Speed racers’ mom

The first year my sons raced go-karts, I joked that I only went to watch so I’d be there to hold their hand in the ambulance on the way to the hospital. That was before I saw 14-year-old Melissa Court catch a wheel on one of the hay bales marking turn 1 at Langford, BC’s Western Speedway. She swerved into Kyle Vantreight, got wedged under his rear wheel, and was tossed from her kart like a crash-test dummy. When I watched her limp body slam onto the asphalt, I hit a wall of my own.

Melissa wasn’t seriously injured, but her accident brought the racing career of my younger son, Steve, to a screeching stop. At 11, he was as reckless as his older brother Jesse was cautious. Putting a kid like Steve behind the wheel of a vehicle going 110 km/hour was more irresponsible than I was willing to be.

I knew he would eventually get back in a kart. I’d seen the day coming since Joe, the boys’ dad, put a four-cycle go-kart under the Christmas tree when Jesse was 4 and Steve was still in diapers.

"Three Amigos" intent on tweaking the engine. Joe, Steve, and Jesse Dardengo made a great team from the start and eventually raced together most competitively under the banner of 3D Racing.

“Three Amigos” in mechanical focus. Joe, Steve, and Jesse Dardengo eventually raced together – and against each other – under the banner of 3D Racing.

This is not the sport I would choose for my children, I think. But I did. I could have married a birdwatcher, a ten-pin bowler. I married a racer. What did I expect?

Jesse and Steve grew up watching their dad race his stock car at Western Speedway on Saturday nights. When Jesse, at 12, seemed less enthusiastic than his dad about racing go-karts, I took him aside and assured him he didn’t have to do it if he didn’t want to. He looked me straight in the eye.

“Are you crazy, Mom? I’ve been waiting my whole life for this!”

Every race car driver I’ve ever met shared Jesse’s passion, and that certainly applied to the members of the Capital City Kart Club, which used to boast the most gorgeous setting of any racetrack in Canada. A kilometre west of Youbou on southern Vancouver Island, the club made a temporary home in 2002 on the site of what used to be TimberWest’s Cowichan Lumbermill.

On a cloudless late September morning that year, the north shore of Cowichan Lake was on fire with autumn colour. Cottonwoods and maples flamed yellow and red where an azure sky met the deep, dark blue of the water.

The view was wasted on the drivers: “When you’re out there, all you see is the track.”

Jesse, then 15, was the reason I was in the stands that day for the kart club’s season finale. Unlike most of the spectators on the weathered grandstand, I was a reluctant fan. Almost all of the bodies in the bleachers were family members of the drivers, and they kibitzed together with the ease of people who spent every other weekend together.

Capital City Kart Club was a community built on a love of racing. In the pit area behind the grandstand, where the Cowichan Lumbermill workers used to park their cars, rows of motor homes, car haulers, and pop-up awnings formed a mobile village ten weekends a year. The asphalted acre on the western edge of Youbou, 40 kilometres from Duncan on Highway 18, became a temporary home for the club when its track at Cassidy Speedway south of Nanaimo was forced to shut down in 1999 after a citizens’ group who opposed it did some research and discovered the property was never zoned for a racetrack.

When TimberWest tore down Cowichan Lumbermill in 2001, the kart club turned a longing eye to the site. The huge slab of pavement and its central Island location suited their needs perfectly. They approached the forest industry giant about a short-term lease and then sold themselves to the cash-strapped town of Youbou as an economic shot in the arm. Local reviews of the club’s arrival in Youbou were mixed. Some residents objected to the noise, while others saw the kart club’s presence as a much-needed boost in a town that had lost its major employer.

“I can understand why people don’t like the noise,” I shouted at Steve over the din of the shifter karts.

“You call that noise? It’s music!” he grinned. He explained that each class of kart had its own distinctive tone. The shifters sounded to me like a swarm of hornets on steroids. Only three competitors in the shifter class lined up that day and Guy Barrett had the lead sewn up. The shifters were the fastest and most expensive of the club’s six classes. Barrett’s machine was worth $13,000, but a driver could be competitive in any of the other classes with an investment under $3,500.

That relatively low price tag is one of the reasons kart racing is the fastest growing form of motor racing. Karts are a starting point for some. A young driver with talent might progress to Formula Atlantic cars, Indy Lights, and Champ Cars. Most of the adult drivers—many of them former stock car racers like Barrett—want nothing more than to race at a recreational level. The 8- to 15-year-olds dream of winning the Indy 500.

