Sixth-graders build 'em and race 'em


Recently, students of Joe Livolsi's sixth-grade tech-ed class at Westminster Middle School had the opportunity to inspect the new mini-dragsters that belonged to fellow students Michael Ford and Josh Wagner of Westminster.

Ford and Wagner, both 11, proudly displayed their new cars in the school's auditorium and answered questions from the class. The cars will be raced this year at 75-80 Dragway in Monrovia in the new Jr. Drag Racing League.

The new division is a multifaceted program designed to give youths from 8 to 17 the opportunity to race against their peers in near-replicas of the models that the pros drive.

The new class is drag racing's answer to Little League baseball and football.

"It is a way to generate new interest in drag racing and to keep the youngsters involved in the sport as an adult," said Marion Ford of Hampstead, Michael's uncle. "Drag racing was losing a lot of youngsters to kart racing and needed a program like this to keep their interest.

"The idea for the mini-dragsters came from Vincent Napp, the promoter of Old Bridge Township Raceway Park in Englishtown, N.J., who wanted something to put his kids into. He designed the half-scale mini-dragster and checked into the feasibility of a junior program with the National Hot Rod Association."

The NHRA accepted the idea, and the junior league is now sanctioned by the national organization. The International Hot Rod Association will have a similar league. The 1993 season will be the first year.

The competitive structure is similar to what the adults have. The new league is restricted to competition in half-scale dragsters over a maximum distance of one-eighth mile instead of a quarter-mile for the full-size dragsters. The competition is designed to be conducted on an elapsed-time, dial-your-own format or a preset index on a heads-up breakout basis (similar to Super Gas or Super Comp).

The Junior Drag Racing League is divided into four classes -- minor or pure stock for kids 8-9, intermediate for 10-12, major and unlimited for kids 13 and older.

Both Ford and Wagner have been going to races at 75-80 and Mason-Dixon dragways for several years.

Michael is the son of Marvin Ford and nephew of Marion and Malcolm Ford. Josh is the nephew of Norman Wagner. The Fords and Wagner are well-known throughout the East Coast as some of the top motorcycle dragsters in the area.

The mini-dragsters have a wheelbase from 90 to 150 inches long and weigh 250 pounds without driver. They have a mandatory five-point roll cage.

Marion built both cars. The cars can be purchased in a kit form. It takes about two days of welding and a steady two weeks to complete a car. The cost for the dragster in kit form is approximately $2,000. For $1,000 more, one can purchase the mini-dragster race ready -- just paint and race.

Like their big brothers, the mini-dragsters are subject to strict requirements and specifications. All chassis must be inspected by NHRA technicians, and strict safety rules are enforced. The youngsters must wear protective clothing, arm restraints, neck collar and helmet.

The dragsters use 5-horsepower, four-cycle Briggs & Stratton engines like the go-karts. Much of the engine specifications were taken from the karts.

The dragsters are surprisingly fast. The pure stock dragster will do about 40 mph in a one-eighth mile. The modified open class will do above 76 mph.

"The general public doesn't realize how much it will teach kids," said Marion. "It gives them a better perception of math, like how to calculate gear ratios. It also teaches them how to maintain and work on engines."

The boys are looking forward to opening day at 75-80 to start competing in their new cars. Ford raced in a prototype built by Marion at the end of last year. Wagner had his first ride last Sunday when the two made test runs at 75-80.

"It's fun to drag, it's a blast," said Michael. "It's different."

Each car has sponsors, too. Wagner's car is sponsored by Victory Lane Racing Apparel & Souvenirs in New Oxford, Pa., and Ford's car is sponsored by FBR Automotive & Body Repairs.

Both teens already are looking forward to age 16. Eventually, they both want to race motorcycles like their fathers.

There has been a lot of interest in the new class. The Fords expect 10 cars to be ready in time for the opener on March 7 at 75-80.

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