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State

Young racer running circles around the competition

BURLINGTON (AP) — It is a typical 8-year old boy’s room, complete with athletic posters on the walls and a scattering of games and misplaced clothes. But there is one difference, because on a large shelf rests a collection of shinning trophy cups, plaques and ribbons attesting to Burlington’s Ian Steward’s racetrack driving skills.

At an age where many of his peers are content to roam their neighborhoods on bicycles and skate boards, Ian has tackled and mastered the skills of circling a dirt oval track behind the wheel of a mini-sprint car at speeds up to 40 miles per hour while negotiating heavy traffic.

This August, Ian’s skills behind the wheel of his 6.5 horsepower mini-sprint car were recognized when he took first place honors in the 10-to-12 age class at the prestigious English Creek Speedway at the Knoxville track. The towering trophy dominates his awards shelf but Ian is anxious to add further hardware to his display.

Ian’s preferred mode of transportation is a “Winged Outlaw Dirt Kart”. It was conceived as an entry level vehicle for youngsters wishing to become involved in the highly competitive world of Sprint Car racing. The mini-sprint cars differ from a go-cart’s flat profile in that they have a sprint car style cage attached and are opened wheel.

The karts were first raced in California in the 1980s and are intended to provide a higher degree of driver safety. In addition to the protective cage, they boast a high back seat and five point seat belts. Drivers also are equipped with a protective neck collar and arm restraints.

In spite of these safety precautions, there can still be a degree of anxiety for parents watching their child take to the 1/6 mile oval for the first time.

Ian’s father, Donnie Stewart, and his mother, Becca, are well acquainted with these normal parental worries — even though Donnie is an experienced racer and competes at area tracks.

“I do a lot of driving, and Ian watched what I was doing and one day told me he wanted to drive,” Donnie remembers. “At first he wanted to race motorcycles, but I knew he was way too young for that, so we settled on the mini-sprint cars. We started him off slow when he was 6. There was a restrictor on the engine, and we made sure he had a feeling for what he was doing.

“But I have to admit, I was pretty nervous when I watched his first race and he pulled out to pass another slower cart. It still can be pretty nerve wracking watching him race,” Donnie said

Ian, when pressed, will also confess to a certain amount of nervousness at his first race.

“It was a little frightening when I started and I pulled out to pass another car. But it wasn’t too bad, and now it’s just a lot of fun, and I have made a lot of good friends at the track,” he said.

Ian’s pit crew largely consists of his father, but a number of local sponsors, Big River Resources, Heartland Harley Davidson, Jerry’s Main Lunch and Big River Resources, help defer some of the costs. But the Stewards are aware racing can be an expensive sport.

“There are entry fees to be paid, miles put on a car, and the Kart can be expensive,” Donnie reports. “But we all enjoy it, and it is worth in to watch Ian compete.”

Those costs will only increase as Ian continues to move up in class. He is looking forward to move into the intermediate class of drivers where he will be competing with drivers as old as 15.

“That should be a lot of fun,” Ian said, “because I will really be able to go wide open.”

Although sprint car racing occupies much of Ian’s attention, he remains a well-rounded 8-year old. He is a student at Burlington’s Sunnyside Elementary School and enjoys competing in baseball and soccer. But when this year’s Halloween arrives, his attention will not be on trick-or-treating but rather on his next race — the Halloween Classic at Quincy.

This race will be a move up in competitive class and another step in becoming part of the next generation of NASCAR drivers. It will also be an opportunity for Donnie and Becca to watch from the pits with a mixture of pride and worry.

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