Melissa Court was one of them. She relaxed on the grandstand with her grandmother between heats, her grease-stained turquoise racing suit unzipped to the waist and the sleeves tied loosely around her hips. Melissa was 15 that year and the club’s only female competitor. A few women and girls have tried to break into the sport, but the macho world of racing is hostile to them, and not many stick with it. An animated girl with long blonde hair pulled back in a ponytail, Melissa had been racing karts since she was 8.

“My dad started taking me to the rent-a-karts when I was 5, but I got frustrated because they didn’t go fast enough.”

When I asked her if the other drivers gave her a hard time, she wrinkled her nose.

“They were really mean to me at the beginning. Nobody would talk to me. Hey, Alex!” She called out to a boy at the far end of the grandstand. Alex Mouner scrambled over to join us.

“Do you guys give me a hard time?”

“Yeah, but you deserve it!” The red-cheeked 12-year-old laughed and jabbed her arm.

Alex was Melissa’s fiercest rival in the 12- to 15-year-old Formula 100 Junior division. Rookie Junior champion the year before, he was first in the standings going into that day’s race. Melissa was 1085 points back—too far back to catch him—but only because she missed two race days early in the season. They were equally likely to command the lead in their ten-lap races. Melissa’s racing style was aggressive—too aggressive, Jesse thought.

I asked her what it would take for her to make it to the top of her sport.

“Not talent,” she declared. “There are a lot of talented people who have the same dream I have. Most of them aren’t going to make it.”

What would it take, then?

“Marketing.”

She was matter-of-fact. “I’m lucky I’m a girl, because I’m marketable.” She explained that unless she could find a generous corporate sponsor, her chances of progressing were nil. And the competition for sponsors could be just as tough as the contest behind the wheel.

“Sportsmanship is important, too,” she added. “You have to be nice to everybody, even when you don’t want to.”

Glancing over my shoulder, she noticed a teammate pulling his go-kart onto the track. She excused herself and ran over to help. Like a devoted puppy, Alex followed.

Jesse’s Piston Port Seniors were next.

Pit chief Dad prepares to push Jesse into place for the start.

Joe prepares to push Jesse into place for the start.

The starter says one more warm-up lap.

My stomach tightened anxiously as the drivers moved into their assigned positions during warm-up laps. Jesse was starting in the middle of the adult pack—a position that made me nervous. When the green flag drops and eight drivers vie for an early lead, wheels can tangle. Karts can crash.

Stay out of trouble, stay out of trouble, I chanted under my breath. On the hairpin Turn 5, Harvey Grant spun out in front of him, leaving Jesse nowhere to go. He plowed into Grant, then Jim Lucas hit him from behind—a harmless scuffle but enough to knock all three drivers out of the race.

I was secretly relieved to see Jesse drag his kart off the track and watch the last nine laps from behind a tire wall. I was probably the only parent there who preferred to see her kid finish last.

At the lunch break, Jesse went in search of a tie rod to replace the one that got bent in his skirmish with Grant. I walked with him across the lot to the parts store Marty Venoit operated out of a hauler in the pits. Venoit no longer raced. Between acting as crew chief for his teenaged son Torrie and supplying the drivers with parts, he didn’t have time. Leaving Jesse and Torrie to rummage through bins for a tie rod, I ambled over to talk to Venoit’s grandfather.

“So you’re the famous Dave Bell,” I said, extending my hand. “I’ve heard a lot about you.” The Senior Four-Cycles never ran without someone on the grandstand pointing him out. See the 81 kart? That’s Dave Bell. His number is the same as his age.

Bell had bought his first kart ten years before, and he changed his driver number every year to reflect his age. When I asked him what took him so long to start racing, he grinned.

“Good question. I wanted to race when I got out of high school, but there was a war going on. I served four years in the navy and when I got out, I couldn’t afford to race. Then . . . life sort of intervened and I just forgot about it.”

Bell settled in the Victoria suburb of Gordon Head and established a career as a denturist. “I only retired from that in December,” he beamed. When his grandson Marty began racing karts in the late 1980s, Bell signed on as his pit crew. Then the club started a four-cycle class and he decided to give racing a try.

