When Zac Fowler was 3 years old and watched a NASCAR race on TV for the first time, he knew he would get behind the wheel one day.
What he didn't know — even after firmly telling his parents, "I wanna do that," over and over again — was that his time would come less than two years later.
So persistent was he about racing that Glenn and Brandy Fowler decided to allow their son to begin "getting a feel" for the brake and gas pedals at age 4 by tooling around in his newly purchased go-kart in the parking lot of St. John's Lane Elementary School in Ellicott City, just down the street from their home.
That was in 2009. Zac is now 7 and a first-grader at the school, and he has a shot at a national racing title.
"Racing is my favorite sport," said Zac, who says music and math are his favorite subjects at school. "My friends all think it's pretty cool."
If Zac performs well in his next seven races, "there's a good chance that he can pull out a national championship," Glenn Fowler said. Zac has already won 13 trophies in two years of racing.
Since World Karting Association rules permit drivers to begin competing at age 5, the Fowlers entered Zac in the first available race, at Sandy Hook Speedway in Street, after his fifth birthday May 5, 2010. With a birth date of 5-5-05, they "had no choice" but to pick No. 5 for Zac's insignia on the black plastic car body, his father said jokingly.
His go-kart is black with sky-blue trim and bright yellow pin stripes "because they're my favorite colors," Zac said.
He wears his lucky, neon-green Danica Patrick shirt in every race since he's a big fan of the 30-year-old racecar driver. But kids can be as fickle as anyone else, and he also declares himself "the biggest fan" of Jimmie Johnson, a five-time NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion.
Zac learned on a go-kart with a two-cycle engine that goes about 25 mph, "which is like driving a Weed Eater," his father said. He drove that kart, which looks like a miniature racecar and is aimed for ages 5 to 7, until his 7th birthday a month ago.
But in November 2011, looking ahead, Glenn purchased the next-size kart, for drivers ages 7 to 10, which Zac will now drive. The methanol-fueled engine is a four-cycle model that "drives more like a lawn mower" in comparison, Glenn said, and can go 40 mph on turns and 60 mph in straight-aways. It does have a rev limiter, he noted.
Brandy Fowler, a specialist in early-child intervention with the county public schools, said she and Glenn had no idea the sport existed until they began looking into it, at Zac's insistence.
"We tried to buy time to see if he'd let the moment pass," she said. "But the honest truth is he was already into racing when he was a baby" — maybe even before he was born.
"He was a quiet baby when I was expecting, but when we turned [on] the races on TV, the vibration of the speaker near my chair would make him move all over the place," recalled Brandy, who now serves as a track announcer. "If we ever wanted to know how he was doing, we just had to turn NASCAR on."
When they saw he wasn't going to let go of the idea, the Fowlers bought him his first go-kart in 2009 for $2,500. But "it was two months before he would even sit in it with the engine running, he was that terrified," Glenn said. That made them question their purchase — though not for long.
"We keep asking Zac if he wants to play football or T-ball, but racing always wins out," Brandy said.
Glenn, an HVAC specialist with the school system, said he understands his son's strong attraction to the sport and is certain he would have gotten into karting himself had it been available when he was a kid. He also is confident that it isn't the unsafe pastime some outsiders might believe it to be.
Though 180-degree and 360-degree spins on the track aren't uncommon if a car gets clipped, "the sport is no more dangerous than football and lacrosse, where kids can suffer concussions," Glenn said.
Drivers are required to wear a padded chest and rib protector and a padded neck brace, he said. The full-face helmet that made Zac look like a diminutive Darth Vader at age 5 has extra padding at the cheeks to keep it fitting snugly.
The cars purposely aren't equipped with seat belts, Glenn noted, "so that if the car were to flip over, the driver would roll out of the car instead of being attached to it."
Sandy Hook Speedway, which was sanctioned by the World Karting Association in the 1980s, has a paved oval track one-fifth of a mile long, with 20-degree banked turns, according to the raceway's website.
Dennis Headley, who purchased the track with his wife, Janet, in January 2011, said that "everybody there knows Zac."
"He's very talented for his age and very much into racing," Headley said. "He knows and understands racing and can carry on a conversation about it, even with adults.
"He seems to have a lot of natural ability, but he also has drive and desire, and you can't teach that. You have to have those qualities in order to achieve and to excel."
Headley calls places like his speedway, which he said was built in the 1960s by a father for his children's use, "the grass roots of racing."
The Baltimore Grand Prix returns to the city for its second running Sept. 2, and "most of those drivers cut their teeth on karting, drivers like Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart and Danica Patrick," Headley said. Some of them even attended divisional races at Sandy Hook "way back then," he said.
Six national karting champions have come out of the state over the past two years, he added, proving that "Maryland represents very well on the national scene."
"It's a hobby, but drivers take it seriously, and they are very, very competitive," Headley said.
As for Zac, he and his parents believe he will stay connected in some way to racing from now on. The Fowlers even have their sights set on moving in the next several years to Mooresville, N.C., which isknown as "Race City, USA" because it is home to NASCAR racing teams, drivers and suppliers.
The young driver said he started with two dreams: to appear on TV and to be interviewed by a newspaper. With those two notches now in his belt, he's looking way into the future.
"I know I'll be a racer or an announcer or a flagman someday," he said. "I just love racing."