plays racing video games to practice in two dimensions. At practice before a race, “a good driver will watch those who know the track.” During the race, “You have to focus ahead…and the next corner ahead.”
The team also thinks ahead, to the big picture. Even as they have to scale down on the number of races this year, unless they can find a sponsor, they know the goal. Keep racing as long as it’s still fun, and shoot for the club championship. Last year, after adding up all the ribbons, trophies and points, he missed the champ mark by three points.
Beyond that goal— NASCAR, some day. “It will take a lot of racing…and getting a lot of records, and hopefully doing my best,” AJ says.
In our state, NASCAR doesn’t have as much exposure. Fans have to travel far to watch, and sponsors are not as eager. “Having NASCAR come to Washington would be huge,” son and father say.
Their wish could come true. After pulling out of a proposal to build a NASCAR track in Marysville this winter, International Speedway Corp. confirmed in April they were still looking for a site within 30 miles of Seattle. Reports said a Kitsap property, near the Bremerton National Airport, was among the top contenders.
If such a track were built, by then AJ may be almost ready for it. In the meantime, he’ll occupy his time with getting better. Racing in two different categories, he sometimes gets really tired—but not tired enough.
And then, there is that dream.