Four-cycle engines are the kind used in riding lawnmowers—and that’s just what the Senior Four-Cycles sound like out on the track. The terrain between two- and four-cycle engines is the “Great Divide” of karting. Two-cycle engines are faster and more powerful; they also produce higher emissions. For that reason, they will likely be banned by the worldwide karting federation in the next few years. The pressure is on manufacturers now to produce low-emission, high-power four-cycle engines. Some of the new-generation four-cycles boast 28 horses. Bell was content with his 6.5 hp Honda.

Well, maybe not quite content: “I intend to take it apart this winter and find out why it’s running so slow.”

Like every driver, Bell was always looking for ways to make his kart go faster. It’s all about the speed. He believed the sport gave kids an opportunity to get speeding out of their systems in a safe arena.

I’m not convinced it’s safe. I remember when a 12-year-old boy was killed at the Cassidy track. “Freak accident,” the boys and their dad assured me—”the chances of it happening again are miniscule.”

I marvel at their ability to minimize the dangers. I’ve never been one to court death, to seek the thrill of eluding it by demonstrating skill. I’m sure that’s part of what drives kart racers. What happens on the kart track is the same, on a smaller scale, as in the big-league worlds of NASCAR and the Indy circuit. Ask a racing fan about Dale Earnhardt’s death and they’ll tell you he died doing what he loved most. The payoff is worth the risk, they believe.

I’ve never seen it that way. I’m a mother. The urge to protect my kids is hard-wired into my brain.

“If it were up to me, the most dangerous thing Mitch would do is ride a bicycle,” his mother admitted in the stands that day. The Rookie Juniors were on the track for their final race of the year. Mitch Egner was 10, and he’d had a strong season. He easily took the win and locked up the championship. His father Karl didn’t fare as well in the Sportsman class.

The Formula 100 Juniors moved onto the circuit and started their warm-up laps. When the green flag dropped, Alex’s devotion to Melissa and her measured politeness evaporated into tense opposition. They were equally hungry to win the final race of the year. It had nothing to do with points: their positions in the standings wouldn’t change. It was a battle to see who was fastest. The thrill of the race.

Melissa jumped onto an early lead and held it. Alex drafted. Coming down the front straightaway, Melissa widened the gap. I could tell she wasn’t feeling confident. I watched her lift up in her seat and swivel her head like a periscope, checking her lead. Jesse was right. She was too aggressive. She overdrove the course, didn’t know when to hold back. Her dad signalled furiously from the grandstand, his hands warning mutely: slow down, slow down. She didn’t slow down.

In the hairpin curve at Turn 5, the karts bunched up and Alex got past. Melissa was frantic to regain the lead. She butted him and lost control, then was hit from behind.

Horrified, we watched her fly out of her kart and land face-down on the asphalt. Her 180-lb kart bounced hard against the tire wall, flipped, and crashed. On top of her crumpled body.

We didn’t know if she had broken her neck. We didn’t know if she was dead. In the time it took for her dad to leap out of the grandstand, hurdle the fence and sprint across the track to fall on his knees beside her, in the time it took for the first-aid truck to drive onto the track, tailgate open, stretcher ready, in the time it took four men to carry a pop-up awning out of the pits to shield her from the heat of the afternoon sun, all we knew was that this was our penance. This was the price we paid for letting our kids race go-karts. An agonized wailing filled my ears. I clamped my hand over my mouth, but the wailing continued. I realized then it was Melissa’s grandmother, blind with grief at the bottom of the grandstand.

We waited, barely breathing. Long minutes passed before the first-aid attendants helped Melissa rise slowly to her feet. The tiny crowd cheered in relief. Melissa’s father and another man lifted her onto the tailgate of the first-aid truck. As the truck drove slowly off the track, the safety officials cleared the debris. A few minutes later, an amplified voice from the flag tower announced:

Melissa is alright. Get out your 50/50 tickets, folks, we’re ready to draw.

I was stunned. I wanted us to stop, pack up the karts, go home. It didn’t happen. The racing resumed. Three classes were left and they ran without incident. Jesse finished his final race safely and wound up the year in fourth place. Steve went on a fact-finding mission and came back to report that the first thing Melissa said after the accident was, “Does anybody have a phone? Because if you do, please don’t call my mom and tell her what happened.”


“Do you think I’ll be allowed to race next year?”

Steve pestered me on the drive home. I told him I hadn’t decided yet, but the truth was, I had, and the answer was no. A mother has only a few short years to protect her kids. Then she has to cut them loose. I knew I was only delaying the inevitable. Steve and Jesse were destined to race.

