September 21, 2005 - All it took was a sneer and some incidental contact to ignite the flames of competitive fire. Once the all-or-nothing battle for inside positioning was on between Stephen Thomas and Connor Pyle, someone was going to come out in the lead, regardless of car damage, personal injury or the flailing arms of frantic parents urging them, if not demanding them, to return to the pit.
And this was just during warmups.
Hidden on a dusty swatch of land in Marana just off I-10, one of Arizona's biggest roadways, lies one of the state's smallest: the Tucson Quarter Midget Racetrack. It's home to every kid who dreams of one day becoming the next Dale Earnhardt, Richard Petty or, to a lesser extent, Jeff Gordon.
It is here in Marana where racing careers are started and the thirst for speed is quenched.
Quarter Midget racing has less to do with little people than it has to do with big dreams. The first step for almost any future racer, quarter midget racing engages the maniacal passions of grease-elbowed fathers who build something for their sons while at the same time satiating the overwhelming desire for an 8-year-old boy to be bad with a blessing from Mom. In laymen's terms, they make tiny race cars for kids.
The track in Marana is just one of two in the state and is one among four that comprise the Southwest circuit. If they're not headed to Marana, then the trailers of fathers and sons, mothers, daughters and close family friends may be hauling their mini racers to Phoenix, Albuquerque or the recently added El Paso. That's thousands of miles just to drive a little bit more.
Starting at the age of 5, racers are eligible to compete on the quarter midget circuit until the age of 15. Many on the NASCAR circuit have gotten their start on the quarter midget level, including NASCAR's Gordon.
Just as in NASCAR, each quarter midget course isn't without its own idiosyncrasies.
"This is like the Talladega of quarter midget racing," said Ken Janzen of Scottsdale, comparing the Marana track to that of NASCAR's Alabama holy race yard. Both are the longest and widest in their respective genres.
Janzen and his son Derek are regulars in the Southwest as are so many of the families that gathered in the parking lot of the Marana quarter midget track Sept. 10 to both close out the summer series and start up the winter schedule.
"It's just like a big family out here," said Diane Saltsman of Marana, whose son Chris, 10, was racing in the day's heats. On that day, Saltsman was in charge of concessions in the RV-riddled parking lot that resembled a NASCAR tailgate party more than a youth sporting event. "The best friends we have are in racing."
In Marana, racing families are welcomed with open arms. Every member of the Southwest Quarter Midget family is given a key to the track and can practice there at any time.
In the Southwest region, 237 drivers are broken down into a dozen categories by weight and experience.
At the Sept. 10 race in Marana, 40 racers donned helmets and floored it around the track.
On a weekend during which NFL and NCAA football often reign supreme, the only pigskin found here was in a parking lot game of two-hand touch played by bored youngsters while the dads fine-tuned the cars.
These pint-sized cars are basically built in the same fashion as NASCAR racers, except the midgets run on what is the equivalent of a lawn mower engine.
With five-point harnesses and hydraulic brakes, safety is the No. 1 concern for everyone involved on the quarter midget circuit. For an added safety measure, the suits the kids wear are made of Nomex, a fireproof polymer also used by the drivers in NASCAR.
"It's extremely safe," said Curtis Stacy, Tucson Quarter Midget race director who added that a car could be held completely upside-down and the driver still would not fall out. "There's never been a (major) accident in 70 years of quarter midget racing."
The biggest expense in maintaining the cars is for tires. A pair of right tires can cost upward of $100 and needs to be replaced roughly every six to eight heat cycles, which means six to eight races or practice rounds. Because the cars only make left-handed turns, the right tires are about twice the width and price of the left ones.
Despite the maddening rise of petroleum prices, fuel-efficiency on the quarter midget circuit is surprisingly excellent. Stacy and his son are still on the same five gallons he bought last year. Other components, such as oil and valve springs, need regular tweaking, an activity embraced by the fathers.
"That's the fun of it," Stacy said. "For a dad, we get to play with (the car)."
Used cars start at about $900 and can be found in specialty shops or even online at sites such as eBay. A new racer, however, can cost as much as $7,000.
But cost doesn't matter to the kids. For them it's speed, speed and more speed.
"It's pretty cool going around that track and getting that feeling that you're going to win," said the gap-toothed Chris Saltsman with a devious smile peaking out from underneath the weathered Houston Astros ball cap he wears to honor a friend who died this summer.
It may not be breakneck speed, but these tiny speed racers do burn rubber faster than most people drive home from work in the evening. A typical car will top out at about 45 mph and do a lap in about seven seconds. Quick laps are made possible because a quarter midget track is .05 miles long.
As the night wears on at the Marana track, the course gets faster as rubber from the tires fills in the nooks and crannies of the asphalt.
And although the cracks fill, other amenities still are needed to fix up the track and its surroundings. Through donations, Tucson Quarter Midget officials are hoping to one day be able to add permanent lights to the track.
Races are held in Marana twice a season and twice at the Phoenix and Albuquerque tracks. Racers can, and often do, stray outside the region to California, Colorado, New Mexico and as far as Indianapolis. Both Janzen and Stacy estimate they will spend 20 to 25 weekends out of the year on the road with their kids and their cars.
This is what brings them together and how they bond, said Stacy, who said he is often on the road during the week and away from the family.
On the road, just like dad. That's where every kid in quarter midget racing longs to be.
As for the rivalry between Pyle and Thomas, that died the instant they decided to heed the threats of their parents and finally pulled off about 20 extra laps later.