Kurt Braun waves a flag for a young racer at the finish line of the Quarter Midget course.
Photo by M. Scott Moon
Sporting a cream-colored jumpsuit, complete with patches and grease stains, Annita Braun watches anxiously as her father, Kurt, works tirelessly on her car.
When a socket wrench is needed, she knows exactly which one to grab.
Spinning the back, left tire, she notices it's loose, promptly informing her dad that more work will be required.
He doesn't seem to mind, though.
It's all part of the job and well worth the time.
Because upon completion and inspection of the vehicle, Annita will be flying around a makeshift race track at approximately 40 miles per hour, securely strapped into her Quarter Midget race car competing against other youngsters for the day's top prize.
All in a day's work for this 13-year-old.
"I want to go to NASCAR," she said, a pair of sunglasses covering her eager eyes as she waits patiently for the evening's first race to begin. "NASCAR's my long-term goal. Maybe Indy."
It's important to start somewhere, and there's no better place than the back parking lot of the Kenai Christian Center.
Steven Young and Marah Meyers race around a turn last week during a Quarter Midget car race in the parking lot at Kenai Christian Church.
Photo by M. Scott Moon
Spurred by her father's sport racing career, resulting in Annita being toted to competitions at the tender age of 2, she requested a race car when she was only 9-years-old.
Her father wasn't surprised.
"That was the proud daddy moment. Kind of scary maybe for mom, but she took it," Kurt recalled. "We knew it was going to happen. It was a matter of time."
Annita's not the only one, though, who enjoys flying around the track at such a young age.
There's 12-year-old Steven Young, who, according to Kurt, was a catalyst for the formation of the Kenai Peninsula Racing Lions Quarter Midget circuit, a roughly 20-race season that technically accommodates children between the ages of 6 and 16, but is mostly comprised of 8-to-12-year olds.
At the ripe age of 8, Michale Meyers and his 7-year old sister, Marah, are also experiencing the rush of racing, with support, of course, from their parents, Mike and Mary.
"At first I was kind of leery about it but it's fairly safe," Mary said. "I'd rather see him do this than motorcycles."
There's others, too, who are afforded the opportunity to race, thanks to the extensive effort put forth by Kurt.
Once upon a time ...
Sitting and playing on snowbanks while watching her father cruise around on ice, Annita was part of the team, undeniably the reason she wanted to race herself.
"She's been dragged to races since she was an infant in a car seat," he said.
After successfully completing a list of goals her parents set forth for her, Annita was given the green light.
But she wasn't alone.
Young and a few other kids were already toying with Quarter Midgets in parking lots, Kurt said, but nobody had seriously sought out a place to hold an official race.
Pointed in the right direction by the Racing Lions, he discovered how popular the sport was on the West Coast, prompting him and his family to travel to Portland, Ore., in search of the 150-pound, clutchless cars.
When they arrived, the Brauns were pleasantly surprised.
"They have a dedicated track in Portland and there was over 300 entries," he said. "It looked like a miniature NASCAR race. Trailers done up, the whole nine yards."
While it's not nearly that big of an attraction in Alaska, at least not yet, the local circuit's still in its early stages, amidst its fourth season now, which runs from the beginning of May until the end of September and includes stops at the state fair in Palmer.
And with roughly one racing session consisting of several 15-lap heats and a 25-lap main event for a trophy taking place on pavement every other week, shifting between the Kenai Christian Center, the North Peninsula Recreation Center in Nikiski and the Soldotna Sports Center, and a dirt track race at Twin City Raceway on opposite weeks, Kurt is trying to provide something different for the area youth to participate in.
"We have football and baseball and everything else going on, fishing, so it's been real hard to get the numbers to grow because of that," he said. "It's out there and I think with time, it will."
With two classes, Novice and Senior, Michale and Marah are proudly representing both.
Already having a season under his belt, during which he finished second in the final standings, Michale competes in the Senior class, alongside Young and Braun, who apparently have a friendly rivalry going.