They are adults now. They’ve raced karts, Old-Timers, stock cars, claimers, and sprint cars—winged and wingless. They haven’t killed themselves.

Yet.

But a mother worries.

Some of the photos in the slideshow above were taken by Jen McDonald and Alexandra Scott. Thank you! (Hover your mouse on the right side of the photo to reveal an arrow you can click to see the slideshow.)

Epilogue

 

Capital City Kart Club folded in 2005 when Cowichan Valley Regional District denied its permit to race at Youbou. Melissa Court raced karts for at least a few more years. I don’t know whether she is still pursuing her dream. Kyle Vantreight moved up to mini stocks and then ran sprint cars for several years. Guy Barrett moved straight into sprints and still races them. Alex Mouner has been racing mini stocks since the kart club folded. Mitch Egner raced karts until he bought Kyle Vantreight’s mini stock. Later, he raced Vantreight’s sprint car for a season. Jim Lucas raced karts on the mainland for several years. Marty Venoit returned to racing, choosing a sprint car, and his granddad rejoined his pit crew. As late as last summer, at age 92, Dave Bell could still be found in the Western Speedway pits on Saturday nights.

 

Jesse Dardengo’s childhood dream of racing under the lights at Western Speedway came true in 2003 when he started driving a stock car. At 16, he was one of the youngest drivers at the track, and he caught on fast. In 2004 he joined the Old Time Racers Association (OTRA). The open wheel cars suited his calculating driving style, and he won a feature race in his rookie season. After three seasons with the Old Timers, Jesse jumped at the chance in 2007 to crew for his friend Chris Schmelzle on the American Sprint Car Series national tour. Along the way, they competed with World of Outlaws, NSCS, AST, USCS, and other series in 13 states and 1 province. That experience taught Jesse the ins and outs of a sprint car—and ignited his passion for the ultra-fast machines. When the Wilroc Lites class formed in Victoria in 2008, Jesse wanted to be part of the new pack of cars. With his open-wheel driving experience and knowledge of sprint cars, he swept the season, winning all five main events and claiming the inaugural championship. The following year, Kevin Scott of Scott Plastics (now Jesse’s father-in-law) offered him the opportunity to drive both the 52 Scotty Lites car and the Scotty Tipke Roadster in the Wilroc winged sprint car series. Jesse handled the double-duty driving responsibilities well, winning three Lites mains and claiming two third-place finishes in the winged division. In 2010, Jesse lost the Lites season championship by a single point. The story came out differently in 2011 when he became the first two-time Wilroc Lites champion and the first recipient of the Reg Midgley Memorial Trophy. After 12 consecutive seasons behind the wheel, Jesse stepped back from the sport in 2012. Fans who miss him might be happy to learn they can purchase memorabilia on ebay.

 

Steven Dardengo started racing karts (80cc comer class) at age 10 and enjoyed a brief run before his mother panicked and pulled the plug. At 15, he raced claimers at Western Speedway. Not having the benefit of karting experience like his older brother, it was a steep learning curve, and he wrecked three cars before winning a main event early in his second season. Next, behind the wheel of his dad’s old-timer, Steve quickly proved his mettle and became his brother’s keenest competitor. At the end of that trial season, Dad offered him an old-timer of his own, which he ran for three years. In 2011 and 2012, he competed in a wingless sprint car. One of the highlights of his racing career was winning a sprint car main event at Saratoga Speedway. After buying a house and falling in love, Steve doesn’t have much time to race cars anymore—but he rides a street bike now, so my worries haven’t ended. Unafraid as ever but more focused and no longer reckless, he is such a good “shoe” that I’m perfectly comfortable riding on the back of his bike on the Island Highway any time the opportunity comes up. If pressed, I might even have to admit it’s fun.

 

After biting my nails in the stands for many years, I got the chance to find out what racing feels like when “Poor” Rich Bennett let me ride shotgun in his two-seat old-timer. I had a blast.

 

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2 Responses to “Speed racers’ mom”

  1. Avatar carin

    Oh the face on #11. Simply gorgeous and impossible to see without smiling too.

    This brought back oodles of youthful go-kart memories. Mostly shrouded in envy as I never had one. Always wanted one… Have since had the pleasure of finding a local track. A few rounds was enough to do me. But what fun!

    Reply

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