Turning dirt racing into a career

Kyle Lear was a freshman soccer player trying out for the JV team at Arundel High when he had to make a choice between continuing in the sport or devoting his weekends to another of his longtime passions: racing cars.

Soccer lost out.

"They asked me to show up on a Saturday, and I told them I couldn't ," said Lear, who said he was racing. . "They thought I was joking."

For as long as Lear, who is now 25 years old, can remember, weekends have been devoted to racing. It began when he was 4 years old and Lear would race Big Wheels down the various tracks between his father's dirt car races in Southern Maryland, Virginia and Pennsylvania.

Starting when he was 13, Lear started racing the same cars as his father, Barry Lear Sr.His father had started out drag racing and had built a sizable reputation and trophy collection before turning to dirt cars in the mid-1980s.

"I wasn't around for his career, but I would go to people's houses and they would ask, 'Is your dad still drag-racing?'" the younger Lear said. "I've seen the trophies, I've known what he's done, but other people would tell me about the times he would be in the finals and stuff like that. My dad said that he got bored with it and in '84 he just came home and sold everything, bought a dirt car and has been doing that ever since. I've been going to dirt car races since I've been in diapers."

Lear remembers his first dirt car, a 1975 Pontiac, as "being really big" but said that he had an appreciation for racing that others his age might not.

"It's not like you're going to a school and picking up a 13-year old to drive," he said. "They've usually been around cars for a long time. You hear about kids that age stealing cars, they know nothing about them. They steal them because they think it's cool. The kids who are racing, they work on them, they know what's going on with them. I've been in a garage since I could walk."

Eventually, he would race against both his father and his younger brother Cody. He said he usually beat them.

"My car definitely ran better than theirs, but my car was probably a 10 and theirs was a 7," Lear said. " Everybody who knows me knows I put my heart and soul into racing."

After years of racing mostly out of the area, Lear is looking forward to making what is something of a local debut when he competes in the TQ Midget race in a Fatheadz Racing Series event at the 1st Mariner Arena on Dec. 8. It will mark only the second time he has raced the car indoors on an asphalt track.

Lear Sr. said that it will be interesting to return to the place where his son on occasion would play soccer at halftime of the Blast games with his travel team, the Arundel Soccer Association Warriors. "It's really neat to be going back for a race," said the Lear Sr. , who coached his sons for a dozen years. "I think it's just starting to hit him."

Lear Sr., whose father Ernie raced dirt cars in New Jersey and Pennsylvania in the 1950s and 1960s, said that his middle son is "a lot better" at dirt racing than he was, having won some 30 events over the years starting with the Big Wheels.

The younger Lear is driving a dirt late model that he and his brother built and that he designed. He has won three times and collected $8,600 in prize money over the last three months, including the Maryland Nationals at Potomac Speedway.

"We're hoping that he can start getting more sponsorship," Lear Sr. said. "That could happen if he starts beating some of the guys who do this for a living."

The younger Lear, who works fulltime at a machine shop in Baltimore, doesn't know where his racing career will go, and realizes that the route that current professional stars such as Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart took might have started at a similar point.

But he still understands how difficult the path can be. He credits his sponsor and crew for getting him as far he has come.

"A lot of people have made their transition from dirt to pavement," Lear said. "Jeff Gordon came out of midget car racing in Indiana. Tony Stewart is another one, he holds a (dirt) race every year. I would love that too, but a lot has to do with timing, finances, and being in the right place at the right time for the right people to see you and bring you up to the next level."

Doug Watson, who writes about dirt car racing and serves as a track announcer at the Potomac Speedway in Budd's Creek, Md., and Winchester (Va.) Speedway has seen Lear grow "into a very calm, capable driver….he's fun to watch and he always around at the end."

Watson said that Lear's best chance of making a career at it will come by finding some local businessman "with deep pockets" willing to sponsor him. "It's like finding a job these days, it helps to know somebody," Watson said.

Right now, trying to maintain the career he has is hard enough. From a financial standpoint, he said that he is lucky "to own most of my own stuff" and have a sponsor who pays for his fuel. He estimates that, without that, it would cost "between $50,000 and $75,000" a year to race on what is not even the highest level for his type of car.

"Obviously, people call me and other racers who do this 'weekend warriors'," Lear said. "Obviously, I'd like to do it for a living, but it's a whole different ballgame."

Information about the race in Baltimore is available by calling 609-888-3618