But despite not racing against his sibling, Michale and Marah have a running feud of their own, constantly debating who's faster before falling asleep each night.
"Me," Marah was quick to point out as Michale was strapping himself into his vehicle.
Whether or not it's true, these kids are learning valuable, lifelong lessons.
Mike Meyers said his son knows all his wrench sizes and is capable of changing his own oil and tires as well.
"I quality control his work," he explained. "If I find stuff wrong, I talk to him about it."
Asking Michale where races are won, the blonde-haired boy was quick to respond.
"In the pits!" exclaimed the Jeff Gordon fan.
It's the work that's done there that contributes to the main concern of parents, safety, as their children speed around the track, which consists of orange cones and short, wood barriers lined along the painted parking lot.
"It's racing. There's risk. But it's very minimal," said Annita's mother, Jerri. "The worst we've had is a bruised knee and a hand when two kids got together.
"They roll. As long as they hang on to their steering wheel and their arm restraints are on, they're not getting hurt," she added. "Most kids just say, 'Turn me over. I've got to finish the race.'"
With the aforementioned arm restraints, but also roll cages, harnesses, helmets, collars and other safety equipment, it's actually difficult for someone to get injured.
"Especially when you look at all the kids that are just running down the side of the road with no safety equipment on in their four-wheelers," Kurt said. "Some people think, 'Oh, this is so dangerous.' But in all reality, it's way safer than most of the kids just riding their bicycle down the side of the road."
Annita, a fan of NASCAR driver Kyle Busch, backs her father's stance.
"I've flipped the Quarter Midget like three times. I've spun out a bunch. I've hit walls like five times cement walls. Not really any injuries. A headache, but other than that, bumps and bruises," she said. "They're pretty safe. You've got seat belts, a helmet, collars, arm restraints, roll cages all sorts of stuff. And you've got four wheels."
Even Mary Meyers, nervous every once in a while, believes in the precautions.
"In fact, I only witnessed one of the crashes and I'm glad I missed the rest of them," she said with a smile. "With the roll cages, it's pretty safe."
Racing Quarter Midgets since the local circuit's inception four years ago, Annita has since moved on to bigger and better things.
Every Saturday, the Brauns travel to Wasilla to watch her race her Bandolero, a half-scale stock car with a 30-horsepower engine, in a more "sophisticated" pavement circuit with different types of cars.
"On that track, I go 60 or 65," Annita said.
With many options beyond Quarter Midgets, which Kurt said can run anywhere from $2,500 for a used one with a plethora of spare parts to $5,000 for a new one, parents agree there is room for expansion and even more so, a need.
"So, for the same cost as a motorcycle or any other recreational equipment that most people up here have in their backyard, you can do this," he said.
"I hope it grows," Jerri added. "I think the kids down here need something to do."
The debate on safety will rage on, but the Brauns hope to quell any notion that racing is not a true sport.
"I think it's really great. I love racing. I've always loved racing. It's a safe sport, no matter what people say. It's a sport, for one, no matter what they say," Annita said. "You've got to have muscle to have two Gs on a corner two gravity forces in the corner pushing you against your seat. It's a great sport and it's really fun for the family, too."
And while it once surprised Kurt that 6- and 7-year-olds were so interested in squeezing into a tiny car, willing to put their bodies on the line, it doesn't anymore.
"I've seen it now outside and so forth that the kids are starting younger and like all sports nationally, the younger they start, the better off they are ahead if they want to continue on into professional," he said. "Some of this will just be a hobby and a fun thing for the kids and that's great, too."
In that respect, the Brauns are doing everything they can to facilitate their daughter's passion.
"I think it's cool. She can do it," Jerri said proudly of Annita's desire to race in NASCAR or the Indy Racing League. "If she can do it, we'll back her 100 percent as much as you can."
Kurt agrees to a certain extent.
"We'll see," he said with a laugh. "We'll see how deep daddy's pockets are."
Matthew Carroll can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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