Ben Maier competes better when he’s angry. When another driver bumped the 11-year-old go-kart racer from the lead to dead last, Maier knew what he had to do: win.
And so Maier did, claiming a Rotax Grand National go-kart title as the Mini Max champion on Saturday at Charlotte Motor Speedway in Concord, North Carolina. With the win, Maier earned a ticket to represent Team USA at the Rotax MAX Challenge Grand Finals in Portugal in January, his second time on that world stage.
This time, he will be seeking redemption.
“I think he’s pretty hell-bent on doing his best to win this year,” Maier’s father, Jim Maier, said.
A chance at a win in his world debut in Italy disintegrated just seconds from the finish line last year. Still in the lead with just three corners to go, Maier dropped a tire on the track. The pack of karts behind him swarmed in all around.
“It was pretty disappointing,” Jim Maier said. “He had a dominant weekend, but it just fell apart.”
This weekend’s feat nearly collapsed the same way. Despite his similarly “dominant weekend,” Maier found himself in another tight spot in the final race. From the crowd, Jim Maier wasn’t sure his son was going to recover from his setback.
“I was [angry]," Ben Maier said. "I just passed everyone back real quick and got into first.”
The Chester resident couldn’t shake his in-race rival, who had bumped him to begin with — and would again. As Maier’s kart skittered on the last corner, Maier pulled himself together, passed his opponent and skated over the finish first.
“It was pretty unbelievable,” Jim Maier said.
Right now, both father and son know Maier is at the top of his game. Just two years after becoming the youngest-ever winner of the Superkarts USA SuperNats, Maier is now the points leader in the “mini swift” category of the World Karting Association for 2020.
At Maier’s level of competition, he brushes shoulders with the sons of NASCAR drivers, such as Kyle Busch’s and Kevin Harvick’s. He’s surrounded by drivers with resources to spare, as could be expected in a sport that costs anywhere from $40,000 to $400,000 per year, Jim Maier said. Travel is the more expensive part of it, but expenses such as weekly engines and tires add up quickly.
And there are drivers with all these things in multiples, as well as personal mechanics and coaches, things that the Maiers don’t have.
The Maiers are fortunate that brands help them out with costs here and there. Despite the class differences, Ben Maier doesn’t consider himself lesser in any sense.
“I’m not an underdog,” he said. “I’m one of the fastest go-kart drivers.”
Racing mostly bypassed the constrictions of the coronavirus pandemic. Though its first step back came through NASCAR drivers virtually racing one another in a televised broadcast, actual competitions began shortly after. Go-kart returned by mid-May.
Ever since, the Maiers have operated in a blur. The family has spent just one weekend at home, traversing through Florida, Indiana and Wisconsin for weekly races. There have been plenty of repeat tracks as not every state’s pandemic restrictions allow go-kart competitions to run yet. In his off-time, he races his 150 HP Micro Sprint in Pennsylvania against adults with much more experience.
Time consumed by racing is normal for Maier. One of the world’s top go-karters began his journey about eight years go in the seat of a Power Wheels, or motorized toy car. When his father noticed the control his son exhibited over turns, he went seeking something a bit faster for Maier, and found go-karting.
That quickly evolved into discovering nearby tracks, which then blossomed into full-on racing. By now, Maier said he has seven national titles. He is, of course, still hunting a world crown.
“It feels pretty good," Maier said of his current career trajectory. "I have a lot of opportunities. Of course, you always have to work for the opportunities. You can’t just sit there.”
Maier completes all of his virtual school assignments from the car or RV. Though elementary school teachers had always been understanding and allowed Maier to do schoolwork from his races, his father had worried that, now that Maier’s in middle school now, his absences from the classroom would begin to matter. Online learning provided the solution to that, at least for the time being.
Maier’s secondary sport, soccer, has also been put on pause because of the pandemic.
“This is his thing. Anything else has always been a sideshow," Jim Maier said. "This has enabled us to have more time to race.”
Though Maier will be racing up to January, he worries he won’t be able to compete in the Grand Finals because of international travel restrictions caused by the coronavirus pandemic.